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Industrial Football, Neoliberalism, and American Soccer: The MLS’ Columbus Crew Have Been Saved . . . For Now

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Facing an impending move to Austin, Texas, it looks as if the Columbus Crew have been saved, and—improbable as it may have seemed—dealt a blow to industrial football in the United States in the process. According to an ESPN story from 12 October 2018, a partnership involving the owners of the NFL’s [American football] Cleveland Browns have entered negotiations with MLS in order to purchase the team. In a Tweet the owners of the Cleveland Browns, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, announced their intention to keep MLS’ first team in Columbus, Ohio.

 

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Strange Bedfellows: NFL To The Rescue? Perhaps Civic Pride In the Real World Is More Important Than Competition In The Business World For the Haslams. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bobbymcmahon/2018/10/15/save-the-crew-how-mission-seemingly-impossible-now-seems-very-possible-for-the-columbus-crew/#6311c67a1f82

 

Understandably, the leaders of the #savethecrew movement were ecstatic at this development which simultaneously struck a blow at both industrial football in the United States, but also the undemocratic nature of progressive politics. Indeed, this victory had seemed so impossible that one of the Crew’s players actually went to celebrate with fans at a local bar after hearing the announcement. Clearly, the Columbus Crew represent a very real element of community in the capital of the Buckeye State . . . right?

 

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Have they #SaveDthecrew? Image Courtesy Of: https://www.massivereport.com/2018/10/12/17968262/misson-accomplished-saved-the-crew-columbus-crew-sc-mls-2018-jimmy-haslam

 

That indeed may be the case, but don’t try to tell that to Silicon Valley who seem to believe that “community” in the here and now—rooted to a specific geographic location with an emotional connection—is passé; it represents an impediment to the complete establishment of a virtual community located in the digital “world” of social media and connected to consumption. After all, exactly one year ago—on 17 October 2017—the Crew’s owner Anthony Precourt had announced his plan to move the team to Austin, Texas.

 

The proposed move—given Mr. Precourt’s background—should not have been surprising to fans. After all, Mr. Precourt is a managing partner at his own investment management and private equity firm . . . based in San Francisco. That’s right; the owner of the Columbus Crew resides in California and—prior to his acquisition of the MLS franchise—had no clear connection to central Ohio or even the Midwestern United States. According to bizjournals.com he has more connections to California (where Stanford University has named an institute after his family), New Hampshire (where he went to graduate school), and Texas (where his father was an oil executive) than he does to Ohio. This last connection is most telling, as it might explain some of the motive for the proposed move to Austin.

 

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Anthony Precourt When He Was a Crew Fan. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2014/02/03/columbus-crew-owner-anthony-precourt-says-club-logo-not-representative-citys

 

As I said earlier, fans should not be surprised that Mr. Precourt should have wanted to move the team he purchased for $68 million in 2013. It seems that from the beginning the new owner had a disdain for the culture of the city which hosted the team he had, ostensibly, “invested” in. In early 2014, Mr. Precourt announced his plans to overhaul the team’s logo which had survived—unchanged—since the league’s inception in 1996. While the original Columbus Crew logo depicted “three stoic construction workers shoulder to shoulder with hard hats, a not-so-subtle nod to the city’s working-class roots” ; Mr. Precourt saw this logo as “outdated”. To justify the re-branding, Mr. Precourt was quoted as saying in 2014 “We want it to represent the Columbus we’ve come to know. I don’t think a construction crew is really representative. [Columbus is] not a blue-collar, manufacturing, industrial town. It’s a smart, young, progressive university town with world-class businesses. It’s a white-collar town”. This re-branding resulted in a spectacularly—in the way that the European Union’s currency is  —bland logo.

 

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A Campaign That Could Only Have Been Thought Up In A Corporate Boardroom. Here Is a Hint: If You Have to Explain Your Logo In A Full Page, It Probably Isn’t A Good One. Images Courtesy Of: https://www.columbuscrewsc.com/newcrew

 

But the parallels of the Crew’s new logo “inspired” by Mr. Precourt with the Euro—which features “bland, fake architecture that doesn’t exist”–are not misplaced; indeed they are both reflective of neoliberal globalism which looks to create the most inoffensive designs in order to focus the consumer on their consumption and not be distracted by the details of history or locality. In Mr. Precourt’s justification for the team’s new logo, he seems to be focused on disengaging Columbus from its working-class and industrial roots; indeed, he seems almost embarrassed by the city’s background as he looks to underline its “progressive” nature. Even the adjectives used to define the city as “progressive”, like “smart” and “young”, imply that the hypothetical pre-“progressive” Columbus was be just the opposite, “dumb” and “old”. Now, this is clearly no way to view the city that the team you own represents, but it is reflective of a generation of “progressive” politicians all over the world who view half of their citizenry with contempt; the“urban” is favored over the “rural” and the “modern” is favored over “tradition”. This contempt likely played a role in Mr. Precourt’s eventual decision to move the team, but not—of course—before selling the stadium’s name to the highest bidder. It was another play from the neoliberal globalist playbook: Come, See, Exploit, Move on to the next market.

 

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Out With The Old…And In With The New? Images Courtesy of https://www.columbuscrewsc.com/newcrew

 

While Columbus has seemingly avoided the pitfalls of industrial football, it is important to understand that the new deal has its own profit-driven issues. As Sports Illustrated points out, the owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns is also the brother of the Tennessee governor Bill Haslam who is close to the owner of MLS’ new expansion team in Nashville, Tennessee. Also, the news of the Crew’s “being saved” was followed almost immediately by headlines like “Does Keeping the Columbus Crew Mean Building a New Stadium?”. Clearly, industry will not cease to profit off sport—even if the team’s “old” stadium is just 19 years old. Try telling a Fulham fan or a Boston Red Sox fan that their team needs a new stadium and see what they say. Still, the case of the Columbus Crew shows why it is important to notice the (all but unavoidable) connections between sport and elite wealth in the era of extreme capitalism. The key to a more equitable future for sports fans lies in resisting the rootless elites who treat sports clubs in the same way that they themselves might see their own lives (as well as the enormous wealth that defines them): rootless, cultureless, and—perhaps ultimately—meaningless aside from the bottom line. At least the Columbus Crew survived this round, and that is something that sports fans can take comfort in for now.

 

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Football Elites Again Attempt to Sell Us What We Do Not Need in the Name of Globalism: The Idea of a North American Football League

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On 10 October 2018, ESPN and Reuters announced that there is now talk of a combined North American Football League between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. According to Enrique Bonilla, the head of the Mexican first division, such a league is a possibility following the 2026 World Cup which will be hosted by the three countries. As to be expected, Mr. Bonilla framed the globalist project with a vague veneer of social justice:

 

If we can make a World Cup then we can make a North American league or a North American Cup. The main idea is that we have to grow together to compete. If not, there is only going to be the rich guys in Europe and the rest of the world.

 

According to this interpretation, the proposed combined league would raise the quality of football in North America while also allowing the continent to compete with “the rich guys” on the other side of the Atlantic. As tends to be the case with such transnational ventures, the rhetoric is dominated by positive catchwords which only serve to distort the reality that the proposed venture would likely be harmful to North American football in the long term.

 

One reason that the positive perspective is highlighted by mainstream news outlets like ESPN is that such a mega-league would likely be very profitable—both for media and sporting elites in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The downside, of course, is that—as is usually the case regarding globalist policies—the average Canadian, Mexican, and American footballer would suffer.

 

This is because by centralizing football in the three countries, competition for spaces in the hypothetical league would increase. Given that most top-flight football leagues in the world have between 16 to 20 teams, one would have to assume that this proposed league would be similar. Given that MLS is aiming for 28 teams in the next to years—and given that Mexico’s Liga MX has 18 teams—there are a total of 46 potential teams. To make such a league feasible, this number would have to be cut down. This, in turn, would mean greater competition for players due to the internationalization of the labor market. Currently, Mexican players are mainly competing with other Mexican players for spots on Liga MX teams; American and Canadian players are mainly competing with other American and Mexican players for spots on MLS teams. By erasing the national boundaries of these leagues, however, would mean a greater pool of players and, as such, less chances of gaining employment. Instead of seeking employment in two different entities, essentially, players would be forced to seek employment in one entity; this centralization—and monopolization—would be devastating in terms of players’ choices.

 

Having just taught my students about wealth inequality in the United States, I am keenly aware of just how dangerous the centralization of wealth—and, relatedly, power—can be. Indeed, the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills pointed out more than fifty years ago that the centralization of power—and wealth—in the United States would have devastating consequences. Now, this is not to ignore that inequality is not a defining feature of capitalism; indeed it is a defining feature of humanity; our outcomes—based on our choices—can never be truly equal. The problem is that this inequality has been exaggerated by globalism and globalization. Markets have increased in number, which has resulted in an equal increase in profits. Yet because these markets—and sources of profit—do not correspond to existing national boundaries (indeed, they are often outside of them), the wealthiest citizens no longer have any stake in the well-being of their fellow citizens. After all, it doesn’t matter too much to—say—Apple if Americans can buy iPhones; if they can sell those same iPhones in China or Germany or Madagascar than the American citizen no longer matters to them. Essentially, corporate responsibility no longer matters. And the same would happen in football; the well-being of the Mexican, Canadian, or American footballer would no longer matter.

 

This increasing centralization of wealth in fewer and fewer corporate hands—the big 5 of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook, for example—is not good. Nor is the centralization of power in the hands of the federal government. And if these centralizations—which C. Wright Mills warned us about—aren’t good, then why would we assume that the centralization of sports would be good? The reality is that the creation of one North American football league would increase the centralization of power and money in football on the continent, and it will have devastating consequences for aspiring footballers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States alike, who would face the loss of playing opportunities. This is why we owe it to ourselves—regardless of which country we are citizens of—to stand up for our countries (and our football leagues) in the face of predatory globalism and predatory globalization.

 

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