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Big Box United

Of all the people on the train, the one I wanted to talk to the most was the middle-aged man with the graying goatee, traveling with wife and two children. He and his son were wearing Chelsea jerseys. It’s not rare to see folks around Chicago in soccer gear, but considering this train and most of its occupants were heading toward Soldier Field, where Manchester United were to take on the Chicago Fire, those two Wayne Rooney made out of Amazon boxesbold blue shirts stuck out. I tried to catch up with them as we disembarked, but couldn’t weave through the crowd quickly enough without them or someone else.

What I wanted to ask them was simply, why? Why pay dearly to see one of the chief rivals of the team you appear to prefer? Of course, they could have been Fire fans – they wouldn’t have been the only ones – but then, why wear the gear of a third party? I’m not being snarky. I genuinely wanted to know. It looked like an act of open contrarianism, and I wanted to hear the story.

Whatever their particular reasons, though, the Family Chelsea weren’t alone. Soldier Field is a mile’s walk from the nearest subway stop, and as I hiked it I saw Barcelona and AC Milan tops, in addition to both Man United and the Fire of course. There was a souvenir trailer selling more Chelsea gear, England shirts and Chicago Cubs purses, and I passed Cesc Fabregas walking down Roosevelt Rd. There was a young man in an Abby Wambach US Womens National Team top. In the parking lot outside the stadium, there were even more of all of those (except Fabregas – he was not tailgating apparently) as well as kids in Arsenal shirts and adults in Mexico ones.

That last isn’t so surprising, I suppose, considering that Chicharito has become a national hero in short order, but the rest were a curiosity. If I were a better writer, I would have asked someone about it, but really, the answer was obvious. For those people, the ones who had no real stake in either of the two teams competing, this was all about the spectacle. One of the biggest names in sports was playing in one of the biggest markets in the country. There would be international stars, and there would be famous people, and there would be hotdogs. President Obama was rumored to have been in attendance. To my eyes, though – which are admittedly critical and cynical and a mottled green that hints at some deeper, darker power – the presence of so many conflicting interests pointed to something else.

In an unintended coincidence of history, Major League Soccer launched just as the information revolution was gaining steam. 15 years later, fans of the game can watch a match on the dark side of the planet more easily than they can get out to see the local team. All those kids playing in AYSO and church leagues, the mythical Generation That Grew Up With MLS – they didn’t become FC Dallas fans or New England Revolutions fans. They became Manchester United and Barca and Real Madrid fans. The local outfits are losing out to international super brands.

There’s a word for this.

We usually think of globalization in corporate terms: Coca-Cola in Costa Rica, Starbucks in Shanghai. It’s difficult to think of the spread of a game in the same way. It’s bad when Shell Oil lays waste to the Nigerian coast, but the spread of football from its roots in England to every continent seems much more benign. The export of baseball to Japan and Korea, the Caribbean and Central America seems like a phenomenon that would unite humankind, not destroy it. Philosophers and FIFA like to talk about soccer’s ability to transcend borders and cultures, and indeed, the universality of the game can do just that. It’s an international language, to borrow a cliché.

But it’s 2011, and the language of the day isn’t a sport at all. It’s money. If the Cubs purses aren’t proof enough, take the private, catered and tableclothed “tailgate” areas for Harp Lager and Aon (the very globalized mega-super-insurance company that currently adorns Manchester United kits), or the designated entrance for Aon brass. Inside the stadium, everything, and I mean everything, was sponsored.

Every inch of concrete and LED board surrounding the field was covered in one corporate logo or another. Advertisements adorn even the most modest sports venues, I know, but here they were stacked one upon the other, like rows of branded shark teeth. Before kick off, a handful of lucky kids dragged a yellow DHL tarp over the center circle. At half time, it was Herbalife. The whole damn tournament was Herbalife, as in “The Herbalife World Football Challenge.” You could practically see the money changing bank accounts in the air above the field, like poor Mike Teevee in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

It’s no surprise that there’s money to be made here. I’m not going to bemoan the capitalization of sports (I’d be right, but it’s too late for all of that). What I will bemoan is where all that capital goes. There were some 61,000 spectators that day, the largest crowd to ever witness a Chicago Fire game. It’s hard to estimate how many were actually there to witness the Fire, but it’s fair to say it was not the majority. Fire home games at Toyota Park draw a quarter as many people on a good day. Capacity there is just over 20,000, and hasn’t been sold out yet this year. The disparity is glaring, and troubling.

All the capital whizzing about above Soldier Field didn’t go to the Fire. They had to pay Manchester United a handsome sum (in the millions) for the privilege of losing to them in their own city. The sponsorship deals festooning the stadium were no doubt intended to offset that cost, but it’s still seems a risky proposition. Manchester United, you can be sure, made money on the trip. Beyond the fee paid by the Fire, they must have moved a metric ton of merchandise on the day, and probably shared in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue. They were the big draw after all.

The Fire, on the other hand, would have been hoping to break even on the day, and catch a windfall of a few more butts in Toyota Park seats in the second half of the season. Considering that the Fire was the only team to score against United on the tour, and played more handsomely than the MLS All Star team, it might actually work. But the potential monetary gain is relatively small, and the term long. There may be less tangible benefits, but it was an awfully expensive way to get the team’s name in the news for a week. That the local club should have to go to such lengths to get attention from supposed fans of the game, well, there’s the thing.

A particularly loathed symptom of globalization is the removal of money from local economies into multinationals. Historically, that flow has moved out of Africa, say, or Latin America, and into the United States and Western Europe. But in the case of soccer, it’s the American interests that lose out. Every time someone forgoes the hometown MLS team for one of the European superclubs, it’s money drained away from the local outposts of the game. It’s money not spent in American stadiums and American shops; it’s money that leaves.

It’s a little bit ironic that America globalized the world, and the world’s game is now returning the favor – bitterly ironic, if your local club is out-drawn in their own home by one sporting Exxon or another (later this summer, Chicago will host CD Guadalajara at Toyota Park, and if past friendlies against popular Mexican teams are anything to go by, that too will be an inverted crowd). It would be unoriginal of me to comment that if only those 60,000 spectators came to Chicago Fire games on a regular basis, then there’d be money to spend and validation to be had. It’s not going to happen – not soon anyway. There is something about the American psyche that demands access to the best. Our exceptionalism looks outward, not inward. Having the best, being near the best, means you are the best. The appearance of wealth trumps the presence of stable, modest economics, whether in the home, on Capitol Hill, or in our sporting allegiances.

A few days after the Manchester United circus, I drove from Chicago to Ohio to see another friendly between an MLS team and an English Premier League side. Newcastle United played the Columbus Crew on a Tuesday evening, and it couldn’t have been a more dissimilar affair. The mid-week scheduling didn’t help much, nor did the market. The Columbus metropolitan area is approximately 1/8th the size of Chicago’s and, despite the presence of a large university, is considerably less cosmopolitan. The result: an announced attendance of 11,224, perhaps a thousand of which were fans of the visiting Magpies.

There were no extra sponsorships or ads in the stadium, no extra fanfare. The in-stadium announcer from the English team’s home stadium didn’t do a guest spot during halftime, as had happened at Soldier Field. The meager crowd was largely tame. Columbus’ supporters section began to lose steam as the game wore on and a Newcastle victory became imminent. The away fans were mostly Americans who have lost out in the sweepstakes of arbitrary long-distance fandom, and as such, were disorganized and had a limited repertoire. It was a failed attempt at mimicking the Habits of Highly Successful Clubs.

It was an unspectacular affair, and will pass from my memory even though the team I was ostensibly there to see won (I never said I was immune to the lure of Big Show). The game at Soldier Field, though, that was a doozy. If we’re fortunate enough to have a Chicago Fire Soccer Club in 50 years, I’ll tell my grandchildren about it as the Fire take the field in their new Aon-sponsored kits. I’ll tell them about how Cory Gibbs scored against the greatest team in the world back before the UK was an archipelago flooded out by rising seas. It was a goal scored in the face of the easy commodification of fandom, a goal scored for the little guys, the mom and pops, the village farmers. And my grandkids, they’ll tell me I’m full of shit. That I’m delusional and nostalgic. That MLS had been striving to be everything Manchester United was from the very beginning. But I’ll turn down the volume on my hearing aid and remember the good old days, back when the Fire’s jerseys just said “Fire.”

Benjamin Kumming is a writer living in Chicago. He blogs at about the art and science of books, soccer, food, and other good things.

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Big Box United

by Benjamin Kumming · August 15, 2011

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