2011 marks my 15th year following Arsenal and the Premier League. While that may not sound impressive to many of the lifelong faithful from north London, it does mean that my support pre-dates the Wenger regime.
Over those 15 years my love for Arsenal has led me to start Arsenal America, the official U.S.-supporters club, and I’ve been fortunate enough to write for the official Arsenal magazine, be interviewed by the BBC and even player on the impeccable Emirates Stadium pitch as part of one of Arsenal’s supporters’ club tournaments (we lost in the finals).
It was this love of a football club from the other side of the Atlantic that helped change the course of my professional career as well. My love and knowledge of the game were essential in my role as a marketing communications professional. Working on behalf of clients such as MasterCard and Gillette, I was on-site for FIFA World Cups in South Korea / Japan and Germany; the European Championships in Holland and Belgium and the UEFA Champions League finals in Milan.
I’ve worked closely with legends of the game like Lothar Matthaus, Sir Bobby Charlton, newly appointed U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and of course, El Rei, the Brazilian known the world over as Pele.
As the new EPL season kicks off I think about what has changed for a fan of European football here in the States. The change has been quite significant since I first started rooting for the Gunners. The biggest impact of course has been the Internet. Football fandom here in the States is quite different. Office conversation rarely revolves around the exploits of Wayne Rooney or the latest transfer sagas. U.S. fans often felt isolated, if not ostracized. But sites like BigSoccer.com and blogs, both for teams or the game in general changed that. Now hopping online became the equivalent of popping down to your local. Suddenly that feeling of community that Gooners in N17 feel naturally could be approximated here in the States. Believe me the passion was there, we just needed the outlet.
The other big change has come on the TV side. It’s now relatively easy to watch the highest levels of world soccer on just about any day of the week in the States. Gol TV, Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN all carry games live from England, Spain, Germany and Italy. Regional sports networks live MSG in New York carry programming from Arsenal TV in addition to showing games. This degree of content was unheard of 15 years ago. As a marketing communications professional I’m excited about the coming convergence of broadcast programming and social media. The recent Arsenal – Udinese Champions League qualifying match was one of the highest ranked sports events of that week for social media engagement according to Social Guide, a company that looks on content appearing on social networks related to TV-based content.
A final area of interest is of course the numerous pre-season “tours” of America undertaken by European clubs. From the “Champions World Tour” series of nearly 10 years ago, to this summer’s “World Football Championships,” clubs like Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Juventus and the Old Firm have been playing to crowds often in excess of 50,000 people in stadiums all across the U.S. Over the years, I’ve met with several of the top clubs who came to my agency, looking for insight into how to “break into” the U.S. market. They’ve come with different plans but ultimately I think they’ve all failed to make the impact they were hoping to (remember that ManU-Yankees partnership?).
Why? Many reasons I suppose. Certainly, there is no shortage of sports in America to keep us occupied. We tend to like to root for Americans in “foreign” sports – Mario Andretti is still probably the only F1 driver most Americans can name and the Tour de France only counted when Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong were winning it. But really I think the problem was that these teams expected to come in to the U.S. open up shop and start raking in the dollars. They didn’t realize the work on the ground that was going to be required.
Football in the U.S. will never be football in the U.S. but it continues to grow. Last season I attended a NY Red Bulls match with over 200 other Arsenal fans from around the country. After the
match, the Red Bulls star striker Thierry Henry, gave us a private audience, answering questions for nearly 40 minutes. The MLS recently signed a new and improved television deal. The future of football in America may no longer be the future, it’s the present.