Thursday, November 11, 2010

Midas Touch

The NASL announced today that the league's application to the U.S. Soccer Federation for sanction as a second division of professional soccer has been finalized. Eight teams are part of the application and one of those eight is not from the Baltimore area.

Inside Minnesota Soccer is, of course, on top of the story. There seems to be quite a bit of animus towards some of the owners involved with the NASL -- particularly Joey Saputo who has only managed to get a nice soccer-specific stadium built and get the Montreal Impact into the MLS.

I don't quite get the criticism. For many of the teams, the clubs only exist because of an irrational economic risk by investing significantly in something that few see as having any financial upside. I am sure that Pete Medd could have done some things better and anyone who is owed funds by the club certainly has a right to think poorly of the business, but the fact remains that without Medd's willingness to throw himself into the club, we don't have the opportunity to watch a second-division team play in the Washington - Baltimore metro area.

Having the team in the area gave me, personally, a chance to introduce my daughter (and wife and other family members) to a sport in a relaxed atmosphere. We've had enough great experiences watching CP Baltimore games -- seeing the team beat the Red Bulls in the US Open Cup at a high school field in Annapolis; taking my newborn along with the rest of the family to a wonderful afternoon out in north Baltimore for a match against the Bermuda Hogges; and, most recently, having my daughter shine in her recently procured pink Montreal Impact jersey when Saputo's team crushed our side -- that I have got nothing to complain about. I am also fully aware that we only got to see CP Baltimore play because Medd made it possible.

Some of the criticism seems to also lack perspective. Yes, this was a World Cup year, but many football clubs throughout the world are struggling to survive because the economics of the sport are screwed up and because the world economy is not exactly firing on all cylinders.

Dundee Football Club's future is in peril following a 25-point penalty for going into administration for the second time in the last seven years.

Just a year and a half ago, we were at Dalymount Park watching the Bohs. When we returned home from Ireland, we sponsored one of Joseph Ndo's shirts and were thrilled to see him net a vital away goal in Austria against Red Bull Salzburg in Champions League qualifying. Now? The club is in desperate straits, carrying 5 million euros in debt with little hope of a sufficient stream of revenue to service that debt. The club is now asking supporters to come up with €300,000 in donations to "get through the licensing process" to return to the Premier Division. Regardless of what happens, the club's talent is going to be gutted and they will struggle to remain in the top flight in 2011 and 2012.

Bohemian FC is a 120-year old club that is at risk of being felled by an embarrassing Champions League qualifying loss against Welsh-side The New Saints earlier this year. That's football. The fact that lower division soccer has not taken off yet in the U.S. is dwarfed by the fact that famous first division Irish sides (the Bohs news comes on the heels of Cork City's liquidation) are maintained by the thinnest of margins.

Bohs supporters are undoubtedly angry, but they will play a seminal role in the survival of the team, just as Cork City's supporters assisted in making the Cork City FORAS Co-Op's first year in the second division a relative success with a sixth place finish and just as, in England, supporters (with the considerable help of a local tycoon) of a fourth division side kept Accrington Stanley viable last season.

In contrast, supporters will have little to do with the return of "FC Baltimore" or AC St. Louis to the second division (or the return of Real Maryland to the third division). And that makes some sense insofar as the connection between supporters and these clubs is far more limited than the link between club and fans in Ireland or the United Kingdom. There is little reason for supporters to expend the time and effort on recapitalizing teams that became money pits almost immediately after coming to fruition and show no significant prospects for improvement in the near term. But that doesn't mean that this should not be a goal for U.S. soccer fans. Phil Rawlins' lack of regard for the importance of football fans in Austin was yet another incentive for fans exercising a bit more strength in terms of the sport in the U.S.

Still, any such uprising does not seem to be in the immediate future. In the interim, getting involved in helping teams outside of the United States that are facing extinction would seem to be a useful and educational alternative. I've learned quite a bit from only limited involvement with Ebbsfleet United and Stirling Albion and the supporters of Accrington Stanley. Most of what I have learned is of limited relevance outside of the specific context of those clubs, yet each experience has underscored the seminal role that supporters have the ability to play as something more than mere customers of an entertainment.

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