Comparing Apples and Oranges: A brief note on consuming sports

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A little while ago my brother alerted me to the MLS commissioned anthems proposing to rock stadia from New England to Los Angeles. In his brief piece for Entertainment Weekly, Chris questions if forced fandom will translate into a vibrant scene on the American terraces. His notions follow an interest we have in the inorganic hyping of spectator sports in the Nation. The constant struggle to brand and forge brilliant fan experiences often dilutes the power of the sport as a valuable source of entertainment.

For the first time in its short history, the MLS has been somewhat inescapable. Pundits fumble over the intricacies of football, all in hopes of offering dazzling sound bites about the sports most recognizable face — David Beckham. The man who football fans have watched change haircuts as much as he bends balls hasn’t failed to capture a little attention in American media, and again has people wondering if soccer will properly root itself as a major professional sport. In the truest literary sense of the word his relocation has sparked sensation.

Even our favorite trend setting blog spots (here is my obligatory nod to streetwear), were bitten by the bug, debuting the Galaxy’s new Adidas kit on their pages. The jersey isn’t notable at all besides being worn by Beckham. In my memory only one jersey has ever graced these sites before, the LV inspired PSG shirt of last year. That made sense; it reflected a merger of leisure wear and couture (athletic apparel always having some link to streetwear). There wasn’t the stink of over promotion.

I am almost ashamed to say that Beckham’s arrival in LA has made me interested in the league for the first time. I was among the many that bad mouthed the play in the MLS without ever even watching a full match. Having now viewed several matches, I can safely comment that it is indeed pretty crap. But, nonetheless I have been entertained. The 5-4 victory of the New York Red Bull (a really bothersome name for so many reasons) over Beckham’s Galaxy was extraordinarily amusing. Matches without Beckham featuring DC United or the Red Bull’s young striker Jozy Altidore have secured some interest. While neither will supplant Arsenal from my affection, they have filled the void on the occasional Saturday night.

The branding of professional football in America is undeniable; there is even a book about it, Brand NFL by Michael Oriard a professor at Oregon State. An advantage the NFL has, no surprise, comes in people growing up knowing how to be a football fan. The MLS, as my brother suggests, has only vague notions of how fans act in Europe and South America to guide it. Sure this results in excited sounds and a minor sense of community, but does not adequately foster an idea of how the game is supposed to be played at a professional level. I very loosely view soccer in America being similar to basketball in the UK. Both sports are marginalized and have recently received a boost, albeit very different, from a notable athlete.

In contrast to the Beckham hype, Chicago Bulls standout Luol Deng quietly debuted for Great Britain a few weeks back. His fledgling international career has started with a string of strong performances, and as little attention as seems possible for true NBA star. His decision to play for Britain is somewhat baffling. There is little glory in international basketball to begin with, and for Deng the major task is actually carrying Britain into the “A” division of European play, not even battling for a medal. Each summer, Deng travels back to Brixton in South London to play and teach on the court where he got his start. Like his international caps, this act yields limited publicity. In both cases he comes home to help out, raising the profile of the game simply by playing.

British Basketball doesn’t really have much going for it. The most notable event revolving around an Englishman and the sport has been John Amechi’s decision to come out. Despite a clear lack of glamor, the people that love basketball in Britain are filled with genuine passion. My lone attendance at a BBL game was to see former Cal player Randy Duck, and I am happy to report I was the only member of the crowd excited to view a single competitor. The rest were there to watch, share time with family, and for the serious players, to discover a few new tricks. Merchandising was kept to a minimum, the court was far less impressive than many Indiana high school venues and by virtue of proximity to a giant pool the whole event was cloaked in a powerful smell of chlorine. It was really just about the game, nothing more. Spectators simply learning, slowly, to appreciate the sport, free of forced revelry and inorganic marketing ploys.

I have just compared apples and oranges. Yet, a lesson remains in the distinction between forced and natural growth. Soccer (universally misunderstood as an Americanism, when it is actually derived from English school boy slang) has grown rapidly at the grass roots level. While a viable professional league will certainly bolster the sports profile, contrived tournaments like the SuperLiga and red carpet entrances for celebrities at Home Depot field are disingenuous. Where it is a delight to watch a player like Deng take a risk to give back, the only striking things about Beckham’s arrival have been his graceful free kicks… sadly, the very Sports Center type highlight clip that fails to adequately capture the tenor of the beautiful game.

One final note for today in memory of the passing of Pavarotti and his indelible mark on my football watching life:

I will always remember Pavarotti not for his performances, but for a story once told by Ron Williams. Nessun Dorma had served as the BBC’s official world cup song for Italia 90, and Ron claims this had profound impact on local youth. One afternoon, Ron claims he was confronted by the brilliant sounds of a child choir outside. Peering through the window Ron found a rogue assortment of young men belting out Nessun Dorma. The song completed, they prepared for kick off. Whether true, or not, this story always comes to mind when I see Pavarotti and hear the song. Today is a sad day and my tears will only be matched by those of Gazza as he was forced to leave the pitch during the tournament that brought the great singer to my attention.


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