There has always been a tension in North American soccer between maintaining traditions and trying new things. In some ways, this tension has to do with the type of fans pro soccer on these shores seeks to attract. Fans more familiar with soccer in other countries may find innovations such as hockey-style shootouts to break ties distasteful while many fans less familiar with the game may appreciate not having to sit through what they see as “boring” ties. Several stories have come up this week which get at this tension.
While the general pattern in North American soccer has been toward the more traditional (shootouts RIP), the use of video evidence to retrospectively punish players in MLS has moved beyond measures that other leagues have taken. While video evidence has led to bans throughout European leagues, MLS has made the decision to punish players for incidents that referees see but choose not to punish during the game. This is contrast to the Premier League, for example, which only uses video evidence to punish incidents not reported by referees (much to the relief of one Mario Balotelli). This move by MLS, which is a huge break with the long-held tradition of not overruling the on-field decision of the referee, is a hugely significant one, and one which has already brought a great deal of controversy. This may not be the last of the use of technology within MLS, as league commissioner Don Garber also announced this week a willingness to serve as one of the first leagues to test goal line technology.
If MLS has broken from European traditions in its use of technology, it has followed them in its use of advertising on team uniforms. While these sponsorships have a long history in Europe, their use is far less common in North America. An article in the New York Times this week discussed the possibility of NBA teams having advertising on their uniforms. This move would make the NBA the first of the “big four” sports in North America (baseball, basketball, football, and hockey) to place sponsors on their uniforms. In many ways, I am surprised that European soccer teams did this before American professional teams. But then, I’ve long noticed, as have others, that European soccer is far more capitalistic than the big four sports in North America.
One team with sponsors not only on their uniforms but in their actual name is the New York Red Bulls. But as the Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson wrote this week, the team has struggled to find a place in the New York sports scene. Yet in many ways, the Red Bulls are the exception to the rule of MLS growth over the past few years. As Peter Wilt writes in an interesting comparison of MLS and the Australian A-League, the North American league has grown tremendously compared to its counterpart down under.
Part of the growth of MLS has come from improved marketing. Another part of the growth can be explained by the growth in organized supporters clubs. And as the San Antonio Scorpions of the NASL showed last weekend in their first ever game, which they sold out, getting fan buy-in is huge. Like the Sons of Ben, who formed in Philadelphia before that city had a pro team, San Antonio had supporters groups even before the team existed.
The Crocketteers, a group of soccer supporters founded in 2009, drew about 300 fans to its tailgate. They were one of three supporters groups at the game, along with the Alamo City Ultras and the Bexar County Casuals.
“This game is a three-year dream for us,” said Crocketteers founder Michael Macias. “We’re really indebted to [team owner] Mr. Hartman for making our dreams a reality.”
Is there any other place in the world — and I ask this not as a rhetorical question, but out of real curiousity – that forms fan clubs for teams that do not yet exist?