Intimacy versus commodity: the two sides of soccer fandom

In 1985, soccer journalist and author Paul Gardner set about to diagnose the causes of the ultimate failure of the North American Soccer League, writing a piece titled “The Decline And Demise Of Professional Soccer” for the New York Times.  His obituary continues to give us something to chew on, both nationally and locally.

Gardner noted, and it is worth quoting at length;

Pitifully few of the NASL’s owners ever displayed more than a superficial grasp of the essential nature of soccer. They saw it first and foremost as something that was widely popular elsewhere in the world, a commodity that could be marketed for the American audience. 

Paul Garder. “On The Decline And Demise Of Professional Soccer.” New York Times. February 17, 1985

The problem is, he went on;

“Soccer is not a commodity. It comes with a 100-year history of intense human involvement. It is a sport that seems to call for a peculiarly intimate and passionate involvement with fans. But there is no such thing as instant intimacy. It takes time to develop, it needs a history. That was something that the American public could not bring to soccer.” 

Paul Garder. “On The Decline And Demise Of Professional Soccer.” New York Times. February 17, 1985

Intimacy proves to be important, Gardner argues because intimacy is what “allows the world’s soccer fans to forgive their sport its excesses and its aberrations, to overlook its shortcomings.”

The space between commodity and intimacy is simultaneously both a huge gap and an illusion, but our (the fans’, rather than owners’) orientation to the sport as commodity or something with which we are intimately intertwined makes for a huge difference. 

On the one hand, of course soccer is a commodity. No one could possibly deny this with a straight face (and my colleague Davey Shepherd is always the first one to point this out).  On the simplest level, John Ingram owns Nashville Soccer Club (well, ok, the single entity model makes it a bit more complex than that, but you know what I mean; the team is a business interest). The team sells tickets. They sell merch. They have marketing departments. There are multiple levels of seats, different tiers of premier club seating, and so forth. Regardless where you managed to sit and cheer, you’ve “bought” the right to do so for the price of a ticket. 

Owners may have many motives in owning a team. Indeed, John Ingram speaks quite beautifully about the way soccer brings a diverse community together as one. But it is ultimately (although not solely) a business. On a long enough timeline, it needs to produce revenue. Or, at least, be come close to breaking even. Maybe Barcelona is the exception.

On the other hand, I know what it means to think of your relationship with a team as a type of intimacy. The relationship many of my friends who are hard core Premier League fans have with their teams illustrates this type of intimacy. Indeed, I felt more comfortable getting a tattoo of my team than of my wife because I knew for certain one of those relationships would last forever. 

We swear our vows toward our team with fervor.

“I don’t care how often we lose, I will be there, with the team, cheering them on.” 

“We can be relegated back to Sunday leagues, and I would still be standing tall with my team”. 

There’s truly something of a “for better or worse, til death do us part” sound to the whole thing. And such claims are made emphatically.

Nick Hornby discusses the perils of such intimacy in Fever Pitch. While acknowledging that ultimately he knows he is buying tickets to see a sporting event, he also knows that there is a sense in which the team could exploit him because he’ll be with the team regardless of what they do, of what product they put on the pitch. I’m sure there are limits but barring the team announcing Nazi ownership, I don’t see Hornby walking away.

As we slump toward the end of Nashville SC’s first season at Geodis, it’s interesting to watch this intimacy/commodity bifurcation play out. Especially as we opt in or out of season tickets. 

Now, I’m in. Especially since I signed a contract to buy five years of tickets. I’ll be at the games. 

Regardless of how the team communicates with us, regardless of the parking situation or the win-loss record, I’m in.  I’ll complain and whine at times; I’ll cheer and weep happily at others. But I’ll be there, as will many of you.

Others have publicly chosen not to return next season, citing anger at parking, or at the style of play, or how they are taken for granted, and so forth. All legitimate complaints and concerns.

Of course, the description I’m giving isn’t completely true. It’s not as simple as one group feeling intimacy and the other treating the team as a commodity—there is always a mixture of both going on, but for the moment, let’s keep the two groups as “intimacy” versus “commodity.”

Those on the side of intimacy will argue that this is what soccer fanship is meant to be, that this is what it means to be a “true” supporter (and my more mystical side buys that argument). Those on the side of commodity will argue that when they buy tickets, they are bargaining for a good product, just as if they were buying a car. If I give you my money, and you sell me a lemon, I’m not coming back. Gardner, with whom we began, would argue that you must have the former in order to survive the times when the latter back away.

While it is easy and romantic to stand on the side of the intimates (and, again, I honestly lean in that direction), I want to be clear that there is something to be said for the commodity group. What Gardner is arguing in the opening quotations is that without intimacy, fans will not stick around for the low points and the inconsistencies, that, in Europe, the sense of intimacy carries a team a long ways.  And there is something to be said for that.

However, shouldn’t we also be a bit sympathetic to the other side of these types of fanship? I mean, if we are all going to show up for ever, regardless, what motive would the team have to try out new ideas, to try to change and advance? To improve their communication? To improve the team? If we are all Nick Hornby and will be there forever, is there as much urgency in improving things?

I’m not so sure.

Ultimately, I’m solidly on Team Intimacy, but I think we should all be a little more guarded in our critique of Team Commodity. And, to be fair, Team Commodity needs to be more guarded in their critique of Team Intimacy.

We need each other. The team needs both. 

Perhaps we should all be a bit of both.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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