Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Home is Where You Hang Your Scarf

By Nate Beckman / Guest Writer

About a year ago I uprooted myself from Columbus, Ohio and landed in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a move partly for a new role at work, but also to force myself out of my comfort zone a bit. Since then, all holidays, lesser festivals and so-called seasons have now been experienced in the desert. Perspective has been gained. New happy hours are now memorized. One of the things I’ve learned is how to be a soccer fan from afar. 

I was somewhat used to this because of watching so much European soccer over the past ten years, but Major League Soccer is a different beast. While I’m thankfully no longer relegated to flipping on “The Ocho” to find a televised soccer match (remember Fox Soccer World?), there are quirks and challenges in being an out-of-market MLS fan that don’t pop up for supporters of the "big four" sports. It’s a unique experience in fandom.

Far and away my favorite place to experience soccer is Columbus Crew Stadium. I was there to see its borning cry and until someone decides to plunk down $180 million to move the Crew into new downtown digs (Les Wexner, looking at you) it will remain my most cherished plot of land other than my boyhood home.

Obviously I can’t attend many home games now that I live 2000 miles away. This means that when I arrived in Arizona one of my top "to do" list items was sorting out my game day situation. The easiest move to guarantee that I would get the matches was to purchase the MLS Direct Kick package; this would bring all the MLS action I could stand into my living room. I could also purchase or attempt to find games online, but that isn’t exactly the game day experience I was looking for. I most enjoy soccer in a pub and my mission was to find an MLS-friendly one and make some new best friends.

I’ll get back to my story later, but here’s my field guide to selecting a soccer pub on new turf:

This mission starts with the essentials:
1) finding a bar that would be open;
2) ensuring that it has the right channel; and
3) making said bar manager/phone lackey pinky-swear to put it on at least one screen for you.

None of these are issues if you’re in the home market, because you’d either be at the stadium, watching the local feed at home or watching at a supporter’s bar. But them’s the breaks, and I’ve never been averse to solving problems.

The first of these steps is easy to sort out, especially living two to three time zones west of most of my team’s game times. Playing the games a bit earlier in the day makes it only more convenient; a 7:30pm start time now lands right in the middle of happy hour! Plus, Saturday afternoons from March through August aren’t always the busiest times and many pubs are thrilled to have someone come in and take over the place for a couple hours. And as anyone who’s lounged around in quasi-empty bars knows, that often leads to more friendly service and the occasional “forgotten” drink on your tab.

But all is lost unless requirement #2 is met - the pub needs to receive the proper channel. If I had $20 million for every time I went into a supposedly soccer-friendly pub and they didn’t have the right network/package to carry the channel needed to enjoy my footy, I’d be on the beach right now. Actually, I’d be in Columbus preparing “special” hot cider for every match… but maybe I’d also be hearing construction on that downtown stadium.

For the 2011 season, there are 82 nationally televised matches out of a possible 306. This means that 27% of all matches are pretty definitely on TV, wherever I might show up. However, my Columbus Crew only managed to score two national appearances, meaning I will have to rely on the MLS Direct Kick package (local feeds) for 94% of their matches. Guess how many bars had Direct Kick in Phoenix last year? Here’s a hint: it starts with one and rhymes with one. Convincing a bar to buy the package isn’t impossible, but it’s just that much more legwork; legwork that would send a more casual fan packing. A tip on this one - get the DirecTV app on your smart phone and look up the channel for your game ahead of time. Providing the exact channel (FSC is 619) for your Bartender or Bartendette will make their life easier and will win you instant cool points.

The final leg of this journey often is the one in which I suffer the most indignity; screen assignment and game sound (or lack thereof). First of all, my 2012 presidential campaign will be on the platform that all sports bars must have multiple HD screens of at least 42” throughout their establishments. Further, all sporting events will be broadcast in HD. Yes, the free market should dictate this, but it still gets my goat to see standard def. That said, as a non top-tier event in the eyes of many, my MLS matches have often been relegated to the bar’s “kids table”; the small screen… in the corner… on standard def. And good luck with getting sound. Granted, if two people in a bar of 100 are watching an event, I don’t expect for them to be able to dictate that their game gets sound. All the more reason to pre-establish your soccer pub and sound arrangement and to bring friends for swagger (Free Beer Movement, anyone?).

Some day in Nate's Arizona bar?
There’s an entrepreneurial spirit about the MLS right now that makes staking out space in a pub akin to the Oklahoma land grab. MLS Front offices across the country are looking to its supporter groups for passion and originality, driving the sport further and further into our uniquely American identity. What starts as simply finding a spot in a pub to hunker down and watch some soccer may turn into a lifetime tradition for you and future generations.

This is the early teen years of soccer in the United States, and while frustrations may abound, successes are wildly enjoyable. The simple act of friends gathering in public to watch MLS exposes the game and the league to the uninitiated, especially in cities currently without an MLS team. This gives the whole experience an edge, a purpose that I don’t feel when I watch other sports.

In my case, I lucked into a bar right away that was willing to pick up the MLS package. Sometimes I could find some friends and soccerphiles to tag along, but often not. Many times after a few too many Pepsis, I would have to leave my car at the pub and run back to it the next morning. But it felt like home whenever the black and gold took the field. And to me, that was worth it… especially when the home in my heart was 2000 miles away.

About Nate

Nate is a huge Columbus Crew fan (if you didn't pick up on that) current living in Phoenix, Arizona. You can find him on Twitter and writing at his own blog, 4castNate.

Support the Movement. Get the Free Beer Movement T-Shirt. Only from Objectivo.com


Mike said...

Great read. Maybe some advice on starting a local soccer bar too! I'm trying to start one here for the New England Revolution in Hartford. It's hard work, but hopefully it will pay in the end!

Aaron said...

Good read!

perplexed said...

As a Sounder Fan watching games with a Crew Fan in a DC bar frequented by Timbers fans I feel your pain.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to be forced to leave Columbus because of grad school. This hit pretty close to home :(

geoffersen said...

This is a great article with an admirable sentiment that is exactly in the spirit of The Free Beer Movement. Cheers to that!

SCOUtd said...

Excellent piece!

Anonymous said...

Soccer passion on tap!!

Post a Comment

"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
- Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

Thanks for leaving a comment!