Something odd happened to me in the last few months. I tuned into the World Cup, like so many others, and then…just didn’t stop watching soccer. Most of the credit goes to my wife, who knows how to get excited about, and study for, a big event like no one else. In addition to assuring our World Cup schedules were cleared and organizing watch parties, she turned me on to Uncles Rog and Davo of Men in Blazers, who deserve the rest of the credit for being delightful guides for Americans stumbling blindly into the world’s game. As a result, I’ve gone from watching approximately zero sports to tuning into an English Premier League (EPL) game or two a week.
To avoid this new habit becoming an obsession, I’ve so far avoided choosing a team to support. Sure, I have my favorites, but being a relatively neutral observer has allowed me to appreciate the sport, and its culture, more than I likely would if I had decided to dive right into fandom of a specific club. One of those appreciations is for the promotion/relegation system that the EPL (and most other sports leagues on the planet) employ, which makes it so that nearly every game means something, for almost every club, no matter, or perhaps especially if, they’re having a miserable season.
This revelation came to a head while watching Rog’s favorite team, Everton, lose 2-0 in glorious fashion to their hated crosstown rivals Liverpool on Monday. Liverpool’s first goal, wherein Everton managed to hit the post and then, as if shocked they had come so close to scoring, immediately give the ball away for a quick Liverpool counter, was a perfect example of the kind of emotional manipulation only a lifetime of devotion to single team can provide. All teams have their ups and downs over the years. But as any true fan will tell you, every team seems to develop its own unique style of misery that somehow persists from year to year, decade to decade, era to era, slowly coalescing into a cohesive oeuvre of failure even as players, managers, and owners come and go. As Rog wrote: “is this the most Everton moment that ever Evertoned?”
For me, experiencing that quintessential Evertonian moment via Rog unearthed painful memories of another team, and another sport: my hometown Colorado Rockies, the baseball team I was obsessed with as a kid and young adult (see: my first-ever blog, the Rockies Disaster Report) despite their terrible ownership, misplaced loyalty to players and staff who "fit in" despite being, you know, not very good, and uncanny ability to turn every high they managed to achieve, no matter how big or small, into an even worse low. Just like Everton’s “doink to disaster,” fans know all too well when they’ve witnessed another a quintessential Rockies failure.
Unlike Rog and Everton, at a certain point I had to give up on the Rockies for my own sanity. I could only take so many bad drafts, horrible trades, ill-conceived strategies, failure to fire bad managers, humiliating defeats literally at the doorstep of my freshman year dorm — no, I'm not still bitter about 2007, why do you ask? — and most of all, the total lack of responsibility or accountability on the part of the team’s owners, before it was just too painful and too hopeless to continue being an active fan.
Because there’s nothing really at stake when you lose, being a fan of a bad team in America is experiencing the shallow rush of playing the lottery every time you watch a game. Once in a while you might get lucky and win despite the odds, and that’s fun as far as it goes. But the high wears off quickly because no one did anything to earn it, and the rest of the time it’s just a waste.
What I'm noticing about global soccer, by contrast, and particularly the EPL, is that they’ve managed to cultivate a dynamism that doesn't exist in American sports — even though this era of oligarch-owned cheating super-clubs may be the least dynamic the EPL has ever been. Managers are given exquisitely short leashes to succeed with. Players fall in and out of favor on a weekly basis. Owners seem at least somewhat responsive to fan opinion and pressure. And perhaps most importantly, thanks to the promotion/relegation system, where teams are transferred to higher or lower divisions based on their performance, every game matters and owners are held accountable for failure where it matters most: their pocketbook.
Coming from baseball, where there’s been no reason to watch games 50 through 162 of a Rockies season for most of the last decade, the fact that I can genuinely care about whether the West Yorkshire Yankees avoid relegation as much as — perhaps more than — exactly how Arsenal inevitably manages to cough up the league championship to Manchester City, is more than a breath of fresh air: it’s a reason to care about sports again. Because, no matter how your team does, you’re likely to feel the whole range of human emotions, as Rog would say, over the course of a season.
The very real consequences of failure for those at the bottom of the table, and on the other end, the never-ending pursuit of grander honors in higher-level leagues and tournaments, has created conditions far more amenable to sustainable lifetime emotional investment than what’s possible, at least for me, in a system where a franchise like the Rockies can produce a terrible product for most of 30 years with no consequences whatsoever. Purists may dismiss me for being a fair-weather fan, pointing to the countless long-suffering Orioles, Browns, Knicks, Kings, Senators, Jets, and so on fans who stay devoted to their teams despite decades of misery and mismanagement. Fair enough, but frankly, those fans are being abused by a bad system.
In an era where most money in sports is made on distribution and sponsorship deals before the season starts, owners have less and less incentive to field a competitive team or listen to fans. Whether they’re content to coast along or motivated to win depends entirely on the owner’s whims. Thus, American fandom is rarely a shared community project. Instead, it’s usually a hollow exercise in maintaining faith in something that doesn’t particularly care that you exist as long as enough of you tune in.
That’s a shame, because sports can’t survive on belief alone, especially not now when everyone has endless, immediate entertainment options ready at their fingertips. Without consequences for everyone — players, owners, and fans alike — sports is just a slot machine: attention-grabbing and profitable, but not meaningful in any metaphysical or emotional sense.
What Rog has helped me understand is that international football, despite its many problems, provides never-ending high-stakes moments, on and off the pitch, for teams good and bad, by embedding consequences directly into its legal and financial structure. Until American leagues catch on and make substantive, structural changes to our sports to introduce real consequences of failure, nothing on this continent will truly compete, including our own attempts at soccer leagues. So for the foreseeable future, I’ll see you on Saturday and Sunday mornings, investing my limited time and energy for sports in games that matter. Games that make me feel like my emotional and time investment is worth anything at all. Games that make me feel like a kid watching the Rockies, still believing that every moment, exhilarating and excruciating alike, means something.