Part four in a series.
In part one we saw ESPN analyst Rich Luker explaining that in the 12-24 demographic, soccer is already bigger than any sport except American football. In part three, we saw that the bright young entrepreneurs driving MLS are tightly focused on the sport's emerging supporter culture, which in some places already rivals just about anything you see in Europe.
In Portland, Paulson sat through a debriefing with his new team's previous owners. "They were baseball guys who told me about the Timbers Army and simply said, 'Be careful of those guys. It is an us-and-them situation. Whatever you do, stay out of their section.' It took going to one game for me to realize they were one of the best things we had going. They were organized, authentic and had the makings of a real historic supporters movement. We opened up lines of communication with an approach that made it clear: We may not always agree with you, but we will always respect you."
"I quickly learned that soccer is not like other sports where the fans just care about winning," Paulson concludes. "Here they care about everything. Once I tried to change the logo without any input and practically had a mutiny."
The guy in the seat next to me on that flight I mentioned in part three? He told me all about that infamous Timbers logo dustup. He was proud that the Timbers Army was able to work with ownership to reach an accord on the club's brand, which he felt belonged to the fans. In other words, everything Paulson is telling ESPN here is dead accurate from the perspective of a TA section leader.
These supporters groups are under-30s, too, which means they're going to be around awhile. The Millennial generation takes a lot of flak for its failings, but they're born organizers and are instinctively communal. As such, they're extremely comfortable in the kinds of collective, collaborative environments that surround successful soccer fanbases around the world.
They're also the most diverse generation the nation has ever seen culturally and ethnically. They relish the opportunity to be more global than their predecessors. And they have a dramatically different relationship with spectator sports than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Back to that ESPN post noted above:
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The U.S. soccer audience is also unique in Luker's eyes. "It is a true community. The only group that comes close are college sports fans or followers of the Grateful Dead. They embrace soccer as a communal lifestyle as opposed to a personal experience or a community that only exists on gameday."
Luker's analysis has revealed the reason soccer fandom tends to be expressed on a 24/7 basis. "Soccer was originally an expression of national identity in hotbeds like the United Kingdom or Brazil," he said. "So that seed has been imported and sown here in the United States."
Through decades of study, Luker was able to pinpoint the exact moment soccer's built-in early advantage traditionally evaporated. "The game was massive up to the age of 13, when sport was all about bonding with male peers, but in middle school, it became all about cross-bonding with other genders and high school football shot right to the top," he said. "You simply can't beat the social lubrication of the homecoming football game."Soccer's social perception was further weakened by the sport's stigmatization in the 1990s. "Middle school kids were seen to lack the guts to play one of the big sports -- baseball, football, or basketball -- preferring to play soccer, the sport their moms were pushing."
But the sporting tectonic plates have shifted. America's cultural diversification, increasingly globalized outlook, and widespread access to the Internet all have benefitted soccer more than the other more traditional American sports. "In the last two years, Americans have been exposed to elite soccer on a very regular basis, which has allowed us to appreciate the sport and develop a savvy about it in a way we could not before," Luker said.
The impact of these factors has been as powerful as they are simple. "Kids growing up today gain cachet and social currency by knowing about the sport," Luker said. The old stigma has fallen away. Pride and esteem have become attached to the game for the first time as Americans have collectively undergone a "now we understand what it is all about" moment. It is only a matter of time 'til we see soccer take off in a big way."
Add all this to a new generation of smart, innovative owners who grasp the value of an organic, grassroots audience and you're onto something.
Pretty good turnout for the Rocky Mountain Blues (Denver), given that it's a 6am kick time for a preseason match.
Next: If you win it, they will come....
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