American fans love European football precisely because it isn’t like US sport

US owners were at the forefront of the push for the European Super League, even if they risked alienating fans on both sides of the Atlantic
American fans love European football precisely because it isn’t like US sport

Liverpool fans Beryl Meland and grandson Archie outside Anfield as Liverpool ended a 30-year title drought. Picture: Martin Rickett

As an American sports fan, I’ve enjoyed following the Premier League for the exact reason that it is not so American, with no playoffs or salary caps, no single trademarked Big Game of the Year, no buzzers (or guns) at the end of periods. Transfer windows and offsides took a while for me to figure out, but I am now all in. Or so I thought before this week.

I started following Tottenham Hotspur because it was a funny name for a sports team – at least to an American. Four years ago, I got tickets to a Premier League match between Spurs and host Crystal Palace at cramped, weather-worn Selhurst Park in south London. It was an experience unlike any NFL game, beginning with a train ride – no tailgating – with hundreds of other fans, already singing and drinking.

Palace and Spurs fans were separated by a moat of empty seats and a line of rent-a-cops, but the back-and-forth between the fans was hilarious and generally good-natured. Spurs won, 1-0, after a late, long-range effort that somehow skipped past the Palace keeper, but there was a pleasant, well-that-was-entertaining buzz in the streets back to the train station.

Then there was the third-round FA Cup match Spurs played earlier this year at tiny Marine FC, an eighth-tier club. Tottenham won comfortably, no surprise, but the best photo from the game was of Covid-restricted fans sipping wine while watching the match from their backyards.

The only thing that comes close to that in the US is the occasional college basketball game between Division I and Division III teams. But those are tune-up games at the start of a season, and there is no 150-year-old trophy on the line. NFL teams would never play “semi-pro” teams of weekend warriors. It hurts the brand.

Baseball has no shortage of nostalgia of course, but the charming and tradition-rich English football culture includes a quirky infrastructure, with an annual promotion/relegation drama and jousting among top Premier League teams for titles and European competitions – the next year. Most teams always seem to be playing for something, even if it is just to beat their rival.

The idea of a European Super League pretty much trashed that infrastructure. It bothers me that three of the six English clubs who were threatening to bolt (Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United) have American owners, with another (Tottenham) staging NFL games at its gleaming, multi-use stadium. Moreover, the project was to be financed by the US investment bank JP Morgan Chase, who had committed €3.25bn to the project and promised each Super League club a “welcome bonus” of €200m-300m.

The whole idea fell apart on Tuesday when all six English clubs pulled out, citing overwhelming negative public reaction. This made the whole proposal feel like a big, fat trial balloon – something that never would have happened in the NFL, which would have done plenty of surveys before announcing anything.

The Americans in the Super League mix should have known better. For one, all clubs in England have scrappy origins, receiving support from working-class fans for decades. The Americans also own US teams who have struggled at times, too. That made their apparent contempt for teams and their supporters who would not have had the privilege of being founding members of the ESL all the more galling.

Leeds United players wearing 'Football Is For The Fans' shirts during the warm up prior to kick-off of the Premier League match at Elland Road, Leeds. Picture: PA
Leeds United players wearing 'Football Is For The Fans' shirts during the warm up prior to kick-off of the Premier League match at Elland Road, Leeds. Picture: PA

Liverpool are owned by Fenway Sports Group, which also owns a Boston Red Sox franchise that did not win the World Series between 1918 and 2004. Arsenal are owned by the company launched by the American businessman Stan Kroenke, who presides over the Los Angeles Rams. Their only Super Bowl victory came 21 years ago, when they were based in St Louis, where they played for 21 years after moving from … Los Angeles.

A businessman named Malcolm Glazer surprisingly outbid George Steinbrenner in 1995 to buy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had won just 87 games in their first 19 seasons. The Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2003, dipped again but returned to the NFL pinnacle in February when Tom Brady helped them win the championship.

Glazer’s sons also own Manchester United, a team as hallowed as it gets, but you’d think just from the Bucs’ history that the family would be more sensitive to teams that have to scuffle just to stay competitive, or even in town, or alive. Glazer also out-bid Peter Angelos, the Orioles’ owner, who wanted to move the Bucs to Baltimore.

Malcolm Glazer was working on his autobiography in 2000 when he had an interview with the intended co-author, Allen St John. Glazer pointed to his son, then said, “You see those pants? Those are Hugo Boss pants. They cost $200.

“My pants? They came from JC Penney, $19.95 on sale. And you know something? I like my pants more than he likes his pants. You know why? Because I remember the day when I didn’t have $20 to spend on pants.”

Glazer died in 2014 but his sons obviously have not inherited their father’s solidarity with his humble roots.

English football is so captivating to Americans because it has been generally a joint effort, even though clubs’ objectives and balance sheets can look quite different. The Premier League has its faults when it comes to taking a large share of the money in English football, but it is no NFL, which destroys upstart leagues.

Indeed, I can’t help but think that the Super League idea was crafted with the potential of a larger American sports audience in mind. Name-brand matchups were to be guaranteed. There wouldn’t be any teams like Burnley or Fulham around (to spoil the script).

But there was a huge logistical problem. Any international league craves US interest. Because Super League games were to be played on midweek nights in Europe – afternoon workdays here – I could not see much bigger TV numbers in the US, where the Premier League is popular partly because its Saturday matches start mid-morning on the East Coast.

The rest of English football was to continue despite the ESL, with many of the elements remaining that make the culture of the sport so much fun. But the thought won’t perish that the best would have been playing elsewhere, most likely at higher ticket prices, as untouchable to most as a pair of Hugo Boss trousers – which now sell for $300, by the way.

- The Guardian

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