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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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April Fool’s Day Recap in Football: Both the Intended and Unintended

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April Fool’s Day was a few weeks ago and, while I don’t participate in it (something about deliberately fooling people for no particular reason makes me uncomfortable), it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it. The holiday has a gotten more attention in recent years throughout the football world, with Bleacher Report even compiling the tops for 2015! This year Orlando FC’s April Fool’s day gimmick was amazing—although a part of me wishes they had stuck with the idea of a purple pitch. The Columbus Crew’s Usain Bolt prank, however, fell short in my opinion—it simply didn’t make sense! Still, respect to MLS for keeping the game fun.

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Purple Haze? We can dream, can’t we? Image Courtesy of: http://www.orlandocitysc.com/post/2015/04/01/orlando-citrus-bowl-installs-purple-pitch-ahead-friday’s-matchup-vs-dc-united

 

A few days before April 1, however, there were two incidents that were worthy of April Fool’s Day Jokes…but they were all too real. The first happened in Washington D.C. on March 30, 2015. Everyone knows Americans aren’t huge football fans, but—I would assume—they should know the difference between El Salvador and the Isle of Man. Sadly, the employees at FedEx field did not and the speakers belted out the Isle of Man’s anthem Arrane Ashoonagh Vannin in place of El Salvador’s Himno Nacional. In an amusing youtube clip we can see El Salvador’s national football team looking around in bewilderment. Their shock didn’t wear off in time for the match; they were beaten soundly by a Messi-less (but still merciless) Argentina side 2-0. The error then sparked an international political incident between El Salvador and the United States….no, I’m kidding–I said I don’t do April Fool’s Day…

I Fail To See the Similarity:

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Images Courtesy Of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_El_Salvador and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isle_of_Man, respectively.

 

The second incident comes from Colombia. Journalist—and avid football fan—Alejandra Omaña promised the local men’s magazine SoHo that she would bare all if her team, Cúcuta Deportivo, gained promotion to the country’s top flight. Unfortunately for her—but possibly fortunately for male readers of SoHo—Cúcuta played Deportes Quindío on January 20, 2015 and was promoted after a 3-3 draw.

Football fans can empathize with her reasoning behind the stunt, which melds love of a team with love of a place, in the text that accompanies the pictures: “I wasn’t born into a footballing family,” she wrote. “My father enjoyed bullfights and cycling more, and my brother had musical passions—so I discovered in other Cucuteños, in the environment, in street corners and in neighborhood stores, my passion for Cúcuta Deportivo.”

What is more shocking is that this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. The famous French-Italian actress Sophia Loren made a promise to Gazetta dello Sport in 2007—when she was 72 years young—that she would “do a striptease” if her team Napoli gained promotion from Serie B to Serie A. Football fans will know that Napoli went up, but what most may not know is that Ms. Loren backed off her promise. As she said, it was “only a joke”. I say here’s to jokes and good clean fun! Happy April!

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Forza Napoli, Apparently. Image Courtesy Of: https://iheartingrid.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/sophia-loren-dangerous-curves/

China’s Great (Football) Leap Forward

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On Monday March 16 China’s State Council (the Cabinet) released a plan to raise the stature of the country’s national soccer team. The move is not surprising; as a rising world power China is looking to raise its performance in all international arenas, among which football is a very visible component. In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games China won more medals than any other country, but their national soccer team has been a perennial underachiever. The New York Times notes that China’s men’s national team is currently ranked 83rd in the world—behind Guatemala and Honduras—while their woman’s team is ranked 13th (even this is a drop from their top 10 ranking a decade ago).

It is clear that soccer in China is falling behind other sports, and that is just what president Xi Jinping’s plan is looking to remedy by “separating the country’s soccer association from the national sports administration, to give it more autonomy.” The plan hopes to “[bring] the men’s national team to the forefront in Asia, and [return] the women’s team to the top ranks in the world” by eventually hosting a World Cup. Additionally, the plan looks to bring the level of the country’s top soccer league—the Superleague—on par with other top Asian leagues by, among other things, expanding soccer education at schools and universities. Currently there are 5,000 elementary and middle schools that provide soccer coaching, this number is forecast to reach 20,000 by 2020 and 50,000 by 2025.

While the plan is ambitious, it is nothing new. Robin Jones’ article “Football in the People’s Republic of China”, published in the 2004 volume Football Goes East: Business, Culture, and the People’s Game in China, Japan, and South Korea (Ed. Wolfram Manzenreiter and John Horne, Routledge: New York (2004), outlined the difficulties of integrating football into the educational system in a country of 1.2 billion people, many of which live in cities with very few football pitches. Indeed, 11 years on, it seems as if football has not been made part of the educational system with any degree of success. Indeed Johan van de Ven, writing for the Chinese football blog Wild East Football, notes the failure of previous attempts to reform Chinese football’s standing in his article:

 

“This is not the first time that a wave of promise has swept over Chinese football. 2002 marked China’s maiden World Cup Finals appearance, the China Schools Football program got underway in 2009, and in 2011 Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin committed 480 million RMB to the CSL in sponsorship funding. But these were all false dawns. Now, Guangzhou Evergrande has opened an academy with capacity for 2,300. Evergrande is perhaps a special case: it has abundant financing, including the 1.2 billion RMB invested by Alibaba’s Jack Ma in June 2014, and has also come to be seen as a launchpad for talent to be guided into the national team set-up. If proposed reforms are implemented, it would not stand alone as China’s foremost developer of both grassroots and professional talent. In both the short and long-term, Chinese football could be set for a significantly rosier future.”

 

For me the fascinating part of China’s Great (Football) Leap Forward lies in its similarity to that other final frontier of football—the United States of America. Two weeks ago the US top flight, Major League Soccer, kicked off its twentieth season. Most commentators agree that football in the US has come a long way. A glance at attendance figures will support this: While the average attendance for 160 games was 17,406 (with a high average of 28,916 for the Los Angelese Galaxy) with total league wide attendance of 2,785,001 in the league’s inaugural season in 1996, figures started falling in subsequent seasons. The average attendance fell by almost 4,000 to a historic low of just 13,756 in 2000, while the high average fell to a historic low of 17,696 (A drop of more than 10,000 from the 1996 figure) for the Columbus Crew in 1999. The league contacted two Florida franchises—the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion—in 2001, leading many to fear for the league’s health, as they faced a historic low in league wide attendance of just 2,215,019 in the 2002 season. It took the league nine years to better the inaugural season’s figure for total attendance (2,900,716 in 2005), and a full fifteen years to better the inaugural season’s mark for average attendance—17,872 for 306 games in 2011. The 2014 season saw league records in both league wide attendance (6,185,773) and average attendance figures (19,151 in 323 games), while the average high attendance was a healthy 43,734 a game for the Seattle Sounders (their 2013 average is still the league record, 44,038).

 

China’s first professional league was the Jia-A League, founded two years before MLS in 1994. It ran until 2004, when the Chinese Super League was formed with 12 teams. The rebranding in many ways stemmed from corruption in the old Jia A League—2003 champions Shanghai Shenhua were stripped of their title while 25 former and current football officials, referees, and players where banned in 2003 as a result of the match fixing investigations. A look at attendances in the current Super League, however, shows trends similar to MLS. The old Jia-A League’s best year, in terms of total attendance, was 1998 with a figure of 3,883,000 in 182 matches. The best year in terms of average attendance was 1996, which 24,266 fans attending 132 matches. In 2003, the Jia-A League’s final season, the average attendance was 17,710 with a total attendance for the season’s 210 matches of 3,719,700. Despite these strong figures the perception of corruption plagued the first years of the re-branded Super League, and only 1,430,600 fans attended the 132 games of the 2004 season, with an average of only 10,838. Figures have been rising steadily over the last ten years, however, and the 2014 season saw a total attendance of 4,556,520 over 240 matches (the highest ever, due in some part to the increased number of matches) and an average of 18,986—the highest since the Jia-A League’s 2000 season and only 165 less than the MLS figure for the same season.

 

Clearly a stable domestic league is being viewed as a prerequisite for a sustained challenge from the Chinese national team in world football, and this was always the rationale for MLS in the United States. Following last summer’s World Cup we saw that strategy pay off; the United States is more than capable of producing a respectable product on the world’s biggest stage.

 

Meanwhile on the business (and football shirt) side of things, there are other interesting connections between the interdependent economies of these two world powers. The hold of American sportswear giants Nike on Chinese football is strong. They signed a 10 year 16 million dollar/year deal with the Chinese FA to be the exclusive outfitter for the country’s national soccer team, just in time for the government’s new soccer plan. Nike is also in the midst of a 10 year 200 million dollar deal to be the exclusive kit provider for all Chinese Superleague teams. Interestingly, no such deal exists in MLS—it is Germany’s Adidas who act as the exclusive kit providers for the United States’ top league.

 

It is in the context of a world of global modern football—filled with multi-million dollar kit deals and “Superleagues” filled with superstars—that I believe Chinese football will succeed in their “great leap forward”. Due to the power that financial interests have in modern football I find it hard to believe that the large market of both potential players and (possibly more importantly) potential consumers that China represents can be ignored for too much longer. While I do not expect China to challenge for a World Cup title any time soon—the country is simply too vast for the economic improvements to trickle down equitably—I do expect them to put out a product able to compete on a high level regularly in their region.