It’s always interesting to me when cultures meet.
Soccer has always seemed to me to be an especially good setting for that. So, having had the experience of living and working in England for 3-1/2 months a couple of years ago, I particularly enjoyed covering the “friendly” between the local minor league team, the Charlotte Eagles, and the Bolton Wanderers of the English Premier League this week.
It was actually the first time I’d ever seen a Premier League team in person. During our time in London, we lived an easy ride on the Underground from Arsenal‘s then-new Emirates Stadium, and it was no big deal to get to other teams’ venues, either. But tickets were more expensive than to NFL games here, and my U.S. media connections didn’t carry enough weight to get me a seat in a press box.
Anyway, the match itself on Wednesday at UNC-Charlotte’s TransAmerica Field, was fun. The Wanderers took a deceptively easy-looking 3-0 victory over their American hosts in the first of three matches they’ll play in North America before they go home next week. Actually, the score was 1-0 most of the way.
The Eagles, showing some early match jitters, gave up a goal in the eighth minute. But then they settled down and gave the visitors as good a match as they’ll get on some days in their EPL schedule, which starts on Aug. 14 against Fulham.
Here’s a photo of the match action, taken by my friend Gerry Nelson Wall. The Eagles player is midfielder Darren Toby, not sure who the Bolton player is.
But the most educational part of that experience came the day before, when I spent a couple of hours at TransAmerica Field watching the Wanderers’ training session (that’s soccer talk for “practice.”) I had an opportunity to talk with some of Bolton’s staff members and get a feel for what it’s like to field a team in the best pro soccer league in the world.
Bottom line — for teams like Bolton, located in the Manchester area, it’s not easy.
I must digress here for a couple of paragraphs about a soccer-related topic that’s been bothering me. I wrote just a couple of weeks ago about American antipathy toward soccer and since then I’ve noticed another sort of right-leaning critique of the sport. (As I’ve noted before, I try to be non-partisan and apolitical in this blog, but I couldn’t let this pass without comment.)
Apparently, soccer is socialistic — I suppose the argument runs that good Americans shouldn’t like it, so it must be Marxist or socialist. Click here and here for a couple of examples of this. I think it’s nonsense, but make up your own mind.
Some of these arguments are ridiculous on any level, as doesn’t any team sport sometimes ask players to make boosting their own statistics secondary to the greater good of a group? I think it’s called “teamwork”. (Is LeBron James a socialist because he’s probably going to score fewer points with his new team in exchange for what he sees as a better chance to win an NBA championship? )
And doesn’t every sport have rules to create a “level playing field”? — both ice hockey and American football, like soccer, are “onsides” games, but I doubt anyone would call them socialist.
And certainly any realistic look at the economics of “football,” especially the Premier League brand, exposes this narrative as, like my English friends would say, rubbish.
The Premier League, like most European leagues, is capitalistic in a way that would make even Major League Baseball owners blush with embarrassment. No salary cap, no revenue sharing, exorbitant “transfer fees” to move players around. You have to go back 15 years to find an EPL champion which was not Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United — by no coincidence the three most wealthy teams in the league.
All of which leaves the Boltons of the league with their own set of problems. The Wanderers finished 14th in the 20-team league last year and avoided relegation, the fate of the EPL’s bottom three teams each year.
(I suppose if there’s a truly “un-American” aspect to soccer it’s this one — the bottom teams in many European leagues are demoted to a lower classification for the next season of play, to be replaced by the top teams from the lower classification. It wouldn’t work for fans here — the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals might become permanent residents of Triple A.)
And relegation apparently results in financial disaster, making it that much tougher to bounce back up. Again, using the baseball analogy, instead of selling tickets to games against the Atlanta Braves or New York Yankees, you have Gwinnett and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre coming to town. Big difference.
It’s tough enough at the highest level for Bolton, trying to fill 29,000-seat Reebok Stadium in an area with about half a dozen EPL teams in a 50-mile radius.
I had heard from several knowledgeable people before going to London that media coverage of football in England was so intense that the team PR person’s role was more that of a protector than as a facilitator. I got a little taste of that during my interviews with Wanderers manager Owen Coyle and player Ricardo Gardner. While Bolton’s media relations guys were as nice as they could be, it was clear that they didn’t want the questioning to drag on any longer than necessary, so you had to get what you needed quickly.
Now I’ve been in PR before, so I’ve had the experience of being interviewed as well as my more accustomed role of being the interviewer. But I was surprised to end up as an “expert source” for the Bolton media, including a newspaper reporter traveling with the team.
Click here for my turn at English media stardom, as I gave the folks back home some background on the Eagles. Cheers!