I haven't been posting much lately, mostly due to the amount of writing and data processing required for two larger projects on which I am working. The first is now largely completed - a final draft of an 8,000 word article on the soccer culture in Seattle that has been submitted to The Howler for publication. It addresses the unique relationship the city has with its professional franchise, Seattle Sounders FC, given the city's often strained relationship with its other professional sports franchises.
A discussion on the same topic happened between Jason Davis and the Sounder at Heart Twitter account on the same day as I submitted article to The Howler . It centered around the common conflict for North American soccer fans - to either call their local team they support a club or a franchise. This is due to the key differences between North American and European leagues. Teams in Europe are clubs because that's how they start out when they enter the lowest league in their nation's soccer ladder - an association of amateurs and semi-pros bonded by their love of the sport and the desire to create a sense of family within it. Teams in the US, whether they be a soccer team or some other major professional sports team, are a franchise. They are granted the exclusive permission to operate as a team within a closed league that determines who is admitted (and rarely contracted) and sometimes where team moves when the league and the team feel they're not getting a fair shake by their local fans. Just like franchises in the rest of the business world, the will of the individual team is subjugated to the will of the league to the extent that sales of franchises must be approved by the other owners.
Nevertheless, distinctions like these are not nearly as clear cut for North American fans, many of whom are attracted to soccer as a direct rejection of everything to do with American professional sports. The outlandish salaries. The threats of owners to move teams when the local population won't shell out $500M+ for a new stadium every twenty years. The garish broadcasts where the infographics and instant replays are often more important than the actual game being played. It all produces a feeling that the fans are lucky to have such a club, rather than the other way around.
Soccer fans in the US and Canada know that their local teams, whether they be in MLS or one of the lower tiers of the North American ladder, need them as much as the fans need the local teams. As the two grow with each other over the years, a local team takes on a virtual Schrodinger's Cat existence: it is both a franchise in a literal sense and a club in practice.
Such duality is tough for some to accept, and can lead to the types of discussions that Sounder at Heart highlighted the other night. That led to Jason Davis to make the following statement that perfectly sums up how we should look at the duality.
"The franchise is what the owner owns. The club is what the fans and players build around it." (click here for a more detailed discussion)Some opinions not withstanding, it is a club atmosphere that we supporters in Seattle are continually creating. It's what every supporter wants, even if the desire is based upon soccer hipsterism. The reality is that a club atmosphere created by the supporters is what puts butts in the seats, fills lines in local newspapers, and drives bandwidth on blogs.
Franchises can become more like a club as years pass by. No one could ever imagine the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Steelers, or LA Lakers playing anywhere else in the United States. Their history is too deep, their identity to wrapped up in the cities they represent, and their fans too fervent. Save for the reality of each of them being franchises in their respective leagues, they've taken on the look of iconic clubs the world over because of the history created by the players, coaches, and fans.
I hate the US closed league/franchise model. I find that the players wages are suppressed more than other leagues, and the players are the ones doing most of the work and generating the bulk of the TV revenue. The fact that a team like the LA Clippers in the NBA or Seattle Mariners in Major League Baseball can fail for so long and still get their share of the league's revenue is absurd. It denies other people the ability to invest in the sport they love, and just as importantly it denies the fans the great team they deserve. More often than not, the focus is more on the league's success, and not creating a genuine bond between franchises, players, and fans. Save for the rare examples above, the reality is that whenever the relationship between the franchise and the city goes sour, the league simply looks to move the franchise. There is no loyalty to the local fans nor the club atmosphere they've created while the club was operating in or near the city.
This has real implications for newer leagues and expansion franchises. Passionate supporters get a league or a franchise started, and the large barriers to entry in the North American sports market make such a founding moment both an exciting and precarious event at the same time. What North American soccer fans need more of is a appreciation of true club atmospheres within their game when they do exist. The modern professional game is still young at only fifteen years old, and we quickly forget the league went through a near-death contraction only a decade ago. It's future is bright, but it's still a business where its franchises must be supported by fans who desire a club culture and eventually make money. We may not be able to get the same business structure as those found in other soccer leagues, but we can create a culture around our sport that rivals those found at the clubs in those leagues. We supporters, the league, and the franchises must give time for that culture to develop. The alternative is a league that really is just made up of faceless franchises rather than culturally deep clubs,