Football is making major inroads into the American psyche and although there is a distance to go, the game's reach is even being felt in areas traditionally associated with anything but the beautiful game.
In the last century the world looked primarily to America for popular culture, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Deep South states of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. Down here you can trace the origins of the blues, jazz, soul, and rock ‘n roll - music that spread like wildfire across the globe.
During the same period, football cemented its position as the most popular sport in almost every nation, with one particularly high profile exception. America’s reluctance to fully embrace football has long been a source of intrigue for fans in other nations, and while the game’s profile has been gradually growing, it doesn’t share anything like the same profile as the more established televised sports. As a visitor to the South in particular, you’d be excused for thinking football doesn’t exist at all. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a passionate football crowd, though, you just have to look a bit harder.
Nashville, Tennessee, claims to be the home of country music. The Downtown area is busy on any given Saturday with country music fans taking in the sights and sounds of the bars on Broadway. This year’s UEFA Champions League final coincided with Memorial Day weekend, bringing in even more revellers than normal. And if that wasn’t enough, Jimmy Buffet, the legendary country rocker, was in town for one night only. If you wanted to watch the football, however, there was only one place to be, the Dan McGuiness pub.
At 12.15pm the bar was already filling up in anticipation of the 1.45pm kick off. Both finalists were well represented, but Manchester United had a clear advantage in numbers. Shortly before kickoff, someone jokingly threw a Liverpool scarf at one noisy Red who was initiating United chants. He responded with a derogatory song about Liverpool supporters (delivered with a noticeable Southern drawl), and was accompanied with plenty of enthusiasm by the United fans in his group. The 30 mile rivalry between Merseyside and Manchester is clearly alive and well, 4,000 miles away in Tennessee.
A noisy atmosphere was sustained for the first half, but ultimately fell away as Barcelona’s victory became inevitable. At full time fans of both teams were shaking hands and discussing the game together. Of course, this was the showpiece game of European domestic football with two behemoths of the modern era taking part. Globalisation has pushed the Champions League to every corner of the planet, so it was not really a surprise to find a pocket of interest, but what about the domestic fan-culture in the US, and in particular in the Deep South?
When discussing football in America, the frequently asked question centres on how it can compete with baseball, basketball, football (gridiron), ice hockey and numerous other sports? Indeed, on the morning of the Champions League final, ESPN featured comprehensive coverage of the women’s college softball championships, and a lacrosse tournament, but there was no mention of the Champions League final taking place. Perhaps this is because it was on a rival channel, Fox Sports, but it also suggests there isn’t enough sustained interest from viewers to warrant a higher profile.
This must be a source of frustration for those fans in the Dan McGuiness pub, but it might also serve a purpose in bringing them together. I put these issues to Jason Le Blanc, who writes regularly on football from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s relaxed about the position of the game in his home country.
“Football [soccer] will never be the top sport as it is globally, but that's okay. The US is a large and diverse nation that has enough of a fan base to have football grow and flourish without being number one.”
The stable growth demonstrated by Major League Soccer is evidence to support Jason’s view, but what about his native South? The MLS is gradually expanding its franchises, but you won’t find one down here. In terms of other sports, New Orleans has the Saints (NFL franchise), Nashville has the Tennessee Titans (NFL) and the Predators (NHL), Memphis has the Grizzlies (NBA), and in Mississippi (the Rebels) and Alabama, college football (gridiron)is king. Jason considers it unlikely that any of these locations could support an MLS franchise, but the MLS isn’t the only show in town.
In the confusing structure of American soccer, the feuding USL professional league, featuring 15 teams, and the rival 8 team North American Soccer League (NASL), are vying for status with the USSF (the national governing body). Even with these two leagues factored in, the only professional team in the region are the Atlanta Silverbacks, who play in the NASL. As the largest city in the area, Atlanta would most probably be the only credible candidate for an MLS franchise; for this to happen the Silverbacks will need to prove an appetite for football in a city dominated by professional and college gridiron football.
To put it into perspective, that’s one professional team in five states with a population of 28 million people, spread over a land mass of 250,000 square miles (England covers 50,000 square miles).
The highest standard played in most of these states is the USL Premier Development League, the top amateur association in the US. At this level you will find sides like the Baton Rouge Capitals and Nashville Metros competing in the Southern Conference. Matches are played in front of a crowds ranging from a few hundred to a couple of thousand. A respectable level of interest, but even within the geographical boundaries of the Southern Conference, the distances dwarf those faced in European amateur leagues. It’s a bit like asking amateur sides from Cornwall to play in the same division as teams from Aberdeenshire, only further away. For example, Baton Rouge face a 1,500 mile round trip to play West Texas. These fixtures would be a non-starter in the UK, but to Americans such distances are just a reality of life.
The distance is surely a barrier for fans though. It might explain why some areas of the US are soccer hotspots, and others aren’t. The United States could win the world cup and there would still be large chunks of the country where the sport was of little importance, but that shouldn’t be hard to comprehend. After all, when England won the rugby world cup the sport received a massive boost in profile, but domestically it hasn’t really expanded much beyond its traditional heartlands.
It may be a peculiar English trait to obsess over the number of professional teams. Perhaps a gradual expansion of the amateur game is the most sustainable and sensible option for tapping into America’s growing interest in soccer. A gradual expansion of USL, with more teams in smaller regional conferences, might ease the burden on the amateur sides and help to foster a more familiar fan culture, with more supporters travelling to watch their team, and a more visible presence that mainstream America will find harder to ignore.