Culture

Football v. Football: the NFL v. the Premiership

Pittsburgh Steelers fan photo (partial) by ©Bill Frakes/SI

Like US football, English soccer fans observe their own ritual every weekend. I spent a weekend with fans of both sports to get a taste of exactly what drives and defines these most profitable of cultural endeavors.

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT a 'soccer- the sport of the future!' column. If you wish to debate the inherent worth (or lack thereof) of world football, there are plenty of venues for that on the web. This is not one.

The two most followed, most profitable, and most influential sports leagues in the world are the NFL and the Premier League. The two leagues own the most property at the intersection of sports, entertainment, and commerce. Both leagues managed to alter their followers' calendars and generate sizable benefits from advances in technology and communications. Unlike any other large sports entities, the NFL and Premiership take the most advantage of partnerships with corporations and squeeze the most revenue out of their licensed products.

And boy, have their products ever dented into each country's respective psyches. Both sports provide a living for a slew of sport books all over the globe -- be they illegal like your college buddy's here in the States, or legal like the publicly-traded Ladbrokes of London. Their officially-licensed video games breed new fans through their popularity with children of all ages. The day EA Sports releases the latest edition of the video game Madden NFL is a shopping holiday on which American retailers rely. The increasing accessibility of broadband Internet connections accounts for the incredible participation growth in fantasy sport games centered around both leagues. Combine all of these with their ubiquitous merchandise, and you have two entertainment titans who bow to no one.

A group of businessmen met at a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio and founded the American Professional Football Association, the precursor of the NFL, in 1920. Professional football before this meeting depended on local clubs to arrange games amongst themselves and barnstorming teams of former college players. The early NFL labored in the long shadow of Major League Baseball and barely registered on the media's radar.

The two developments which guaranteed the success of the NFL resulted from developments out of their control. In 1928, former University of Illinois halfback toured the nation's largest stadiums and played against local NFL teams. 'The Galloping Ghost' drew not only fans of the more popular college football, but introduced hundreds of thousands more to live football. Grange gave the NFL a media event, an example of what the league could be.

The outstanding events on the calendars for stadiums of that time forced the NFL to schedule the games on Sunday. Since then, the NFL has owned Sunday and used that as a selling point for the networks and corporate sponsors. Fans can schedule their lives around the NFL. Like a secular church, NFL Sundays in America are sacred. And very, very lucrative.

The Premiership can trace its roots back all the way to the founding of the Football League in 1888. A group of English football clubs formed the Football League. As the Football League grew, it organized all the member clubs onto different rungs. This resulted in a hierarchy of four different divisions, with the Premiership, independent of the Football League since 1992, at the top.

With so many clubs, thousands of Englishmen have direct experience with high-level competition that instilled in them a passionate love for the game. This love gets passed down from generation to generation.

Soccer fans photo (partial) found on on this blogspot site

The most striking aspect of England's long love affair with their football is not the hold it has over the country, but the fans' fierce partisan loyalty for clubs even on the lowest rung of the Football League. Each and every club in the Football League, no matter how miserable, generates a level of devotion we in the States cannot comprehend.

English football also benefits from the FA Cup competition, held since 1871. All English football clubs compete for the FA Cup, be they amateur or professional. The FA Cup opens up the game to tens of thousands more Englishmen and is as important to English identity as the Queen or the Union Jack.

The only competition close to the FA Cup here in the States is the NCAA tournament. England roots for the monumental upsets which make believers of every child that they too might someday take the pitch against a Manchester United or Liverpool, two Premiership giants, at a sold-out Wembley Stadium.

Premiership football takes place over the weekend, like US football. Like US football, English soccer fans observe their own ritual each and every weekend. I wanted to spend a weekend with fans of both sports and get a taste of exactly what drives and defines this most profitable of cultural endeavors.

Last Saturday morning I rode my bike over to the Globe Pub. The Globe is well-known in Chicago as the best place to catch English football. A large group of red Liverpool jerseys smoked outside when I arrived.

Entering the Globe is the cheapest way to visit an English pub for weekend football action. Decorated around the main bar are the jacquard scarves of most of the Premiership clubs. A mess of men and a few women dressed in blue and red engulfed me. I fought my way to be third-deep at the bar. This is Premiership Saturday morning here in America.

In the front tables sat Chelsea fans. Arsenal fans surrounded the main bar. Liverpool fans rose a ruckus from the back bar and tables. I ordered a Beamish and smiled. This is what makes sport such an important and, in my own opinion, awe-inspiring part of every culture. Athletic competition unites all of us through an appreciation of teamwork and a sense of wonder at what our mortal machines can do.

After the early morning matches ended, the bar filled up with fans of Manchester United and Tottenham. I managed to find a seat at the bar by this point and took the opportunity to speak to a few Premiership fans.

David Nedrow, an American, backs Manchester United. David has been a fan of world football since his days as a youth player. “Americans need to see English football games live,” he said, “or else an American league needs to develop that produces world-class matches.” David believes American football to be more of an individual sport. “And it's not a global sport,” he added. David explained to me that when you watch an American broadcast of world football, the camera focuses more on the individual player. He motioned toward the TVs above the bar. “In the European broadcasts, they follow the whole field.”

Rick Desira, an ex-pat Brit, roots for Tottenham. He's lived in America for nine years and definitely saw growth in the interest in English football over that time. He sees an arrogance in American team sports, exemplified by their practice of crowning 'World Champions' when they're just the American champion of that sport. Rick thinks physical advantage plays a much bigger role in American team sports. “[English] Football players look like me,” he said.

Jamie Hale, the Globe's manager and another ex-pat Brit, roots for Everton. He serves fans of both sports all weekend. “The NFL fan won't get up at 6AM to watch a game,”he said, “and if the [Chicago] Bears don't do well, we see a big drop-off in business on Sundays. English football fans make it to nearly every match no matter if their team does not have a chance to win the title, he told me. Jamie firmly believes that in ten years or so, an American publication like Sports Illustrated will carry annual Premiership previews and predictions.

On Sunday night, the Rockista and I traveled to the Hop Haus to watch the Bears take on the Green Bay Packers in glorious HD. The late afternoon games were finishing up when we sat at the bar.

Steve Adams roots for the San Francisco Forty-Niners. He fondly recalls watching the great Joe Montana-Bill Walsh Forty-Niners' win the Super Bowl repeatedly during his youth. “NFL games are more of an event,” said Steve. “Even women who don't know anything about the rules are drawn to it because of the tailgates and parties.” He agrees with Jamie that the Premiership fans are much more fervent than those for the NFL.

How each league handled their opening weekend best indicates the vast differences between these two sports. The Premiership's first matches were played a few weeks ago. Sure, the pre-game telecasts were filled with the same predictions and coverage you would find before any NFL telecast. But when the match telecast began, there was a moment of silence for a recently deceased great English coach. After that, the match began. Not very much pomp or revelry.

The NFL, in stark contrast, kicked off the season in Pittsburgh with a rare Thursday night game. Before the game, a free concert was held that featured the Black-Eyed Peas and Tim McGraw. The teams entered after a display of pyrotechnics that would make Gene Simmons blush. Harry Connick Jr. sang the national anthem. NBC deluged the broadcast with promos for the up-coming season (Jay Leno didn't retire?). The only thing missing was a red carpet and Joan Rivers.

This is America, baby! We want everything packaged like the Super Bowl.

American football is larger than life. It is the only sport where the view from home beats the one at the game. As the average televisions get larger and HD becomes the industry standard, Americans at home are dwarfed by the NFL player even from theirs own couches.

The flow of the game suits the broadcast networks perfectly. One team controls possession of the ball for a certain amount of time and then gives back possession to their opponent. As the various units of the team trade places, what are you going to do? You're going to sell Budweiser, that's right!

Rick Desira thinks English football players look like him. Well, the NFL players I root for every Sunday look nothing like me. Covered in pads and a helmet, the NFL player looks like he's about to enter the Coliseum to battle lions. And he has the abbreviated life-span to match.

An NFL player knows all-to-well the brevity of his career. The violent collisions which begin and end each play spike our adrenaline. When I see Brian Urlacher crush Aaron Rodgers, a cherry bomb explodes within me. I not only want to see the Bears win. No, I want the Bears to physically crush their opponents. I want to see the Packers (especially) limp off the field, exhausted.

We all know that most of the NFL players are pharmaceutical miracles. No human can stand just the sheer effects of gravity on such a gigantic body without the aid of a pill or syringe. Yet we look down our noses at baseball players, cyclists, and runners whenever they test positive for an illegal substance. Will we ever reach a point of repulsion with the size of an NFL player?

As these two leagues continue to consume more and more of our leisure time, we will need to decide if we still consider the players athletes. Or should we label them entertainers? The line between the two terms narrows with every passing season.

The NFL now has the NFL Network. I would imagine that someday the Premiership will follow suit. The direction appears to be toward keeping all of the distribution of their product in-house. How this will affect the relationship we fans have with our teams remains to be seen.

What is not in doubt is the continued success of both leagues. When either league is in off-season, we fans can't wait for the opening kick-off. We are addicts, and as addicts, we will do anything to rationalize our devotion.

My name is Michael Brett. And I am an American football addict.

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