The Philosophy Of Free Beer

Unless you hate beer (and even if you do), this should be an obvious statement: you attract more friends with free beer than you do with a snobby attitude. Or, let me try again without the alcohol: you attract more friends when you are friendly than when are not. Or, if you want people to join you in an activity you love, it helps to invite them to do so. Pretty simple, right? And yet, so often, people find themselves so torn between the desire to build a larger community and the desire to hold a position of what we might call “in-group superiority” that they push people away rather than pull them close.

Be it an occupation, a civic group, or a hobby, almost every group out of necessity develops its own specialty languages and customs. Those outside the community often think specialty terms are unnecessary and only serve to mystify and exclude those on the outside. (i.e., “Why don’t they just say what mean? Why all those weird words?”) And while there are times when that may be the case, often the vocabulary and culture has developed for very good reasons and, in fact, eventually learning the overall vocabulary is a necessary part of the education of someone who wants to join a community.

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I will never forget my first theory seminar in graduate school. I felt as if all of the upper level students and the faculty were speaking a foreign language. Even when they used terms I knew, the specific meaning seemed to be very different than my everyday usage. Moreover, there was a certain attitude whenever I, or one of the other new students, tried to ask what a term or phrase meant. You know, it felt as if you were made to feel dumb for not knowing something that you simultaneously couldn’t be expected to know. While I came to understand that the language itself had developed for very good reasons historically, and that understanding the specific uses of these terms and the history of the struggle over their meaning was indeed part of the education of learning my particular discipline, it took awhile to get me there.

And I was motivated to do so. I had a personal goal to complete my degree. So, as obnoxious as I found the other students (and, quite frankly, some faculty), I busted my ass to come to learn this new language, new customs, different ways of writing. Again, I only did the work because I had a goal. Otherwise, I would have such, “Screw your exclusionary behavior and obnoxious attitude; I’m outta here.”

I sometimes worry that the soccer community does this same thing, mostly by accident, sometimes perhaps not. I remember when I first started watching soccer, I wanted to feel like I knew what I was doing, what I was watching. But, first off, unlike some of you, I didn’t grow up playing it. I didn’t know the positions; I didn’t know the rules; I didn’t understand anything. “Stoppage time?” “Offside?” “Attacking midfielder?” “Why is that a handball?”

Seriously, this very simple things were initially baffling and some of the language, which now seems native, confused me. Luckily, not only am I too old to give a crap about looking like a dunce, but I also had a couple of friends who were always willing to answer questions and never worked to make my ignorance seem a hindrance. Indeed, they made me feel like they were sharing of their greatest pleasures, so I felt like, in a weird way, I was making it all a little bit of fun for them.

I don’t think I need to go into abstractions like “We need to work to be inviting in order to ‘grow the sport'” or whatever in order to make my plea for inclusionary behaviors. I mean, of course, I want the sport to grow. But we don’t even need to go that far. All we need to do is think, “I want people to have fun. My experience with soccer is amazing, so why not help potential new fans feel more included than excluded? Why not find non-condescending ways to explain the sport and its culture rather than show off one’s knowledge or one’s imagined standing in the community by pushing others away?”

I recently had a conversation with Dan Wiersema, who coordinates Communications and Special Projects for The American Outlaws and works on communication freelance for a number of soccer organizations, but I first met him and know him best as the curator and voice of the Free Beer Movement. While he is no longer active running Free Beer Movement, as he notes on the web page, no one can own an idea, and the idea behind FMB is a simple one. Find someone who doesn’t watch soccer, invite them to join you in watching a game, and buy them a beer. As Dan puts it, “It’s a modest idea to create new and future fans of the game through the power of free beer. Beer is the medium. Soccer is the message.” Free beer is an invitation to enjoy.

When Dan started Free Beer Movement, he had just moved to Austin, TX and, knowing very few people, dedicated himself to growing the local soccer community. So, taking a page from a post on a blog that followed DC United, Dan bought two season tickets to the original version of the Austin Aztecs (USL). For every game, he invited a friend, gave them a free ticket and literally bought them a beer. In addition, putting his money where his mouth was, he would invite friends who weren’t soccer fans to watch MLS games with him at a bar, or at his home. And, yes, he bought the beer.

More than beer, however, Dan brought an invitational attitude to every opportunity. “Why wouldn’t I want my friends to enjoy this game that I love so much,” Dan asks. Dan remembers times in the past when he either sat in very empty stadiums or was the only one in a bar watching soccer, and added, “No one wants to watch alone, and it’s so much more fun with a huge group. One of our slogans is ‘Building American Soccer One Beer at a Time,’ and this is probably a great time for Nashville to think about it as they are right at the moment of moving to MLS.”

What I like about FBM is not the literal prescription of free beer. It’s more the idea that this is a game that can be loved by anyone, at any level. In a very simple way, the philosophy of FBM can be practiced with or without beer; it’s basically this: be kind, be friendly, give people a reason to love the game. Make fandom feel open rather than cliquish. So, yes, conversations about tactics can get pretty complex, the places fanship can take you pretty extreme, but the idea of allowing a newbie to feel comfortable asking basic questions and to enjoy the games, that’s pretty damn simple.

Let’s do it.

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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