Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fandom





Brian’s recent brief explanation (last question) about how to pick an EPL team to root for got me to thinking. As some of you know, I’m an LFC fan and became one largely because it was the only professional club that we could get footage of when I was a kid (mostly via public TV and occasionally CBC) and that was largely because Liverpool was the dominant team of England’s first division at the time (late 70s/early 80s.) I knew of the other big clubs like Arsenal, but I mostly saw Liverpool so I developed an attachment for the Reds. I’ve been accused of having a similarity in my rooting interests for aged teams with great histories but little recent success to show for it, because Michigan is the same way. But that sentiment is accurate in that I had the geographic advantage of living in the state where one of the most successful college football programs in the history of the game happened to exist. I became a Michigan fan because that’s what I saw and one of the first things I vividly remember is the cool helmets compared to almost every other team that they played against. Coming full circle again, I remember thinking how distinctive the all-red kits of LFC were compared to their opposing numbers (young communist even then…)


But the point that Brian made that triggered this post is his measure of disdain for the “petrosheik” clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City (even though the former is owned by a Russian, not a ‘sheik’, it’s still oil money.) While both of the latter clubs have history in the Premier League (Chelsea’s considerably superior to City’s), their recent success is (ahem) fueled largely by their respective owners’ status as billionaires. This allows both clubs to spend vastly more than most of their rivals and, therefore, sweep up the world’s soccer talent and use it to create championship teams. The Premier League’s spending rules are fairly few; nothing like many American sports’ leagues salary caps or luxury taxes and certainly nothing like the Bundesliga’s defined spending limits, as most of those clubs are municipally-owned. That kind of largesse is looked upon by Brian and many others as, ironically, ‘cheap’ in that the club didn’t work to build its own development system or “play by the rules” in direct competition with its rivals, but instead bought its way to success. Consequently, they’re considered less viable from a fan interest standpoint because they’re seen as artificial and it’s assumed that a new fan would only be interested because they’re two of the best teams in the top division right now, rather than something more genuine. Of course, part of my attachment to teams like Liverpool and Michigan is the fact that they were very successful. That meant it was gratifying to watch them play, because they usually won, but it was also one of the main reasons that I saw them in the first place: lots of people wanted to see them because they usually won. Therefore, TV networks were glad to show them because the networks made money and they also paid out money to the teams in question, enabling Liverpool, at least, to pay more for players and Michigan to at least create better facilities under the NCAA’s artificial “amateurism” system.


Considering that the NCAA is currently wrestling with critics of that artificial system that prevents giving athletes a share of the money they’re earning and requires schools like Michigan, with vastly more resources and far greater fanbases with even more resources, to play by the same rules as the Ball States, the disgust with teams like City is a bit questionable from a college sports perspective. It’s not as if I don’t understand the reaction. I share it. Liverpool is one of the most successful teams in the history of both the Premier League and international soccer (although they haven’t won the home league in quite some time, just like Michigan…) Man City has long been a member of the top flight, but has almost always been an also-ran. Their recent run of success has been created entirely by their essential status as “Qatar FC”, as Brian refers to them. They lack anything remotely like the fanbase of LFC, Arsenal, or their crosstown rivals, Manchester United, but they’re the hot item of the moment because they’re winning with a lot of the talent from the Continent and South America, bought and paid for by oil money. It seems cheap, in a sports sense, that they simply tapped a few holes in the ground and are suddenly winning the League and competing for the Champions League title on a regular basis.

But, what, exactly is wrong with that?


When the stake is finally driven through the NCAA’s heart and some share of the billions in revenue is distributed to the players of major college football and basketball, it stands to reason that the archaic rules of amateurism in terms of recruiting will also be swept away. If that means that Michigan and its huge alumni base can suddenly bring their full powers to bear in terms of attracting talent, why wouldn’t they? Michigan, the school, can outspend all but a few other institutions. Based on occasionally quantifiable evidence, it seems that the world’s largest alumni organization can outspend anyone. If we can bring the best athletes here, would that make Michigan a different form of Man City?

The counter-argument is that Michigan, while playing by the rules, built up one of the largest and most devoted followings of any program via sustained success. Consequently, the school has money to spend because it won within the rules and isn’t winning because it has money (barring the fact that facilities and other incidentals generated from that success are pretty attractive to the average athlete.) Michigan, ostensibly, earned its fans the “honest” way and now benefits from succeeding in that effort to a degree greater than any other school. But is being a dyed-in-the-wool, “traditional” winner a better choice for a new fan than another school simply because that team has the institutional and historical advantages that other teams do not? Liverpool is in the same situation. Sustained success earned sufficient money and fan support to enable that success to be continued until LFC, too, was purchased by very wealthy Americans (former money managers and now sports, specifically the Red Sox, not oil) who now spend considerable amounts of money trying to keep the club at the elite level.


Contrasting again is the question of: What makes fandom worthwhile? Is it more satisfying to root for a little guy like Northwestern, long the stepchild of the Big 10 until achieving decent success in the last couple decades? Or for a Purdue, which has almost never been able to rise above the traditional powers of its league? Tottenham and Sunderland are good comparisons in the Premier League. But would you suggest that to a new fan, to immerse themselves in the frustration of watching an average or poor team simply because they’re the little guy and it might be extra satisfying once a decade when they make 5th place? Is it likewise a bad idea to suggest that they simply join the crowd and root for one of the other big powers, because that’s what so many other people do (the best example in this case from an EPL perspective being Man U over the past 20 years)?

I guess my answer to that would be: watch what you like. Watch a ton of EPL (or college football) and see which teams’ style you enjoy or which players you really like to see perform. That one is likely to be your favorite almost regardless of record. Winning will still affect things, of course, because people are naturally drawn to successful things. But it won’t be everything. As Brian notes, Chelsea, while enormously successful in recent years, plays godawful, suffocating, boring football. Man City, OTOH, plays an up-tempo, attacking style which is far more entertaining. From my own interest, I’m thankful that Liverpool’s current style is also the attacking game, as they’re striker-heavy. In contrast, watching Michigan’s team in the past couple years on both offense and defense has been an exercise in head-pounding against the nearest hard surface. I can imagine new fans of the game enjoying LFC on the field. I cannot say the same for Michigan, but I know there are plenty of other fans who would say otherwise, because that's essentially what fandom is about.

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