Thursday, April 5, 2007

Food's Still My Passion

Despite the stated purpose of this blog, it is a blog, and since the only bread I've been making recently has been unleavened cornmeal cakes (called tortillas), I need to broaden the scope. The obvious place to look is to the other dishes I make on an almost daily basis to feed myself, but I'm going to look instead at football.

That's soccer, rubes.

Actually, I quite like the word soccer, especially given its history and the general level of scorn the English have for it.

Anyway, I'm growing increasingly tired of the talk of how to increase the fanbase of MLS*. The Designated Player Rule--which allows teams to sign one player of whose salary, only $400,000 counts towards the rather tight league-mandated salary cap--is supposed to allow greater publicity (by bringing in world-famous stars) without threatening the still tenuous economics of MLS. The DP Rule is just the largest example of a widely held belief that there are things which the league can and should be doing to increase the fanbase.

I think this mentality is completely misguided. It reminds me of the belief which is so intrinsic to many evangelical churches: If you advertise your product (spirituality, soccer, or a combination of the two) in the right way, you will have to beat people away as they swamp your organization with intense curiosity and undying support. There's often little doubt that the curiosity will immediately become support.

Come on! Who are you kidding? Is there a single person, ever, who was attracted to a church (when they weren't actively looking for a church to join) by a giant black-on-yellow billboard proclaiming "Jesus." and an address? You sports fans who read this--which I'd assume is no one--were you attracted to the sport you're most interested in by advertising? In other words, before you were interested in football (the common type) or baseball, were you attracted to the sport through advertising put out by the sports teams?

Of course not! I am a baseball fan because my parents had me play Little League, my childhood friends all played, and my best friends back home are all fans. It's not because the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 (although that did reignite my interest). Sure, I'm a White Sox fan because the team signed Bo Jackson in 1990, for the same year I moved from Kansas City to Chicago, but I already liked baseball because it's what people around me watched. Similarly, I got into soccer in high school because the people I thought were cool and unrube-like played soccer and because I worshipped European culture (things changed). I thought that supporting soccer was cool because of the people I saw around me who were into soccer. Even with MLS, the reason I'm a fan has nothing to do with advertising by the team. I had only the vaguest notions that Chicago had a soccer team. But, after my year in England, I was looking for a place to vent my new-found enthusiasm; I wanted to yell and sing like the English had done during the World Cup. I actively searched out the Fire, and that's the first time that advertising from the team could have helped.

That's right: the first time that the team or MLS had any part in getting me to go to those three matches last summer and buy a strip was after I already had zeal for 1) soccer in general 2) being a fan of soccer and 3) supporting my local club. The further thing I want to point out is that I developed that zeal purely from interactions with the people around me, mostly my friends. I would suspect that the same is true for most people.

MLS and US Soccer will not be able to get 100 million Americans to start supporting the clubs and national team through any amount of advertising and press. However, I can get maybe one or two people to start paying more attention to soccer through conversations with friends. (Incidentally, the same is true of religious conversion and church attendance; see Rodney Stark.) The other thousand strong supporters of the Fire in Chicagoland, too, can talk with their friends and, slowly, Section 8 (the Fire supporters' group) will grow. In ten years, maybe it will be 1400, or maybe it'll be 3000, but I'd bet that every one of those 400 or 2000 new fans will have come to support the Fire through a personal relationship with another supporter, not through a billboard advertising David Beckham's hot visage.

But what do I know? I'm just your average bread-baking genius.



* MLS, for all you rubes I've already addressed once, is Major League Soccer and is generally thought of as the premier soccer league in the United States (and now Canada). USL, or the United Soccer Leagues, make up the second and third tiers, with the USL First and Second Divisions. Both MLS (properly referred to without an article) and USL (likewise) were founded following a FIFA (that's the international oversight committee for soccer) requirement that went along with the World Cup being awarded to the US in 1994. Both MLS and USL are about 15 years old and have suffered from underwhelming fan support, teams often having about 12000 fans at games in all but the largest markets (DC, LA, sometimes Chicago).

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