It’s a crisp autumn afternoon. Your team has just scored to take the lead. And on cue, you join thousands of others in song, drowning out the music that accompanies the words.
Now, here’s the question: What sport am I talking about?
If you said college football, you’re correct. This is especially true if you grew up in the South or the Midwest, but that scene is replayed in thousands of venues in all four corners of the country. Every college has a fight song, and I suspect that if I were to start whistling some of the more famous ones, you’d be able to hum right along.
But let’s say you’re not a college football fan. Fine. It’s the second weekend in March, and I strongly suspect that when you go to work this week – whether that’s remotely or not – a solid chunk of your time with your colleagues will revolve around filling out tournament brackets, and arguing about whether teams from Tucson, Durham, or Lexington have what it takes to win a title. You’ll toss in $10 or $20 into the pot, and in about a month, someone at your office will walk away with $200 or $300, maybe more.
At this point, you’re asking: Raf, why the hell are you talking about college sports on a soccer site? My answer is: Because we already have an incredibly strong, vibrant sporting culture, and as we create our own indigenous, American soccer culture, we don’t need to mimic that of other countries. We can draw upon ours instead.
How did we get here, though?
First, notice I emphasized college, not professional sports. That’s because pro sports arenas, generally speaking, have sound systems they use to pump in music during breaks in games. This goes all the way back to when the organs at baseball parks (and in some cases, indoor arenas) played musical cues that prompted fans to clap and cheer along. For that reason, fans didn’t need to fill in the silence with singalongs.
Moreover, American sporting culture diverged strongly between professional and college sports. The United States is virtually the only country on Earth with a strong, established culture of intercollegiate sports. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: American college sports teams occupy the same position that soccer teams do everywhere else in the world. They are considered institutions of local pride, and it is unimaginable to consider that they would relocate to richer pastures. They are independent sporting institutions, free to shift from league to league or even play independently.
That sense of permanence and civic foundation let people develop a much stronger emotional connection to those schools and the teams that represent those schools. You or your family may not have gone to school there, but that doesn’t matter. If you grew up around Stillwater, OK, the odds are extremely high that you’re going to have some level of emotional buy-in to Oklahoma State, and some feeling of excitement or disappointment based on how they perform.
That level of emotional connection is what allows traditions to build and grow over time—and those traditions include fight songs and chants. Whether it’s “Hail to the Victors” or “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk”, these are things that only exist in the college sports context, not in pro sports, and they’re what gives them their unique flavor.
You can’t say the same thing about American professional sports, because they operate on a fundamentally different basis. Every single American pro team is a franchise of a league. That means the team exists only within the context of the league: If the league goes out of business, so does the team. When American sports were getting started as things Americans paid attention to, leagues went out of business—a lot.
That’s one of the big reasons, if not the biggest one, why college sports took hold in the American imagination. Even if you weren’t from Ann Arbor, you knew that Michigan wasn’t going away. The same couldn’t be said about professional teams, regardless of the sport. College sports have been around longer and have deeper roots than professional sports.
In fact, American professional sports are largely an invention of the 20th century. Baseball’s National League may claim 1876 as its founding year, but it’s better to say that it really got started in 1903, when it finally recognized the American League as a second “major” league. The NHL started in 1917, the NFL in 1920, and the NBA doesn’t even show up until 1946. But it wasn’t not until the widespread adoption of television in the 1950s and 1960s that professional sports really start making their mark on the American sporting consciousness. This is when pro football takes off. This is when the NHL expands from a measly six teams (The Original Six) to 12 in 1967, and 21 by 1979. It takes until the 1980s for the NBA to really grab hold of our hearts, but then it finally does.
As the major pro leagues expand, though, they also relocate teams. Since 1953, when the Boston Braves left for Milwaukee, at least one team has relocated each decade in each of the four major sports leagues.
Because of this, pro sports have much shallower roots than college sports. You can be an intense Cleveland Browns fan, but that’s not going to keep Art Modell from moving them to Baltimore and calling them the Ravens—and it’s definitely not going to keep Baltimore fans from cheering for their newly-acquired team, regardless of how heartbroken they were when the Colts decamped to Indianapolis. And if the Browns – the very definition of an “old money” NFL team – could relocate, so could any team.
This goes to my basic point: Fundamentally, American pro teams don’t treat you as a member of a community; they treat you as a consumer, and a passive consumer at that. You’re not meant to participate in anything except the most basic of ways. And if you don’t like that, that’s fine: Someone else will take your place. You are interchangeable, and entirely replaceable. You don’t like how the team is playing? No problem, some other group of fans in some other city will be more than happy to take your place.
American pro soccer, even more than most American professional sports, suffers from this rootlessness. For one, the U.S. didn’t have a stable professional league until the advent of Major League Soccer in 1996. For decades, pro soccer hardly existed at all, stuck in a limbo of barely-professional leagues that came and were just as quickly forgotten. The North American Soccer League never bothered to put down roots during its frenzied existence, with teams coming and going every year, and when the money finally ran out in 1984 hardly anyone was around to care.
Even if you did notice – if you were one of the few Chicago Sting or New York Cosmos fans who stuck around until the end – MLS really didn’t care to bring back those memories. To this day, MLS has been fairly allergic to drawing upon the rich if ragged history of American professional soccer, and if not compelled by fans the league would still pretend that American pro soccer didn’t meaningfully exist until the 1990s.
That rootlessness – and the influence of European soccer on TV, particularly over the last decade, and especially from one specific country – means that American soccer fans in many places are essentially building their culture from scratch. When you’re doing that, it’s extremely easy to look at other places and think, well, this is how it’s done there, so therefore this is how we should do it here.
This would be extremely misguided. Here’s why.
I’ve covered New York City FC in one way, shape, or form for almost a decade. This team has grown on me. I have to tell you: It really stings when people mock NYCFC for being a “plastic” team, full of “plastic” fans who support a pale imitation of Manchester City. I don’t think it’s true. It’s why I insist on calling the team New York City instead of “City”, and it’s why I insist on using Pigeons instead of “Cityzens” (which isn’t even a word!). It may be unfair that New York City fans have to work twice as hard as, say, Austin fans to prove their “authenticity,” but that’s just how it is. We can either bemoan it, or we can work with it. I much prefer the latter.
It’s also why we should steer very, very, very far away from anything that remotely resembles English football, culturally speaking. New York City is probably the biggest sports town in America; it absolutely doesn’t need to import anything from abroad. Few things would confirm our essential inauthenticity more than trying to replicate the atmosphere of an English stadium. We don’t have a pro sporting culture where people spontaneously break out in song, and we shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise.
What we can do, though, is remix and reinvent what we see elsewhere to make something truly original. That, right there, is the essence of culture. We can absolutely sing in the stands: For instance, Timbers fans sing “You Are My Sunshine” in the 80th minute of every match to honor the memory of a fan’s daughter. Minnesota United fans sing “Wonderwall” after every home victory. There’s nothing stopping the Pigeons in the stands from doing something similar if so moved. They could sing “Hey Jude” or “Livin’ On A Prayer” or even “Build Me Up, Buttercup.”
The point is that it’s original and unique to the team. And in the end, that’s what matters.