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The Recent Politicization of Sports Media Offers Insight into Wider Issues with Media and Sports in the United States: The Case of the Wage Gap Between Men’s and Women’s Sports

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What If I told you that one of the key issues that plagues the United States’ media system is: “that reporters, journalists, and publishers are expected to prioritize state interests above all and not to cross the lines drawn by the power holders, and if they do, they should be prepared to pay the price”? Would this seem absurd, especially if we substituted “state interests” for “progressive interests”? Personally, I don’t think it would be—and that is why it is telling that the above quote, taken from page 138 of Bilge Yesil’s study of the media in Turkey, Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal Statecan be applied so easily to the United States. In the age of neoliberal globalization, where economic concerns seem to be paramount, one could argue that all states have become authoritarian to some degree but that is a topic for another day; today I will focus specifically on sports media in the United States since it is a country where money has become so powerful that it runs most institutions, including the media.

This may be a reason that even sports reporting has become a battleground in the ongoing culture wars in American society. Whereas sports used to be a field in the United States that once served to unify a vast nation (most Americans can identify with a baseball team whether it is the San Franscisco Giants or the Boston Red Sox, for instance), it has recently become an increasingly divisive topic. ESPN has, as expected due to its corporatization, become a leading player in sending divisive messages guised as progressive thought; a recent article focusing on LPGA golf serves as a good example to study.

Anna Catherine Clemmons’ ESPN piece from 10 July focusing on LPGA golfers speaking up “about inequality” is more politics than it is sport. Take two of the questions players were asked: “How would you grade Donald Trump’s impact on women’s golf?” And “Would you ever consider not playing in the U.S. Women’s Open Because its being held at Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey?”. As a sports fan, I am left wondering what on earth Donald Trump has to do with women’s golf, other than the fact that he is a rich white man, and golf is generally considered a rich white man’s game. If that is the common denominator, however, this article just smacks of racism and gender bias, in the same way that Barack Obama was made to unveil a bracket for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament every March (seemingly) because he was a black man and basketball is generally seen as a sport appealing to black males in the United States. Of course, both of these characterizations of sport are inherently racist and it would behoove ESPN to avoid pandering to such base stereotypes.

 

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Two Very Odd Questions, and One Very Important Question. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.espn.com/golf/story/_/id/19865737/lpga-confidential-survey-speaking-golf-inequalities

 

Despite this glaring problem, Clemmons’ piece does raise one interesting issue (the one most female golfers she polled found to be most pressing), and that is the pay gap between female and male golfers in the United States. This would have been an interesting issue to follow, since it is one that has been in the news lately; the U.S. women’s national soccer team recently came out to criticize the U.S. Soccer federation for the wage gap between the U.S. Men’s National Team and US Women’s National Team (On April 5 2017 the US women did, in fact, get a raise). Since the pay gap and gender equality are hot topics in the United States, Clemmons would have done well to focus on the important topics, rather than bring politics into sports unnecessarily.

This would have been a good chance to bridge the divides in American society, rather than divide further, since the wage gap between women and men is a glaring example of the results of extreme capitalism; it affects all of us regardless of our sex. It seems that—in extreme capitalism—what you do does not really matter. What does matter is how much others value what you do. Take a plumber or an electrician or even a car mechanic. Although these are very useful jobs which can make a lot of money—without such professionals, the modern world would come to a halt—they are not valued as “prestigious”. This is why a run-of-the mill white collar worker working at an office for 35,000 dollars a year is viewed as having a “professional” job; it is the myth of the college degree that separates the white collar from the blue collar. Unfortunately, society has come to value typing on a computer more than it values getting a motor to run or fixing a leaking kitchen sink; essentially an “unskilled” worker with no real-world skills is viewed (in society’s eyes) as being “skilled”.

I believe that, at its root, this is one reason for the pay gap between women’s and men’s sports. Until more people consistently watch women’s golf—or women’s soccer, for that matter—they will be paid equally with men. That is, until views value women’s sports. But as long as male sports attract consistently more viewership, I do not see how women’s sports can garner the same kinds of money that men’s sports do. Likewise, it does not matter how great my writing is (of course its great ;), but until I am writing for a major sports or political website I will still be a marginal sociologist getting paid . . . .zero dollars. It has nothing to do with the quality of my work, rather it has to do with readership—and in sports terms, viewership.

One other reason for the pay gap stems from the inflated amount of money that (mainly male) sports figures get; remember when basketball star Kevin Durant was celebrated for not taking the maximum salary offered by the Golden State Warriors by accepting six (6!) million dollars less?). When six million dollars can be brushed off in a second, it shows just how much money is moving around in the world of professional sports. Take the disparity between how much the men in the NBA make compared to how much the women in the WNBA make: John Walters, of Newsweek, points out that

The league minimum in the NBA this season [2015-2016] is $525,000. The WNBA league minimum last summer was $38,000. Yes, the WNBA regular season is 34 games, compared with the NBA’s 82-game slog, but the highest-paid player in the WNBA makes roughly one-fifth that of the lowest-paid player in the NBA. Two years ago, 52 NBA players each earned more than all of the players in the WNBA combined.

 Of course, the NBA is a global entity that earned more than $5 billion last season. The WNBA, by comparison, barely breaks even. ESPN and Turner Sports pay the NBA a combined $2.6 billion annually to televise the NBA, whereas ESPN pays the WNBA $12 million annually for rights fees. That’s less than half of 1 percent of the NBA’s deal.

 

Again, the NBA wages are certainly inflated—but the WNBA just does not bring in enough revenue to raise their players’ wages. Walters’ article also points out how the US Women’s National soccer team—despite creating 16 million dollars more in revenue than the US Men’s National Team in 2015—cannot compete with the men’s wages due to the globalized nature of the football world:

 

The problem is that the USMNT [United States Men’s National Team] is tethered to the World Cup, the largest global sporting event outside the Olympics, which brought in $4.8 billion in revenue in 2014. The 2015 Women’s World Cup’s numbers are not available, but it likely brought in a small fraction of that sum. Germany earned $35 million for winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; the U.S. earned $2 million for winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.

 

Again, we see that it is viewership and global sports revenues which determine the wages, not necessarily the quality of the product on offer. We can all agree that the U.S. Women’s National Team is much more successful globally than their male counterparts; women’s soccer just does not pay as much as men’s soccer does globally in the age of modern football. Thus it is not an issue of sexism, rather it is an issue of industrial football.

Clemmons’ ESPN article would have been well-served to focus on some of these points, so as to get to the root of what is going on. Without taking serious time to study the issues, journalists risk falling into the trap of succumbing to the old tropes of “misogyny” and “patriarchy”. Rather than divide men and women, we would do well to point out that men and women are experiencing very similar financial hardships in the sports world. For those who think that men have it easy and women are the ones being exploited, check out former minor league baseball player and author Dirk Hayhurst’s 2014 piece detailing the harsh conditions of minor league baseball in the United States. Mr. Hayhurst shows just how tough it is for those at the bottom end of the sports industry, playing in leagues that do not have the high viewership and player perks that the major leagues have. The issues are not about identity politics and about dividing men and women. Rather, the issues are about a sports industry that cares more about its bottom line—and profits—than it does about the athletes.

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U.S. Soccer and the Illegal Immigration Debate

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Following Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the American presidential election there has been a lot of debate regarding his key positions as he reiterated plans to build a wall along the Mexican border and his goal of deporting between two and three million illegal (or undocumented, the term some circles in the U.S. prefer) immigrants. Unsurprisingly, there have been backlashes to Mr. Trump’s proposed policies. The chancellor of Cal State University vowed to not deport students as campuses nationwide planned protests while the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) said that his department would not assist in deporting illegal immigrants.

This debate has—unsurprisingly—spread to the football field but not in the way that many may have anticipated. Despite media hyperbole designed to turn the 11 November 2016 World Cup Qualifier between Mexico and the United States into a political event, nothing of note materialized. The Miami Herald emphasized that there was no anti-Mexican sentiment in the stadium, and it was business as usual when Mexico went on to win 1-0 with a late goal courtesy of Rafa Marquez.

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U.S. Fans Hang a Political Banner At the Match (Top) While an Unidentified Mexico Fan Wears a Mask of U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump (Bottom). Both Images Are Taken From a Very Readable Piece That Appeared on MLS’ Website. The Piece States Some Things Mainstream Media Won’t Dare Mention, Such as one Mexican American’s Comment That “I was born here, but I’m a first-generation American. My family is from Mexico and normally I support Mexico when they play, but when it’s US vs. Mexico, I’m USA first. When I was born and raised, my mother was all, ‘We speak English at home. You’ve got to integrate yourself into society.'” Images Courtesy Of: http://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2016/11/18/us-mexico-fans-find-joy-refuge-common-ground-columbus-word

Reading the news, I was left wondering why on earth the match was expected to elicit any sort of political response. Aside from the fact that (state) media wants to emphasize division by reporting in certain ways, there is no reason that policies aimed to promote legal immigration and discourage illegal immigration should be seen as an attack on Mexico specifically, or any other country for that matter. Unfortunately, the media is not that nuanced.

I myself as a graduate student in a PhD program have heard the perspectives of those fed by this kind of biased reporting that drives division. I have been told that, since my mother is an immigrant, I should not agree with increased border enforcement. I answer that my mother is a legal immigrant who came to the United States to study and who eventually got a PhD so as to fulfill here dream of becoming a professor. I have been told that the most Nobel Prize winners have been immigrants. When I stress legal immigrants, the other side ceases to argue. The enforcement of borders is a normal policy the world over; when on a family trip to Norway I saw armed soldiers standing guard at the docks so as to ensure that all tourists returned to the cruise ship. I have been stopped by police in Sofia, Bulgaria, and asked to produce a passport so as to provide some sort of documentation in order to prove that I entered the country legally. Interestingly enough, none of this seemed strange to me. Although I dream of a world with no borders (since I enjoy traveling), I also realize that this cannot become a reality until all countries abolish borders.

The saddest thing in the debate is the fact that the American public is woefully uninformed, either because state media has a penchant for churning out extremely biased stories or because Americans have little knowledge of the rest of the world; I had a fellow graduate student tell me that he could “just walk across borders in Europe”. When I told him that he still had to enter the European Union at some point in order to do that, he was shocked. While I cannot fault this perspective—after all, travel is a privilege and a luxury—I can fault the media, since it does a dis-service to all those that would like neutral reporting. The media is complicit in pushing a false narrative that being against illegal immigration means being against all immigration. A good example of this kind of poor journalism is Al Jazeera America’s articleAl Jazeera America’s articleAl Jazeera America’s article about the American 2014 World Cup team which says:

The composition of the team reflects the shifting profile of the North American athlete and the migratory patterns that the U.S. government has so fervently attempted to restrict. Sixty percent of the roster is composed of first- or second-generation Americans, five of whom were born outside the U.S. The team could field a starting lineup of 11 players with direct ties to Mexico, Colombia, Haiti, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Poland, Latvia and the Philippines; 14 of the squad’s 23 men trace their roots through five continents.

This article implies that America’s strength—not only in footballing terms, but in social terms—lies in its acceptance of immigrants. It is a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with. But—and this is a huge BUT that is often ignored—that immigration should be legal. This is because I believe that illegal immigration is inherently unfair and unequal. In a democratic society the goal is—ostensibly—to make people equal. Obviously, given certain structural issues, this is a fairly utopian view but it is one that is necessary to further the myth of democracy; those of us living in such societies have no choice but to buy in. The unfairness of illegal immigration stems from many factors. It is, first and foremost, unfair to the countrymen/women of the illegal immigrant; they arrive illegally while others follow the legal route. It is also unequal to other foreigners; those that follow the legal routes to a visa or citizenship are actively being subverted. A third inequality that results from illegal immigration relates to the job market. If one is undocumented, they will work for any wage they can get. Unfortunately, this means that others—particularly poor African-Americans and poor white Americans—get pushed out of jobs since illegal immigrants are essentially competing with poor Americans for the same jobs. This is an inherent contradiction within American politics; illegal immigration is championed at the same time as racial equality even though it is clear that this means a loss of—and lack of opportunity in—jobs for many minorities in U.S. society.

The media do not take such a view, which is important to note since their stories are what drive the narrative of events in the United States. The LA Times reported that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was “expressing concern that mass deportations would hurt the Southern California economy, which he said is dependent on the labor and tax dollars of noncitizens”. The fact that a city in the United States should be dependent on the “labor of noncitizens” is, frankly, absurd and shows that something needs to change. Business Insider also wrote an alarmist piece documenting the economic disaster that may befall the U.S. if mass deportations of undocumented labor does indeed occur. They cite a study by the American Action Forum, described as “a nonpartisan, center-right-leaning think tank”. The study concludes that “Overall, removing all undocumented immigrants would cause private sector output to decline by between $381.5 billion and $623.2 billion. This translates to a 2.9 percent to 4.7 percent reduction in total annual output from the private sector”. While this would clearly mean a big hit to the U.S. economy, the article makes no reference to the fact that there might be unemployed American workers who could fill in and take the jobs of the undocumented deportees. Also, the article does not note the possibility that undocumented laborers who have not committed crimes—and are merely working hard to provide for their families by legal means—might be given documentation and therefore be allowed to continue working (a position that I support). In short, the media’s portrayal of a “crackdown” on illegal immigration is highly alarmist—and not just in terms of economics.

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But Who Is To Say That These Jobs Cannot Be Filled? After All, Relying on Illegal Immigrants For Jobs Is Exploitative Of the Undocumented Workers. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.businessinsider.com/cost-deporting-undocumented-immigrants-study-2016-5

Business Insider also published a piece that underlines the possible violent consequences of this crackdown not only in the United States, but in Central America as well. The article notes that many deportees have few connections to their home countries, and that they will just try to return the the United States if/when they cannot find employment in their home countries. Business Insider also warns that “these people would also fall prey to criminal groups — transnational gangs like Barrio 18 or MS-13 — that have turned northern Central America and parts of Mexico into war zones […]The consequence of deporting many immigrants — a number of whom were already criminals — to countries emerging from a period of war with weak law enforcement and little economic development was the growth of groups like Barrio 18 and MS-13, both of which have their origins among immigrants in California who were deported”. A professor of political science is quoted as saying “Honduran and Guatemalan gangs were aided by deportations as well as the spread of gang influence from El Salvador […] So, in a way, deportations were extremely important to the emergence and expansion of criminal groups like the MS-13 and Barrio 18”. Now, this article raised two important questions to me. The first is “As an American and Turkish citizen, what do I care about how deportations affect Central American countries?”. The second is “if these people are indeed violent gang members—or even have a proclivity for violence—then why would I want them to continue to stay in the country?”. A logical response would be…A president’s job is to take care of their own country and that violent people should not be on the streets. Seems sound, right?

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The Article Is Misleading; Homicides are Decreasing in Two of the Three Countries and I Would Argue That This Says More About Domestic Problems In The Triangle Than U.S. Policies. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.businessinsider.com/problems-with-donald-trump-deportation-plan-and-gang-violence-2016-11

As I have said, the media has a way of skirting the truth. When a former U.S. official is quoted, he says “as a result of that [U.S. deportation policy], we have created a disaster in Central America … where these gangs are fighting among each other, creating a massive migration of individuals into the United States”. While the deportation policy might have been one cause of “disaster” in Central America, I would argue that the true cause runs far deeper. Perhaps this is just another cause of blowback; American meddling in Central America during the Cold War and the policy of “kingmaking” by imposing and deposing strongmen by way of military coups hindered the region’s development so that most of the states are, now, unstable. This is why, for me at least, an abandonment of the notion of “empire” by the United States could lead to a more stable world in the future.

This is not solely a political blog, this blog is also about sports and I will bring the topic back. The main thing is that this kind of reporting misses the fact that there are some real issues regarding the consequences of illegal immigration. In October 2016 an illegal immigrant youth soccer coach was arrested in Texas for molesting eight of his young players. As someone who believes in the value of youth sport—and as someone who has coached youth soccer before—this kind of story is tragic. Soccer will forever be associated with the heinous crime of molestation for these young children, and no one has the right to soil the beautiful game in this manner. As long as the media continues to frame the possible U.S. immigration policies under a President Trump as “racist” or “xenophobic” we will never be able to actually discuss the problem maturely, robbing us of a chance at productive dialogue. The truth is that some—certainly not all—illegal immigrants are a problem and that a solution needs to be found. Allowing people like the alleged molester Marcos Ramos to stay in the United States is not only bad for Americans, it is also bad for Mexicans and other immigrants from Central America since people like Mr. Ramos feed into the creation of harmful stereotypes. Let’s hope for more productive discourse in the media on this topic sooner rather than later.

US World Cup Hangover: The Economics of Soccer in the United States

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The United States bowed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a spirited performance against Belgium—a nation of just 11 million (or, as one humorous article put it, “a Dakota and a half”. For the record, Ohio’s population of 11,570,808 makes it the closest state in terms of population to Belgium. A “Dakota and a half” renders only around 1.5 million).

While the loss was not unexpected it was still upsetting for me as it is any time one of my countries loses in football—especially since, inexplicably, the US had a chance to win the game at the death before Chris Wondolowski—also inexplicably—managed to make a mess of his moment in front of goal. But football is, sometimes, like life. You get your one moment, and you either make the best of it . . . or you don’t. There is no real in between.

A few articles have been written in the wake of the United States’ second round exit, including a very interesting one that asks the question “Has the US Men’s National Team Plateaued?”. Personally, I would be less dramatic—after all, this is football and anything can happen. I should know. My other team, Turkey, made an improbable run to third place at the 2002 World Cup—and another to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships with an admittedly under-talented side. Hard work coupled with heart and belief can go a long way in football (like it can in life)—just look at the Greece team that won the 2004 European Championship!

So do I think the United States will, in the next three World Cups (a twelve year cycle), have a stunning performance? Yes, I suppose I do. But I won’t ask them to compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, and Germany year in and year out. And that’s ok because I also—secretly—like soccer in the US to be more of an inside joke amongst those of us who truly enjoy the game for what it is, and not some marquis event for frat boys who want an excuse to slam beers at odd hours of the working day in the name of banal nationalism done ‘Muricuh style. And that inside joke would be made even sweeter if the US somehow managed to scare the world by advancing past the Quarterfinals of a World Cup. I’ve watched enough US matches on foreign soil to recognize the glee when the US concedes a goal—in the last week alone I’ve seen it in both Russia and Turkey—and I can imagine the fear of a US World Cup win.

It does not appear that soccer in the US will ever move beyond being an inside joke that becomes part of the country’s mainstream culture for just a few summer weeks once every four years (selling many Nike shirts in the meantime) before, again, retreating into hibernation. I don’t think like this because I’m negative or a non-believer in US soccer, it is mainly because I am a realist—both in International Relations theory and in terms of football. When one looks at the facts it should not come as a surprise that the United States will never be a true world power in football. At the heart of it—as in so many cases—lies economics (James Carville would be proud).

The top professional soccer league in the United States is Major League Soccer (MLS), a league that has been steadily improving since its inception in 1996 despite competing with the other major American sports for visibility, fans, and . . . athletes.

Its not hard to understand why. On April 10, 2014 MLS released their salary information and the results were shocking. The top seven salaries in MLS—those of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill—account for 31% of all player salaries. In fact, as Empireofsoccer.com shows, the top 5% of earners represent 45% of total player salaries. That is a huge disparity for a country that prides itself on equality (perhaps there is a psychological dimension to this as well—the economics of MLS are fundamentally un-American!).

The salaries of the aforementioned seven players have, as empireofsoccer.com stated, inflated the league’s average salary to a figure of $207,831 (up from the 2013 figure of $165,066 when the median salary was just $100,000). Still, just a cursory look at a sample of the Colorado Rapid’s salary information for the 2014 season shows some glaring examples of the issues in play. At least three Rapids players—professional athletes who face far greater risk of serious injury daily than I ever did at work—make less money than I made sitting at a desk in my old day job!

Now compare the (admittedly inflated) average salary figure of $207,831 in MLS to the average salaries in the other major US sports from two years ago, courtesy of Forbes unless cited otherwise:

 

Major League Baseball (MLB): $3.2 million in 2012, now it is just under $4 million.

National Basketball Association (NBA): $5.15 million, now it is 3,453,241 (with a median of $1,500,000—fifteen times the MLS median in 2013).

National Football League (NFL): $1.9 million

National Hockey League (NHL): $2.4 million

 

The disparity is staggering. And now lets look back at that list of the seven highest paid MLS players, for a moment. Only three of the seven—Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan—are American. And after Jurgen Klinsmann’s now legendary snubbing of Landon Donovan, only two of them made it to the United States’ World Cup squad! Clearly, what big money that does exist in MLS is certainly not going to help the development of the US Men’s National team. And that means that for your average American soccer player, the chances of making big money at home—and representing your country on the biggest stage—are very small indeed.

This in itself poses a problem for the development of the game in the US. Many talented soccer players at the youth level in the United States often play multiple sports. Soccer is either a fall or spring sport depending on where you live, so that leaves the options of American Football and Baseball in other seasons, not to mention Basketball and Hockey in the winter months. Unlike in other countries, where football is the only money-making game in town, American athletes have other options as well that may prove to be more lucrative in the long term. While it is obviously difficult to make it as a professional in any of the major US sports, the fact that there is more money—and more collegiate scholarships (Soccer has the same number of NCAA Division 1 scholarships as Swimming/Diving and Wrestling)—available in the other sports means that it is very difficult to keep the country’s best athletes playing football. This is a fact that, unfortunately, does not bode well for the hopes of developing a truly world class US Men’s National Team; it doesn’t meant that it is impossible by any means, just that it is more difficult than it is in other nations.

 

Tim Howard Does His Country Proud, But Can Only Slump Off In The End As Belgium Move On:

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/07/01/onsoccer/r7h11DZZUn5HsRJGqfZ0hJ/story.html

 

Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA, USA: New England Revolution-Houston Dynamo (2-0) Matchday

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A few shots of the New England Revolution-Houston Dynamo match at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The stadium’s capacity is 67,756 for American football and 20,000 for soccer (or just football). The stadium itself is easy to access, half-way between Providence, RI and Boston, MA, and as a bonus parking is free for soccer games. The write up for the match is here.

 

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The Spectacle of Soccer in the USA–An MLS Saturday Afternoon

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On Saturday I decided to take the short drive up I-95 to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Normally the towering 68,756 capacity stadium is home to the National (other) Football League’s New England Patriots. On this day, as with many other spring and summer days, this same stadium—albeit with a reduced capacity of 20,000—is home to the New England Revolution. Today, they lined up to face the Houston Dynamo in a Major League Soccer (MLS) Eastern Conference matchup.

Coming into the day the Revolution had been struggling with just four points (and just two goals, one an own goal) out of five matches to show for themselves. On the season’s first weekend New England were humbled 4-0 by this same Dynamo team in Houston; needless to say I was not optimistic for the outcome. At least it was a warm spring day, pushing seventy degrees, and in the end I was one of 14,259 fans in attendance. It felt more like 4,259 inside Gillette Stadium, however, since all upper-deck seating was closed off, as well as most of the middle deck and all of the seating behind one goal. Soccer just isn’t big in the United States of America, unfortunately.

MLS was only founded in 1996—with the Revolution as one of the league’s ten founding members. As football has struggled to gain a foothold in the nation’s sporting culture, attendances have steadily grown—from 14,898 in 2003 to 18,608 in 2013. In fact, MLS’ average attendance per game trumps that of one of the United States’ biggest sporting exports, the National Basketball Association (NBA). While such statistics are encouraging, it is unlikely that soccer will ever garner the kind of attention (American) football and baseball get.

And honestly, that’s OK with me. As someone interested in football culture, that kind of thing just does not exist in most of the United States (the colorful Pacific Northwest derby between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders is a rare exception). Since the culture won’t be there, just grab one of the ubiquitous overpriced Bud Lites, gorge yourself on equally overpriced fried food, and take in the day’s action where the average age of those in attendance—if you don’t count their legal guardians, of course—will make you feel like you’re in fourth grade. I, for one, took comfort in the fact that most of my fellow “fans” were probably not interested in the quality of play on the field—since they weren’t going to get it anyway. Some of the best action in the first half came when Kevin Alston, a New England defender, put a header narrowly by the post….his own post, that is. I looked around at that point. It didn’t seem that too many cared.

To my left were the “hard core” contingent of New England fans—standing in the supporters section dubbed “The Fort”, a nod to the militant nature of the team’s name which harkens back to the days of the American Revolution. They stood chanting half-heartedly while waving the flag of New England—a new symbol of the team. Most in this section sported piercings, skinny jeans, and sleeve tattoos—some males topped the look off with beards of rabbinical proportions. This was the hipster contingent, the newest wave of soccer fan in the United States. It is ironic that football could be a means of acquiring social capital in the Capitalist center of the world—many football fans outside the United States are from the lower classes, with political bents that hide no disdain for capital accumulation of any kind. While I can’t go into this new social construct in too much detail (this blog isn’t the place for it) the Wikipedia article on the hipster phenomenon is fairly amusing and has some useful links for those interested—Pierre Bourdieu gets a mention, and that makes it good in my book.

Then there were the kids—making up the majority of the fan base—who had been carted en masse, it seemed, to the stadium in one of the multitudes of shiny SUVs lining the parking lot, many sporting soccer ball shaped magnets on the back no less. Their guardians—suburban moms and dads—were busy running the gauntlet up and down the aisles, taking part in perhaps America’s largest sport by participant—consumerism. Each time they would implore their offspring to stay put (but how will the children work off the calories!?), before leaving only to return with cotton candy, trays of fried chicken, French fries, hamburgers, Nachos, personal pizzas, Coca-Colas, and waters–wait, hold the waters! One of the stadium’s water “hawkers” peddled his bottles with a classic Boston accent: “Get ya wattuh heeeeeeyuh, wattuh heeeeeeeyuh! Natuh’s own soda, zero fat, zero calories, get ya delicious wattuh!!”. There were no takers—except for me.

I paid my four (4!) dollars for an Aquafina which the hawker dutifully opened for me. I assumed this five star service was part of the price, but I learned how wrong I was when I got the full bottle handed back to me, cap-less. The hawker recognized my questioning look and said, “Sarry, stadium pawlicy”. Stadium policy? So what, the small plastic cap on this water bottle is going to be what keeps me from hurtling my four-dollar bottle onto one of the Houston player’s heads? I’ve been to a few matches, and I can tell you right now that the cap is NOT the lynchpin of stadium security. Now, the bottle itself? Sure, that can be the lynchpin—they’re forbidden in Turkish stadiums, for instance. If any readers will be going to Gillette Stadium to take in a Revolution match in the future, here’s my advice—BYOC: Bring Your Own Caps. I never got a pat-down at the entrance; they’d never know! Sadly I did not participate in BYOC on this occasion, so I sat my full bottle down in the cup-holder in front of me, as all the germs from fourth grade classrooms across New England wafted into my water unobstructed. Meanwhile on the pitch the Houston Dynamo’s attack kept making forays into the Revolution end, similarly unobstructed, for the rest of the first half.

The uninspiring half ended 0-0 with both teams squandering opportunities—and the powers-at-be at US Soccer wonder why Americans think soccer is boring. With the referee’s whistle the seats around me emptied instantaneously as patrons engaged in a coordinated charge on the concessions stands. If the New England strike force had been this determined on the pitch, it would be 5-0 by now. While price mark-ups at stadiums are nothing new, I marveled at the money that was being spent—where is it coming from? My ticket itself—the cheapest available—was 25 dollars. The water—as mentioned—was 4 dollars. Bud Lite—itself a step above water—was a whopping 9 dollars, while Papa Ginos Pizza was 8.50 (pretty good deal, huh?). When multiplied by four for a family of four, a simple trip for 90 minutes of action becomes much more than 90 dollars. And I wont count the gas costs which fuel the soccer ball magnet-sporting shiny four wheel-drive chariots of suburbia. No economic downturn here!

Meanwhile cheerleaders were throwing rolled-up t-shirts into the first four rows of the stands while grounds men dutifully watered the brand new FieldTurf surface. This is the first game on the stadium’s new surface, a red-letter day of sorts. I welcomed the development since it meant that soccer lines were not competing with the remnants of American football lines that normally mar the field of play during Revolution matches at Gillette Stadium. Indeed, many American soccer commentators have often pointed to residual American football marks on fields across MLS as one of the things hindering the game’s development Stateside.

Once the second half started the Revolution got going, and put together some good attacking moves in the first ten minutes of the second period. While this may have had something to do with the half time team talk, I think it had more to do with the stadium. In the first half the team was attacking the goal on the far end of the field—the one with a tarp advertising Budweiser covering the seating behind the goal. As a player it would be difficult to get up for a game if you felt as if you were playing behind closed doors—indeed, all the Revolution fans were concentrated at the other end of the field. This half, however, the Revolution were attacking the goal in front of “The Fort”. The change was clearly for the better, as “The Fort” galvanized the attack and sufficiently rattled Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall.

The Revolution kept coming and would have had a goal in the 60th minute were it not for some selfish play by striker Teal Bunbury. In my opinion, Diego Fagundez had every right to feel aggrieved when Bunbury chose to shoot through two defenders instead of pass it wide to Fagundez, who was at the corner of the penalty area with no one in front of him. As my hopes for seeing a goal dwindled I became fixated on a man standing and pointing at the referee, a normal act in any soccer game, only this one was wearing . . . a horse mask. The things we see in MLS.

Just then, like a lighting strike, came what most of us—except perhaps a few of the kids focused on the Revolution’s Foxy mascot (literally a man in a fox suit–why a fox I do not know) came to see. It was the 68th minute, and defender Kevin Alston’s first career goal in MLS after six seasons. It came nearly a year to the day (April 8, 2013) that Alston took a leave of absence from the team to undergo treatment for a form of Leukemia—cheers to Mr. Alston for coming back better than ever.

With a 1-0 lead, the Revolution settled into a defensive mindset for the next twenty minutes, which is the team’s norm under current head coach Jay Heaps—himself a successful former Revolution defender. I ignored the multitude of distractions swirling around me—parents herding their children towards the exits in a bid to beat traffic and hipsters looking to grab a final beer—and focused on the final minutes. After all—you never leave until the final whistle. I learned that in Tallinn, Estonia.

As Houston poured forward in hopes for an equalizer they left their defenses open. A long New England clearance in stoppage time found its way to the edge of the Houston penalty area and when ‘keeper Tally Hall came out to clear New England’s Honduran forward Jerry Bengtson stole the ball, rounded Hall and threaded the ball through two defenders into the back of the net. 2-0, and the crowd goes wild. I found myself fist-pumping in glee at New England’s first victory of the season—after all, I’m a fan too. “The Fort” jumped into action, waving their “flags of New England”, along with a conspicuously non-Revolution colored flag—the sky blue of the Boston Athletic Association, organizers of the Boston Marathon since 1897.

With the one year anniversary of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings coming up, it was fitting. It’s also a good time to remember former Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis, who heroically saved his father in-law’s life in the aftermath of the bombing. Unfortunately, a segment on ESPN’s Sportscenter’s April 14th 2014 telecast remembering the bombings missed this. They focused on the role of Boston sports in the aftermath of the bombings—the Boston Bruins ice hockey team, Boston Celtics basketball team, and Boston Red Sox baseball team where all acknowledged, but there was no mention of another Boston team—the Revolution—despite the crucial role played by one of their own players in saving the life of another. But, that is soccer in the United States—flying just below the radar.

All in all it was a good Saturday, and I hope that any American soccer fans reading this and who live near an MLS franchise choose to attend at least one match this season. Sure, the quality might not be up to “European standards” but such “Euro-snobbery” won’t get soccer in this country anywhere. If you call yourself a true soccer fan then go out and support your local team, bolster their attendances, and help keep your team afloat. Yes, I’m a die-hard Galatasaray fan and attend all the matches I can when in Istanbul, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing an amateur match of my local side Cesmespor, and it certainly doesn’t keep me from following the team from where I was born, good old New England.

 

For More Pictures of This Match Please See the Gillette Stadium Entry in the “Match Day Photos” Section.

 

 

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The Stadium’s Capacity is Reduced for Football (Soccer) Matches

 

 

 

 

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As a player it would be difficult to get up for a game if you felt as if you were playing behind closed doors

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The Hardcore Contingent in “The Fort”!

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Horse Heads and Fourth Graders–Welcome, to MLS

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The Flags of New England on Display

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Salute to Kevin Alston’s First Career MLS Goal

 

 

 

 

Chattanooga FC US Open Cup 2013 Shirt, Number 14 Matchworn

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This Chattanooga FC shirt is a size medium from Diadora. The fabric is standard; what makes this shirt stand out are the extra details. The sponsor is Volkswagen, a nod to the large Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga—the same plant that has come under fire recently regarding the attempted unionization of its workers (Please see: http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/tennessee-volkswagen-chattanooga-union and http://timesfreepress.com/news/2014/apr/05/chattanooga-naacp-supports-workers-rights-volkswag/).  The back has a the Memorial sponsor for Memorial Healthcare Systems and a nice number 14 in yellow.

On the left sleeve is a “2010 2012 NPSL Southeast Champions” embroidery in recognition of the team’s championship seasons in America’s fourth tier National Premier Soccer League. On the right sleeve is an NPSL heat transfer, while the US Open Cup badge is heat pressed onto the front of the shirt—Chattanooga FC lost in the first round of the 2013 competition to the Carolina Dynamo 4-1 on Penalties after a 4-4 draw; this shirt was worn in the match according to Chattanooga FC when I purchased the shirt online (a visit to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium Davenport Field in the summer did not, unfortunately, produce a shirt).

 

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A Shot of the Shirt Worn by Chattanooga FC Players in Action