26 May 2014

Donovan Rises Above Klinsman's Questionable Cut

It started with US Men's Soccer Coach Jurgen Klinsman making a head-scratching decision last week to cut Landon Donovan, arguably the best player in American Professional Soccer today, from the US Men's team in the World Cup.  Donovan had performed well during the training camp, making Klinsman's decision even more questionable.  Donovan was upset and could not come up with an explanation, but handled it like a professional and a gentleman.  But what was Klinsman's rationale? Did he feel that at 32, Donovan was too old?  Or that in spite of Donovan's performance, his heart wasn't into another World Cup (Donovan played in two previous Cups), especially since Donovan took a sabbatical in 2013?

If that was the case (as some sports writers have suggested,) why did Klinsman call Donovan up from the LA Galaxy to training camp in the first place....since he knew all of that beforehand?

The weirdness continued with a eye-brow raising tweet by Klinsman's own son after the cut, which raised the question of the quality and kinds of conversations that took place around the Klinsman dinner table.

The Tweet by Klinsman's son: 

In any event, Donovan returned to play with his home team, the L. A. Galaxy last night....whereupon he became the highest scoring player in American MLS history by making his 135th...and then his 136th....goal.

Congratulations to a great player. I still don't know what Klinsman was thinking... perhaps his ego in shaping a team, or a need to control younger players got in the way...or perhaps it was simply a personality conflict.  His decision to cut Donovan, however, will be judged by the performance of the US Team at the World Cup.  

Meanwhile, Donovan's performance is now cemented in history.


23 May 2014

A Tale of Two Stadiums... Red Bull Arena vs Citifield (originally posted 24 July 2012)

Over this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two different sporting events with my boyfriend and my son. In both cases, these events were ‘firsts” for me: my first major league soccer game, and my first time attending Citi Field. And in spite of the pervasive corporate influence in both places….one franchise “did it right,” and one was horribly wrong.

On Saturday, July 21, I watched a match between the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union at Red Bull Stadium in Harrison New Jersey. It was the first time I had ever seen a live professional soccer match. I was a little nervous, simply because I assumed this would all be ‘new’ to me (Disclosure: I was a soccer coach for “mini-kickers,” the five-year old soccer kids, in the early 1990s in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. I also had the wild experience of watching the European Cup in a bar in Holyhead, Wales at about the same time. But I still entered the stadium feeling ‘unprepared’ as an American at a soccer game).

The journey to Red Bull Stadium (to see the Red Bulls, owned by the Red Bull Company) on the New Jersey PATH trains was efficient, but certainly not, shall we say, “aesthetically pleasing.” The signage at the NJ PATH stations is sparse and incomplete, and certainly not up to the standard that this New Yorker is used to. Fortunately, the Red Bull crowds knew their way about, and I followed them to the stadium in Harrison, NJ. The stadium is located in an urban – nay, industrial – part of town, with nothing to see for miles around but iron and steel and rust and grit.

Nonetheless, the stadium rocks.

Seating 25,000 fans, the stadium is larger than Fenway Park in Boston. It is not a “football” stadium, rented by a soccer team, but a SOCCER stadium. It is touted as the *premier* Major League Soccer stadium in the United States….and it is, from a fan’s perspective – a great (and fun!) stadium.

We entered the stadium and my son was handed a red bull cap. We found our way to our seats - fairly inexpensive seats (about $24) in section 223. I was a bit nervous, as these seats were located in a “corner” of the field, and fairly “up” in the stadium. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the seats were. In fact, I can honestly say that there is not a bad seat in the stadium. All of the action was clearly viewable from any point in the stadium.

And the match began.

We had an unbelievably, enjoyable, wonderful time.

The fans (both the Red Bull fans *and* the visiting Philly fans) were *excited* about the game. The stadium is built with metal floors, so stamping your feet made NOISE. The opposing Philadelphia team brought in drums and fans, and they made incessant noise the entire time. At the other end of the stadium, Red Bull fans unleashed a multi-level banner supporting New York, and matched the Philly fans in excitement and noise. (We’ve discovered there are several Red bull support groups that have special seating privileges as an official ‘fanbase,” such as the Viking Army and the Raging Bull Nation.) This was a REAL rivalry, and it was exciting! I found myself being drawn into the rivalry…and standing and cheering when “our guys” made a goal. In fact, both goals were made by headers by Kenny Cooper (pictured above) – a name I didn't know then, but I sure know now. Just as I now know the name Thierry Henry now. And just as I now know the name of Bill Gaudette, the goaltender who was *clearly* in command of communication with the rest of the team throughout the game. I was drawn into the game, and found myself booing and cheering and clapping and standing and being completely involved (My boyfriend stood up so fast at one point to cheer that he fell back into his chair with a low blood-pressure head rush! Though he continued to scream…)

Were there drawbacks? Sure. No fan likes to be charged $7 for a medium beer or $9 for a large beer (the $7 purchase was actually a better buy). And the corporate domination of the team was clear: the Red Bull Company owns both the team and the Stadium; the team is named after the company (after previously being called the Empire Soccer Club and he MetroStars), and the corporate logo is the same as the Red Bull energy drink logo. But the Red Bulls have managed, in spite of that clear corporate connection, to keep further corporate money “out of your face.” And one must admit that, given the predominance of “the Big 4” (Baseball, Football, Basketball, and Hockey), how in the world could soccer make a splash on the American sports scene without significant corporate support?

The Red Bulls won the game 2-0. I was elated. I was psyched. I went home a fan.

Then, on Sunday, it was on to a Mets game.

Understand that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Mets fan. I went to Shea Stadium as a kid; I grew up (in spite of generally being sports-ignorant) knowing the names Tom Seaver, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones, and Tommie Agee. I sat in box seats in 1969 as the Mets moved towards World Series victory. I have imagined how a Mets Logo would look as a tattoo on my calf. This is MY team.

But I had never been to Citi Field. And I went with an open mind, and an excitement at having been able to attend a Mets game, once again, this time with my son. And it wasn’t just any old game - it was a game against the Traitorous Los Angeles Dodgers, whose exit from New York led to the birth of the NY Mets.

So, off on the 7 Train we went to Citi Field.

We arrived, and I was excited as I anticipated seeing the Jackie Robinson rotunda for the first time. I have to say, it was pretty disappointing. It was smaller than I thought, and was merely a staging point for herding crowds . Oh well. On to the stadium.

On the positive side….I must admit...I LOVED the pavillions. In a masterpiece of engineering and design, in spite of the fact that we were up on the Promenade level, the “food courts” were masterfully designed. I felt that I was at an outdoors food pavilion at Jones Beach rather than somewhere in Queens adjacent to LaGuardia airport. The open-air feeling, and the variety of food choices, were a sheer delight.

Unfortunately, the food was insanely expensive and of fairly low quality.

$8 beers, *cold* fried dough, carrying trays unable to hold 3 mini-sausage & peppers, and no carrying trays able to contain draft beers without massive spillage were annoying at best.
The game experience - in spite of my wanting to LOVE everything – was disappointing.
The seats (we were in section 424), were decent. In fact, it seemed that most seats were pretty decent in the new CitiField (except for the fact that we had to stand to see balls hit along the third baseline in the outfield). No complaints there.

But the Corporate over-kill was overwhelming.

I counted thirty-six different corporate advertisements assaulting my senses around the stadium. Even the scoreboard that gave basic information (balls, strikes, outs) disappeared from time to time for “corporate messages.” Every inning and half-inning was introduced on the Jumbo-tron by a new Corporate Sponsor and fan who had “won” a corporate sponsor contest. The sheer information-overload made it almost impossible to separate – and comprehend – the player statistics from the game stats to the Corporate infomercials.

The stadium floor is poured concrete, which meant that it was virtually impossible to drum up excitement, as all fan sound was muffled even as it started. And the musical accompaniment was incompetent when it came to generating excitement. As a child of the 1960s, I was used to the Jane Jarvis Organ getting the crowd excited.

Instead, at Citi Field, the musician played one, perhaps two measures of a song or chant. The crowd would try to join, the organ would stop, and the fans would be lost. End of excitement. For 12 innings, this continued without change: there simply was no momentum established to get the fans excited. It was a BIG change from the days of Shea that I remembered as a child.

Perhaps most disappointing of all - were the Clothes Police.

Keep in mind, this was a sporting event. An OUTDOORS event. In 95 degree heat. It was not an Opera at Lincoln Center.

Guys at Football games arrive shirtless and paint their bodies with team colors or spell out words. When we went to Red Bull Stadium, we took our shirts off and waved them in the air in celebration of Cooper’s goals.

But at Citi Field? No way.

As I left my seat to get some beer, I was shirtless, but brought my shirt with me (just in case). As I somehow anticipated, one of the hundreds of security-conscious employees grabbed me and explained that I needed to wear a shirt. I decided to comply without a fight, and walked away, arranging my tank top over my head.

Security ran after me.

“You can put your shirt on in them restroom, or right here,” he commanded.

“I’m putting it on right here,” I responded, as I continued to walk and arrange my shirt. He followed me to make sure.

Later in the stands, both my boyfriend and I removed our shirts in the 95 degree heat, with the sun bearing directly down upon us. We saw other guys in sections 404 and 435 taking their shirts off.
A Mets Security Goon came running into the stands to “require” us to wear shirts (in spite of the fact that our backs were against a wall, and no one was sitting next to us). 20 minutes after complying, a different security goon came to check that we were properly clothed. I learned later that Citi Field refuses admittance to anyone wearing a T-shirt that conveys what they feel is a ‘controversial’ message.’

After I got home, I received an email survey about my Citi Field experience. It asked if I was satisfied with the level of Security. The implication was that in security-conscious, paranoid New York, “Security” was a “good “ thing.

For me, it was like watching a game under the surveillance of a Corporate-driven Fascist State.
The comparison between these two stadiums was stark.

The difference was *not* in corporate financing: both were clearly corporately financed. The difference was in the perspective that both teams took towards their fan base, the freedom they afforded their fans to celebrate, the inclusion of their fans in their overall team drive towards success.

I am thinking, today, that I am glad I did not have that Mets tattoo inked on my calf. And that I can’t wait to see my next Red Bulls Game.


Boycott Russian Winter Olympics? A Resounding No... (originally posted 18 July 2013)

I am seeing an increasing number of people calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. Some come from the Neoconservative Right, because they're pissed off at Russia's non-cooperation on Snowden. Others are gay activists, horrified at Russia's new draconian anti-gay laws.

I'll be the odd man out, and say this is a really bad idea folks.

First, NO ONE calling for a boycott will be personally hurt by it. They have nothing to lose, so its easy to yell, "Yeah, let's boycott!" On the other hand, hundreds of American young people who have been training and working and devoting their lives to these games, would have to bear the burden of this action. It's easy to call for action when *others* have to bear the cost. I'm not willing to have American athletes suffer (or athlete's from any nation, quite frankly) to make a political statement.

Second, the message is mixed. If we want Russia to "do" something, what is it? Turn over Snowden? Or Repeal Anti-gay statutes? It's a mixed, muddled - and conflicting message. In other words, in return for destroying innocent people's dreams - nothing will be accomplished and no laws will change.

Third, it's hypocritical. If you wanted to protest governments that engage in civil liberties violations and espionage activities, you should have boycotted Beijing a few years ago. If you want to punish countries with anti-gay laws...where was your voice when 30 athletes came from Nigeria (a nation where homosexuality is punishable by death in the northern states) arrived in Atlanta in 1996?

Lastly, it's just poor policy to use Sports as a political weapon. Sports is one of the few human activities that actually has the ability to take human conflict and channel it into constructive competitiveness somewhere other than on the battlefield. The statement that was made in the summer of 1936 when African-American athletes (like Jesse Owens) trounced the Germans in track and field in Berlin helped topple the myth of Aryan Supremacy in a bloodless way that no bullet ever did. The Olympics need to be kept out of political intrigue and maintained as a sporting event. The original, ancient Greek Olympics allowed warring city-states to compete with each other, and allowed its populations to override the war-mongering idiocy of their governments by coming together in spite of political differences.

And that's the way it should stay.

Gay brothers and allies...you want to do something that will really hurt them where it hurts? Stop drinking Stoli. Demand that your local liquor stores and favorite bars cease carrying Russian-made vodka. Hit them where it hurts. But to do so requires you to get off your keyboard, and bear the burden of this protest yourself...will you do it?


Jason Collins....and Regressive Sports Writers (originally posted 30 April 2013)

It’s no secret that I view sportswriters with a very cynical eye. I have seen too many sportswriters frothing at the mouth to destroy some player due to sexual flings or dalliances with ‘performance-enhancing substances.’ I have often wondered how many of these writers suffered from “I-can’t-play, so-I’ll-criticize-players” syndrome. And I have also wondered how much homophobia in sports is due not only to the tight-lipped locker room code of silence, but to the complicity of homophobic writers as well.

So, the coming out story of Jason Collins this week provided some interesting reads, as news services tripped over themselves trying to get the now-feel-good story.

But buried under the story of the gay athlete, imbedded in the writings of these very sportswriters, lie the seeds of conservatism that reveal their regressive stances. Take these three bylines about Collins’ decision:

From ESPN: “Jason Collins said has gotten "incredible" support since coming out as the first openly gay player in one of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues…”

From The Sporting Scene, in New Yorker Magazine: “Jason Collins…has made history, becoming the first active male player in any of the big four of American sports leagues—baseball, hockey, basketball, and football—to come out as gay.”

And from the Reuters News Service: “Collins, a 12-year player in the National Basketball Association (NBA), became the first active athlete from any of the four major U.S. men's professional sports leagues to come out publicly as gay.”

Now, in addition to learning that Jason Collins has come out as gay, (and in addition to wondering if there is a little plagiarism going between the New Yorker and Reuters), what other ‘fact’ could you glean from those three representative statements?

“one of the four major…”

“any of the big four…”

“any of the four major…”

Ah. There must be Four (count them) major Professional Sports leagues in America.

And indeed, for decades, writers referred to “The Big Four” – Baseball, Basketball, Football and Hockey.

One has to wonder how long they will go along blithely repeating the same rubbish, in light of the fact that the United States is no longer a land of Four professional sports, but Five.

Some Attendance figures from the 2012 season to consider:

National Football League: 66,960
Major League Baseball: 30,352
Major League Soccer 17,872
National Basketball Assn: 17,319
National Hockey League: 17,126

My, what’s this? Yes, in 2012, attendance at Professional, Major League Soccer games exceeded both Basketball and Hockey.

In 2007, Major League Soccer became the fifth professional team sport to turn a profit from media revenue. It was also the first year that every single MLS match was televised - something neither Basketball nor Hockey can claim.

By 2010, three MLS teams had turned profits. That may not sound very exciting, except when one compares that to testimony by Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who reported to Congress in December 2001 that professional baseball on the whole had suffered 232 million in losses, and only nine of thirty MLB turned a profit. Last year, eleven of thirty NBA teams lost money.

Perhaps most telling, according to Forbes Magazine, during the year before the NHL lockout, only three of 18 Hockey teams turned a profit: the same proportion as Major League Soccer.

A recent study showed that among twenty-year old Americans, Professional Soccer is now the #2 sport in America.

So, Jason Collins is the first openly gay man in the “Big Four?”

Guys, perhaps the writing pool needs to lake a long, hard look at itself. The United States, by all criteria, is now a nation of the “Big Five.” But because someone, some decades ago, decided to call team sports the “Big Four,” the writers continue to parrot an anachronistic – and incorrect – statement of the state of sports in America.

Yes, reporters, you too are responsible for the regressive, conservative attitudes within sports and its fan base. Get with the 21st Century…please? Start giving Soccer it's place among the other four sports leagues, and stop dismissing a major American sport as an ethnic oddity kid-sport to be brushed aside.


Why I Support Lance...and PEDs...(originally posted 15 Jan 2013)

In 2005, again in 2007, and then again in 2010, I wrote on this issue, defending the use of controlled substances by sports figures...not a popular position then, and probably no more popular now. Like so many aspects of our schizophrenic culture, what is done in private is one thing, but what we self-righteously say in public is supposed to be something else entirely. Well, I don't play that game.

Right now, Lance Armstrong is in the trigger hairs of the media, which is frothing at the mouth to tear down yet another hero. It is a repetitive story in our culture: build up a hero, then tear them down (often followed by some semblance of public redemption).

I will not defend Lance because 'everyone does it' or because his foundation did such a wonderful job.

I defend Lance because its time to re-examine - and overthrow - the "reefer-Madness" opposition to Performance Enhancing Drugs ("PEDs"). I actually SUPPORT their use.

In 2007, the New York Times reported, “…Former Sen. Mitchell's 300-plus page document on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, 21 months in the making, claims that nearly 90 players -- most notably Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and Miguel Tejada -- are guilty of using some form of PEDs.” The indictment of Roger Clemens for allegedly lying to Congress is the next step in 'getting those guys' when they can't produce the evidence to convict on the original case. It's the Get-Martha-Stewart approach to justice.

When Mark Magwire was hounded by the press for using Androstendione ( a substance that was legal and sold over the counter in Golds Gyms, GNCs, and Drug Stores across America), it was easy to point the finger at “One Bad Guy.” When Barry Bonds was fingered as a steroid user, the writers at Sports Illustrated (sports nuts who cant play, but who delight in the catty process of creating legends and then destroying them) frothed at the mouth, issue after issue, because they could crucify One Bad Guy.

But now that steroids have appeared in major league baseball across the spectrum of time and teams, (as well as wrestling, football, basketball, and cycling) prosecutors can have a field day.

In 2005 I wrote:

“…Sitting on my shelf is a bottle of ProLab ThermaPro, a thermogenic designed to raise metabolism and help burn fat. I used this (same basic ingredients as the original Hydroxycut and Xenadrine) several summers ago, while running in the hot sun every morning while trying to lose weight and tone up (mission: successful!). Ah, but this product contains ephedrine!!! [crowd gasps in horror in the background.] When I used it in 2002, I was using a sports supplement. When the FDA banned it in 2004, I became the possessor of an illegal substance. When the Court overturned the FDA ban, I was an upstanding citizen again. Then the FDA declared that my 20 mg ephedrine was greater than the amount in the court case, and was illegal, and presto-chango, I’m a criminal again.

And this has been the history of steroids and sports supplements. The non-steroidal Androstendione which was available in every health and vitamin store a few years ago, all of a sudden disappeared because the FDA arbitrarily decided that since it was only “one step away” from a steroid, it is now illegal. However, DHEA, which is two chemical steps away from a steroid, is still OK. The steroids that Jose "save-my-own-ass" Canseco mentioned being used in MLB were by and large completely legal in 1980. Many of them are still legal in much of the world, including industrialized nations such as Germany and Holland. Some (Fina) can be made of 100% legal substances in a kitchen. Others are legal as veterinary substances. And a great deal comes into this country from upstanding American soldier-heroes, who discover that the rest of the developed world doesnt have the knee-jerk Prohibitionist response that America has.

The history of Sports is the history of going the extra mile and being slightly better than anyone and everyone else. Athletes give up much of their personal lives and incur a great personal cost in training. They regulate what they eat. They pound back protein shakes.They take vitamin supplements such as Calcium. They take Glutamine to prevent muscle breakdown. They take Milk Thistle and ALA to keep their livers healthy. They take Glucosomine to help repair their stressed joints, and if they’re in trouble, they get shots of Cortisone from their doctors. Some take “stacks” to raise metabolism and speed weight-loss (like my illegal aspirin-caffeine-ephedrine stack). They use Creatine as a muscle volumizer and NO2 to increase muscle pump, while downing extra-heavy whey-protein isolate shakes to increase food to muscle cells. Somewhere along the line Congress is going to find out that many use insulin to increase food nutrition entering the muscle cells as well. Some use 2-step-away prohormones like DHEA, others used 1-step-away-prohormones.

And yes, some use steroids. And the line between what is a legal substance to use, and what is an illegal substance, is arbitrary and artificial.

Yes, the bar is constantly raised. In the effort to be bigger, better, stronger, greater. And if anyone thinks that taking steroids means you take a pill and you’re suddenly Hulk, they are sadly misinformed. Guys who take steroid injections and just ‘wait’ for the effects find themselves fat and tired. An athlete who has chosen to use steroids will be working his butt off 5-6 days a week in grueling workouts. There is no ‘free ride’ by using steroids.

It is amazing, isn’t it? If someone goes to Beverly Hills and forks over $10,000 to a surgeon to have 40 pounds of lard sucked out of their gut in a two-hour operation, that is not only legal, it’s indicative of being One of the Beautiful People. But if you work your tail off during a 12-week steroid cycle to reduce your body fat from 15% to 6% through arduous workouts, well…..”that’s illegal! That’s immoral! That’s just not right!!!! We must punish baseball players! Lance is a cheat!”

Actually, it seems a hell of a lot more honest to me. Of course, why stop at baseball players, or with Lance?

Does anyone really believe that the models on the cover of Mens fitness magazines get that way from situps and spinach? Have they asked the Governor of California how he got that big?

Wake up, folk: when you outlaw a substance, you don’t make it go away…you make it go underground, and you increase the danger of its being tainted. Anyone remember Prohibition?

What’s more important, is that no one has been able to tell me just who is so harmed by an individual athlete’s choice to juice that it requires federal robocops. Have these sports figures killed anyone? Assaulted anyone? Robbed anyone? Maimed anyone? Can you point to any damage they have caused?

There are those who will say that when young people emulate these guys, they are hurt. But that’s like saying that NASCAR should be responsible for kids who drive fast, that McDonalds should be responsible for obese slobs who sit and eat Big Macs every day, and that Clint Eastwood should be responsible for a kid who shoots someone.

If the Players are upset, or the union, or the fans, or the owners, they have immediate remedies and avenues. If they have chosen not to pursue them, perhaps Congress should realize they’re barking up the wrong tree. We don’t need Congress to decide who should be and shouldn’t be our sports heroes. We’ll do that for ourselves, thank you.


Why Soccer Could be the Future of American Sport....(originally posted 29 July 2012)

Can you imagine the American-based National Football League holding the Superbowl in, say, Italy?

Could you imagine 29 Basketball teams allowing one Argentine team to play with them, and then having the audacity to call their national tournament the “World Series of Basketball?”

Can you imagine a Boston Bruins hockey player falling on the ice, and being immediately helped up by a New York Ranger?

Probably not. But that’s because American Sports are…well…American, and insular. Only during the Olympic season, and during rare, fleeting American media coverage of major global matches such as Soccer’s World Cup, are Americans even aware of sports in other nations.

And yet, in this insular world, the winds of change are blowing. For those not glued to the London games, this past weekend saw a series of sporting events, here in the United States, that indicates a growing challenge to “The Big Four” (American Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey) and the insularity of American sports.

Yesterday (Saturday, July 28), France held its Trophée des Champions, the equivalent of France’s Soccer Superbowl….in Harrison, New Jersey.

In spite of threatening weather, 15,000 fans turned came out to the New York Red Bulls Stadium to watch Olympique Lyonnaise battle Montpellier to mark the official start of French soccer season (the cup is played at the beginning of the ‘next’ season, rather than at the ‘end’ of the season).

"New York is a magical place, and we were more motivated to play in New York and for a Cup final," Said Lyon forward Jimmy Briand, who scored the tying goal in the 77th minute and also converted the decisive penalty kick to give Lyon the title.

The game is traditionally played in France, but the last three cups have been settled in other French-speaking foreign nations: in Montréal, Canada; Tunisia; and Morocco. This marks the first time that the French have chosen to pay their ‘soccer superbowl’ in Anglophone America, and is indicative of the winds of change blowing on the international – and American – sports scene. The match was televised in almost 200 nations around the world.

“I think this was a solid first step for the French Federation to grow their brand with the American fan base and with American companies looking to expand even more into soccer,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Front Row Marketing Services, the Comcast-owned company that helped with the tour and the French Cup. “The U.S. is becoming more and more soccer savvy, because of the efforts of MLS and the continued marketing prowess of foreign clubs, and it makes great sense for the French to be in the mix as well. Today was a great example of how strong French soccer is, and it played out not just before a crowd in New York but before a global audience online and on TV. It was a great day for their league and for the sport.”
Meanwhile, the NY Red Bull Soccer Team was not on hand to witness the match at their home stadium. The Red Bulls, the top-seeded Soccer club in Major League’s Soccer’s Eastern Conference, was playing the Montréal Impact in their Saputo Stadium.

I openly admit: I have recently become an MLS junkie. We had the Red Bulls-Impact game live-streaming on our laptops last night, while the Western Conference powerhouse LA Galaxy (home to now-famous import David Beckham) match against FC Dallas was on the Flat-screen TV six feet away.

But I also know I am not alone: In 2011, MLS reported an average attendance of almost 18,000 per game, with a total attendance of 5,468,951. Prior to the 2010 season, MLS had never broken 4 million in attendance, and only barely did so in 2010 (4,002,053). That’s a one-year increase of 37 percent, and that’s just stadium attendance; it doesn't include media spectators.

Even more important: At an attendance of nearly 18,000 fans per game, Major League Soccer is now attracting more fans, in the stadium, than 17 NBA teams and 15 NHL teams (*see list at end of post). Last year, the NY Red Bulls averaged 19,700 fans per game; the NY Rangers pulled 18,000; the NJ Nets, 14,000; and the NY Islanders 11,000.

Why the impressive growth in soccer in the U.S.?

Perhaps traditional American sports fans are tired of ego-driven million-dollar salary contracts.

Perhaps they’re tired of having Corporate money shoved in their face at every turn.

With each new NFL or MLB stadium expansion or rehab, from Green Bay to Citi Field to Fenway Park, more space is given to premium suites that are out of the reach of ordinary fans; in contrast, Major League Soccer teams have devoted entire seating sections to independent Fan Clubs that bring drums and chants and banners and passion. The fans-in-the-stands are actually respected and appreciated, and it shows.

As I watched from my chair last night, four times I saw soccer players extend a hand and help up a fallen man from the opposing team. I watched guys on opposing teams exchange shirts with each other at the end of the match in a display of sportsmanship and camaraderie.

And I realized I am part of a growing number of Americans embracing a truly global sport, played the way professional sports used to be played, with a respect for the players, each other, and the fan base that has long gone by the boards in America’s “Big Four.”

(Photo: Bill Gaudette, NY Red Bulls Goaltender)
*NBA teams with lower average attendance than MLS: Clippers, Suns, Nuggets, Wizards, Pistons, Raptors, Rockets, Bobcats, Hawks, Bucks, Timberwolves, 76ers, Hornets, Grizzlies, Nets, Kings and Pacers.

NHL teams with lower average attendance than MLS: Bruins, Sharks, Lightning, Oilers, Hurricanes, Predators, Panthers, Stars, Avalanche, Devils, Ducks, Blue Jackets, Jets, Coyotes, and Islanders.


Why a Gay Man Gets Excited About Superbowl XLVI (original post: 05 Feb 2012)

It’s the stuff that Disney feel-good movies are made of: my single memory of playing football in junior high school was accidentally catching a ball that somehow landed right in my hands - - and then running in the wrong direction.

I have a similar memory from basketball. I would always allow myself to be blocked, so that there would never be a chance that I would actually catch a pass. But one time it somehow happened (I think the opposing team just gave up on bothering to cover me). I caught the ball. In my panic, rather than pass it or dribble it, I ran with it. Ooops.

There was the wrestling demo in grade school, where the gym coach flipped me around and my neck cracked as it bent backwards and I ended up seeing stars for 30 minutes. And the little league game where the pop-up fly landed not in my glove, but hit my voice box square-on, causing me to black out.

Now, I shouldn’t make it sound like I’m a TOTAL dork...I can play volleyball pretty well, I’ve finished (poorly) in a few 10k foot races, I used to ski fairly well, I can bowl and shoot, and I found some major mojo in the gym once I saw the results in my arms and chest from a lot of hard work while weight training.

Still, it is a little odd that the kid who used to find any excuse in the world to escape gym class; who openly identifies with the gay community; and who only learned at the age of 51 how to throw a football with a spin (thanks to his teenage son) – can actually get excited about the Superbowl.

And that excitement is not just limited to the Superbowl - as an adult, I have enjoyed the World Cup in a gritty pub in Holyhead, Wales; followed the NY Mets during the US Baseball season; and remain fascinated by rugby and the culture surrounding it. Somewhere I decided that my relative incompetance and ignorance in sports skills did not have to last forever. But for the most part, I am still a very ‘late bloomer’ compared to my male counterparts when it comes to sports, so it stretched me to my limits six years ago when I created a college-level course in Sports Economics. When it comes to discussing the media revenue streams to the NFL or the salary structure of pitchers in MLB, I can hold my own – but when my students start throwing around names and statistics and player numbers, I get that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling I got when that football somehow landed in my hands in junior high.

Reading through the threads on Facebook today, many of my gay friends are making funny comments about the Superbowl, and being kind of campy about it…looking forward to Madonna’s half-time show, wondering how well the uniforms will fit, preparing to make Cosmos, and musing about how good-looking the ‘goalies’ will be. All in fun, all acknowledging in a sideways kind of ways that they, too, like me, were the “outsiders” as kids who never “got into” sports, and for whom sports was a dreaded opportunity for humiliation.

But aside from the tongue-in-cheek and campy threads, there are many more that are basic “hurray-for-our-side” or “Who are YOU supporting today?” threads. And therein lies, I think, one of the reasons for the pervasive hold that professional sports has on our society.

In teaching that Sports Economics course, the very first topic we seek to answer is a deceptively simple question:

What is the product that professional sports is selling?

Students who take the course are often sports-a-holics; with the exception of one or two females per class, they are exclusively male; and they are often the kinds of jocks with whom I had *nothing* in common in junior high or high school. As they grapple with this question, they often wrestle with the idea that Professional Sports is ‘selling’ leadership, teamwork, safe expressions of warrior-hood and male aggression, unrealized dreams, superstar brands, and entertainment; and to be honest, there are elements of all of these things at work in sports.

But the conclusion they always reach is that Professional Sports teams are selling something much more elusive in today’s society: Identity.

Both of my grandfathers worked their entire lives in a single company. My dad worked in several capacities for the same government unit his entire life, and my mom worked for one company for the majority of her adult life.

On the other hand, between the ages of 24 and 52, I have worked at nine different jobs.

My mom and dad got married and bought a house that was 3 blocks from where my mom was raised, and one mile from where my dad was raised. When they retired, they moved to smaller condominiums and apartments within two miles from there (They originally moved to Florida for a short time, but realized they wanted to be "home" and they came back to NY). My mom still lives in the same community in which she was raised. My father’s distant relatives remain in the NYC, all within an hour of where his ancestors stepped off the boat 370 years ago.

On the other hand, though I was born and raised in NY, I left there at the age of 30: I have since lived for 8 years in Massachusetts (in three different houses) , and 14 years in New Hampshire (in six different places). Statistically, I’m typical of most Americans: according to the 2010 census, the average American moves 12 times in a lifetime (which explains why I am about ready to ‘retire’ and settle down a bit!)

In this fast-paced century, where people have Facebook ‘friends’ they have never met on the other side of the world, where they move every 8 years, and where they change jobs 10 times before the age of 42 – “where is home?” What is “home?” With a growing integration of ethnicities into the American salad bowl, a growing number of US citizens simply call themselves “Americans” on the US Census rather than holding to older European nationalities (I did this myself on the 2010 Census: it was easier than choosing more than 10 ethnicities).

And so, with global communications and fast-paced mobility, Professional Sports Teams offer a sense of ‘belonging,’ of identifying with a particular location regardless of one’s ‘temporary’ or ‘transient’ station in life. Today’s Facebook threads are full of people emphatically supporting the NY Giants or the New England Patriots – and the strongest fans are precisely those who see one of these teams as their “home team.” Their identity is, in some way, wrapped up in these non-military warriors representing the “homeland.” Native New Yorkers living in California will root for the Giants; native Bostonians in Texas will be cheering for Tom Brady.

And for that reason, this gay man who couldn't throw a football until last year is preparing the guacamole dip, reading the online sports news, spicing the shrimp soup, picking up some more beer, watching his boyfriend wire up the surround sound system, and getting out the ingredients for some kick-ass Hero sandwiches.

And routing passionately for Eli Manning and the New York Giants.