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Popularity is a tricky issue, isn’t it?

A niche indie band, a cool local bar, a unique and somewhat odd hobby – something that you love and are dedicated to suddenly has a surge of popularity. Overnight, something that felt unique and special to you now has a lot of attention.

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And while that should be good, the rise in popularity also comes with a new group of fans and aficionados who just don’t seem to get it. And the initial impulse is to push back, to hope they’ll sort out how to be “real” fans, how to more quietly appreciate the object of your affections.

The entry of Lionel Messi into MLS has had many prongs—rising eyes on the league, rising tickets prices, rising attention—and almost all of these prongs has also led to, or been the result of, new fans and curious onlookers. 

It’s not just Messi, of course. Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) and Welcome to Wrexham (FX) have brought in an entirely new variety of fans. We see new fans of particular teams, new fans of different leagues, and new fans of the sport in general. Excitement breeds excitement. And while soccer was never a global secret, it’s still been marginal enough in the US for fans to sometimes feel as if they’ve been in on something fledgling that’s about to break big.

Now it actually seems to be doing that, but not quite in the way anyone expected. Naturally, this results in all kinds of social media pushback.

For example, as Nashville and Miami moved further and further into the League Cup, eventually meeting in the finals, one could not help but be someone transfixed not only by Messi’s performance (and let’s not at all forget the additions of players like Alba and Busquests) but by the discourse about and around him online. And while my expectations of internet decorum are always already very, very low, I can’t help but think we can and should do better as a community.

I’m not speaking of everyone of course, but for every single posts that seemed to welcome new fans to the league and to the discussion, there were almost five that seemed absolutely angry that new people were coming to the table who didn’t yet understand the language. Or brushing them off for only coming to the discussion because of Messi, claiming they’d lose interest the moment he leaves Miami.

Look, I get the feelings of frustration. When I went to see the Chelsea-Wrexham game in Chapel Hill this summer, it was absolutely befuddling to see a crowd that must have been 60 percent in favor of Wrexham with merchandise lines that went on for blocks. Indeed, I saw two grown men wearing Wrexham jerseys with “Lasso” as the name on the back.

What in the world do we have here? Clearly, if you’ve chosen Wrexham as your team, you are coming new to this (well, I feel safe saying that about 99% of that crowd). As a result, the stadium was bizarrely quiet. The Chelsea crowd tried to initiate their own chants but the whole thing felt amiss, as if we weren’t watching soccer at all but were instead taking part in a spectacle made for television. I was befuddled at times and, quite frankly, irritated.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t like my reaction. And the more I continue to think about it, the more I’m convinced that the proper response is to be joyful about the new excitement and to be welcoming.

There will always be time in the future to have discussions about the constantly evolving idea of what “support” means and what discussions about soccer should “sound like”. But, right now, instead of criticizing and gatekeeping people who are new to the game, new to MLS, shouldn’t we be welcoming?

In the same way that I appreciate long term F1 fans who are friendly with me, a convert of Drive To Survive, shouldn’t I be welcoming in my own way? Don’t I want soccer to be the biggest sport in the nation? 

Don’t we get there by being open to anyone who comes to the sport, regardless of the path they took to get there?

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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