Would you like some elitism with your soccer?

Editor’s note: The English punk-poet Steven Wells has been creating a veritable storm in the world of American soccer with his provocative pieces in The Guardian recently. In his first contribution to pitchinvasion.net (apart from providing the photo in the header image, that is) Josh Crockett considers the question of soccer and American culture in regard to Wells’s claims.

Steven Wells’s Guardian blog entry this morning on English attitudes toward American soccer provoked a rather visceral reaction from this quarter. Of course, provocation was his goal, calling out traditionalists as xenophobic “little-Englanders” simply afraid that resurgent U.S. soccer could displace Britain from yet another field in which it regarded dominance as its birthright (capitalism, naval warfare, etc.). And he might have a point.

But it takes chutzpah to condemn prejudice in one paragraph and in the next type this:

Public toilets, atheism, publicly funded radio and association football – these are all things of which no society can have too much. Witness the fact that soccer-playing America is massively liberal, loving, caring, socially conscious and nice. While soccer-hating America consists of increasingly isolated gangs of Bush- supporting, bible-bashing, gun-crazed, dungaree wearing, banjo-playing, quasi-fascist chicken-lovers and their twelve fingered, pin-headed, cyclopic, drooling monster children.

Bias and hyperbole aside, he inadvertently touched on a key conflict of English-speaking American soccer fanhood — one that was easily observable during the 2006 World Cup, when U.S. political blogs that otherwise condemn spectator team sports as low culture (and don’t even ask about NASCAR) professed sudden admiration for a European-based game. Soccer has an internationalist cachet in America that no other sport can match; that self-identification was virtually irresistible to the young, urban, well-travelled and politically alienated.

But if soccer support in English-speaking America becomes strongly associated with the cultural elitism of urban left-wing Euro-wannabes, the sport’s commercial horizon is awfully close.

Can MLS succeed as a niche product for this fanbase plus the Hispanic market? At its current scale, perhaps — it’s a well-off demographic. And maybe that’s fine. But if MLS wants to overtake the National Hockey League and join the top ranks of North American sport, it needs to be accessible to the casual fan who’d just as soon go to a baseball or American football game. That won’t happen if you have to buy a whole set of cultural assumptions with your ticket, when you’d rather just have a hot dog and a beer.

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