Whilst the overall fight may still represent a work in progress – that is, the struggle to establish the mainstream popularity and appeal of football in the United States – it should also be noted that there is another development process ongoing within the country’s football fandom. Whilst the pursuit of new fans is the main goal for both the leagues and the clubs themselves, those that are already converted are on a different mission.
As clubs become established and start to develop traditions and histories, so to do the fan bases on which these cultures are built. Whilst on the whole this fan culture has looked towards European style ultras groups for inspiration, in recent years each club has developed their own unique approach, especially in the celebration of goals.
To most European fans, these nuances can appear gimmicky and almost cringe worthy. Putting giant footballs inside an oversized onion bag, colonial era re-enactors firing vintage rifle salutes into the sky, and – bizarrely – sawing a tree-trunk in half; these are just a few of ways in which MLS supporters herald their team scoring. But the real derision is reserved for the attempted recreations of the tifosi culture, something that in Europe is not taken lightly.
Many Europeans claim fans of clubs such as Seattle Sounders – who’s Emerald City Supporters are seen as being among the more vociferous groups in the MLS – do not fully understand the political and cultural intricacies of organised supporter’s groups on the other side of the Atlantic, and that their attempts to follow suit are hollow as a result. Anyone who has seen the popular YouTube footage of the wide-eyed ECS “capo” shouting “fight and win!” into a microphone whilst wearing a scarf that says “ultras” may be inclined to agree.
Whilst this example may border on the ridiculous, a dissenting voice is important – especially within the current volatility of the American political landscape. Supporter’s groups in the US may not have grasped this with both hands just yet, but the credibility and legitimacy of their European counterparts is built on utilising their voice for a wider purpose. US sports fans are traditionally seen as “customers”, with the match day experience in the NFL or the NBA usually a bland, corporate and family-oriented affair – something most football fans find extremely disconcerting. Breaking this mould, and taking advantage of the unique platform football fans possess, would certainly be a huge step forward in their quest to be taken more seriously – especially in a city as progressive as Seattle.
In the meantime, European fans should embrace the uniqueness of the US football experience. The vuvuzela may have been despised during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but it is a reminder that locals watch the game in different ways across the world. Something as bold and outlandish as sawing a tree in half may not be everybody’s idea of authentic fan culture, but it couldn’t be any more American in taste and spirit. Embracing your identity is surely what being a true fan is all about in the first place, and that should be encouraged.