Fan Culture / Featured / Local

Converting the unwashed masses

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

So I’m one of those people who brought five or more newbies to Philadelphia Union games last year.

When Adam posted the poll earlier this week, I was surprised to find I wasn’t the only one. Over 25 percent of the 128 people who took the poll took that many too. That says something about American soccer.

Yes, random people can become Major League Soccer fans.

All those I brought came away having enjoyed the games. None were clear soccer fans beforehand, but none were soccer haters either. Their experiences and profiles may tell a bit about some untapped potential out there.

Patrick, 39

My buddy, Patrick, played middle linebacker for his high school football team and then went on to become a part-time stage actor, full-time tech guru and die-hard Phillies fan. He knew I played soccer every weekend, and he was looking for something to do to get in shape. You better start running or biking first before playing soccer, I told him. He did — and he did.

When I went for season tickets though, I kept him in mind, and when he learned we could get season tickets for just $300, he went in with me and my buddy, Bekele, for three seats. As it turned out, Bekele ended up only going to a few games during the season. He is Ethiopian and has a lifelong love of the game, but he just didn’t always have time.

Patrick kept coming to games though. He clearly liked the game play, but he also liked the atmosphere and something interesting to do with friends. He’d never been a soccer fan before, and it was a unique experience at the stadium. It was also close to where he lives in nearby Havertown, so it was convenient. Plus, you’re in and out in two hours.

He liked the experience enough that he even wrote up his own Union song as an alternative to the Doop thing. Needless to say, it didn’t catch on.

Patrick’s going to the L.A. Galaxy match in May without me. The bastard.

Bryan, 33

Bryan’s a big New York Rangers and Mets fan, but for the first 12 years I’d known him, I had no idea he’d ever kicked a soccer ball. As it turned out, he had, but he hadn’t paid attention to the sport in nearly 20 years.

He was visiting in Philly the weekend of the home opener last year at the Linc, so he came to the game.

Like everyone else there, he totally got into it, though he seemed pretty surprised that he did. The Union were playing well, and the fans were going nuts.

And then there were those nutty guys going crazy the whole game.

Who are those guys, Bryan asked. The Sons of Ben, I explained. As he watched them curse out opponents, chant the whole game, generally go insane, Bryan fell in love. It might have been platonic, but he was hooked. Those guys are awesome, he said. The Brooklyn part of him really appreciated the abuse they heaped on D.C. United. I think the Army veteran in him liked it too.

When the D.C. United fans started throwing beer and bottles down at Union fans from the upper tier, he liked it that much more. I explained to him that the Linc doesn’t sell water bottles with the caps on. He thought it was because they wanted to prevent people from throwing caps. I said, Nuh uh. It’s because the caps keep the water in the bottle and make it more aerodynamic, thereby creating it a superior projectile weapon to an open bottle. He was pretty impressed. New Yorkers have an instinctive disdain toward Philly sports fans, but Bryan found some kindred spirits that day at the Linc.

Nick, 12

Nick had never been to a soccer match, and he didn’t play soccer. But we had an extra ticket one day (I forget which game) when Bekele couldn’t make it, so we took Patrick’s nephew, Nick.

Well, Nick’s a quiet kid, and for most of the game, you couldn’t tell whether he was into it or not. He had this sort of deer-in-the-headlights thing going on, this blank look that made you wonder what was going on upstairs, if anything. Then a goal got scored. Then another. The crowd’s going nuts, and finally an expression emerges on Nick’s face. Is it a smile? Is it enjoyment? Excitement? Seriously, the kid should play poker.

Then something happened in the stands. Yelling between fans, FU this, up yours that, shove it up your hole there, how about we take it outside there. Beer’s spilling, curses are flying, two teams are fighting like hell on the field, the ref’s making bad calls so we’re yelling at the ref, and suddenly, it became obvious: Nick was having a blast.

Yes, we should have known. Cross ultimate fighting with soccer, and you’ll hook every 12-year-old boy in America.

Patrick got Nick a Union jersey to bring home with him, but the kid was still quiet. I pressed him on whether he liked the game, and he gave the typical 12-year-old boy’s answer: “Yeah.” And that was about all the elaboration I was going to get.

A few weeks later, I picked Patrick up in Havertown for another game. Nick was outside with a soccer ball and a Union jersey. Yep, confirmed: A convert.

Lavinia, 34

My wife is Brazilian, so she has a certain appreciation for the beautiful game. No, she doesn’t play the game. She doesn’t even watch it regularly. Rather, she’s like most Brazilians: Basically, any excuse to have a party is good enough for her, and there’s no party like a soccer party in Brazil. She doesn’t really know anything about the game (she thinks the Brazilian league is better than the European leagues) and wouldn’t go to a game without me unless there was a World Cup party involved.

Admittedly, she’s not that difficult a convert at a Union game. She loves the Sons of Ben because they remind her of the crazy fans in Brazil, but she also has that hardcore Philly way about her that really loves to tell someone off to their face — you know, sort of like the SoBs do every game. There are tons of people at soccer matches, so it’s kind of like a big party. The game doesn’t take too long, so she’s inclined to stay and watch. Yeah, she’s pretty simple. I can take her to any game I want. (I even took her to a Galaxy match while we were in Los Angeles last year.) So yeah, I’m not going to devote too much space to her. Brazilians are easy converts.

Avalon, 13

I took my stepdaughter to a couple games last season. She has dual American-Brazilian citizenship, so soccer is in her DNA — sort of.  As with my wife, she doesn’t really love the game for the game itself, though she enjoys playing it (but isn’t very good).  She’s more an artist. And she can get bored very easily.

When I took her to the Toronto game last year, she practically fell asleep during the first half. Literally. I mean droopy eyes, nodding head. True, she’d stayed up late the night before when staying over a friend’s house, so she was short on sleep, but seriously, falling asleep at a sports match?

Well, it was a boring first half. I couldn’t blame her. Negative soccer turns me off too.

Add to that the fact that she didn’t like the Sons of Ben because of the cursing. We teach her not to curse, and there they were, cursing out the goalie every goal kick. Why? What good did it do? What’s the point? She’s not a stuffy kid, but I could see it made her uncomfortable. So sleeping through that? Maybe not such a bad thing.

Then the second half started. Yawn, sniff, anyway. And —

GOAL! Orozco scores! Heads in a corner from Le Toux!

The stadium explodes with joy. Everyone’s going nuts. Cheering, yelling, singing, music, excitement, raw passion.

Well, guess who wakes up?

From that moment on, she was into the game as much as anyone, jumping to her feet on close plays, joining us in cheering, and the like. The game picked up, Toronto dug in, and the play got fast and fluid. When Toronto equalized, she was as crushed as everyone else. And when Jack McInerney won a penalty, she joined everyone else in a long cheer, then quieted with anticipation as Sebastien Le Toux lined up the penalty kick. He scored, and we all went nuts, including her.

When she flew to Brazil with her grandmother two weeks later to spend a few months there relearning Portuguese, she made sure she brought her Union jersey. She wanted to make sure everyone in Belo Horizonte knew that, when it comes to soccer, Philly represents.

Conclusion

So what’s this tell you? What’s the thesis?

Hell if I know, exactly. But it’s probably something like this.

Casual fans can be converted if they’re open-minded enough to give it a chance. If you get them to the game and provide entertaining soccer — the park-the-bus stuff won’t fly — and a great fan atmosphere, like the one PPL offers, you’ll get people. Their tolerance for a bad soccer experience is less than someone who loves the game. But the fact is that there simply is no American sports experience like big-time soccer, largely because of the atmosphere. Hockey comes closest, but it’s indoors. For soccer, you get those beautiful summer afternoons — and the beautiful game.

I know all you lifelong soccer fans say that you don’t need to convert anyone to the game. Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant. The point is — If you can, then why not?

After all, I’m a convert too.

4 Comments

  1. your friend’s song is much better than the doop song

  2. that’s great stuff, Dan. I brought eight newbies with me to one game last year, and the all had a great time. I was only really concerned with one guy having fun. Well, he bought a Union hat and can’t wait to go to a game with me this year.

    My wife isn’t a huge fan, so I plan on bringing a few more newbies to games this year.

  3. Good stuff. I’ve brought several newbies to Union or USMNT games, but honestly it seems more important to me to convert the sit-on-their-hands fans into real soccer fans than to bring in newbies.

  4. I brought… 4 newbies over the course of last year.
    This year, I got a second season ticket specifically for bringing more people along. So far I’ve brought just one more, but today’s game I’m bringing THREE (due to friends unable to make it), and Chicago one more.
    Two of today’s are diehard Phillies fans, so we shall see how they enjoy it in The River End.

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