Saturday, January 16, 2016

No Fat Lady

Cleveland fans making their feelings known.
After dining at the five-star restaurant that was the 1994 World Cup, I was hooked. Little did I know that in the years after I would be spending my time at Applebee's but two years later - it happened.

DC United. MLS. Makes sense, looking back. Being a teen with a drivers license, I was the target demographic for the new league. I attended a couple games at RFK in the summer that year. I don't remember much other than a few players and being in good company. I didn't care, really. I didn't seem to mind I was eating a restaurant that valued atmosphere over the food. I ate there anyway.

The first four years of MLS went by and my "hometown" DC United won three. The first couple were met with a "oh, neat." By 1999 I had no reaction.

Could it have been a DC thing? Growing up there I was around some magical professional teams. It's possible that maybe my apathy surrounding sports now is born from this. -- Long pause -- Hard to say. Analysing a person's sports fandom is much too complex for this post but I'm sure that it must have something to do with my formative years.


1975: NBA, Bullets lost in Finals
1978: NBA, Bullets win Finals
1982: NFL, Redskins win Super Bowl
1983: MLB, Orioles win World Series
1984: NFL, Redskins lose in Super Bowl
1988: NFL, Redskins win Super Bowl
1992: NFL, Redskins win Super Bowl

In Washington DC it was all set up by the Bullets in the mid-1970's. "The opera isn't over until the fat lady sings," is the famous line Dick Motta gave the area in 1978 as they worked their way through the NBA playoffs. I remember it as the way my dad says it when I ask... "IT AIN'T OVER TILL THE FAT LADY SINGS!" he'll say. Once they won the finals over the Seattle Supersonics the fat lady finally sung.

The way my parents describe the '70s is bittersweet. They were starting their lives together while the country was going through a rough patch. My father talks about how the movie Rocky plays a part in helping bring the country out of it. How there was hope, even in the darkest of times and the longest of odds. For the area, the Bullets built on this idea and not long after came a man named Ronald Reagan who won the presidency, in part, by talking about the shining city on the hill.

A few short years later would see the rise of Joe Gibbs, the Hogs and the Washington Redskins. In 1983, in front of 104k at the Rosebowl, was the first time they were crowned champions of the NFL. The very next year the went back but were blown out. It was the first and last time a cried over a sporting event. You know what, though? 1984's loss was easier to take because the Baltimore Orioles had won the World Series a few month's earlier in the "I-95 Series.

Under Joe Gibbs, the Redskins remained dominate throughout the '80s and early '90s. Winning again in 1988 and 1992. I remember thinking around that time that maybe the 'skins just won it every four years or so, and that was okay.

Cal becoming immortal.


Soccer was a large part of my life during my youth. In the same time period above you see the rise and fall of the original NASL. Washington took a stab at having a team but it never quite worked out. It did, however, plant seeds in the minds of the young parents in the area. To the point were Northern Virgina became a youth soccer capital of sorts. You can still see the impact of this today. Many writers and coaches are from the area and you still see some players rise out of the muck from there.

NASL might have died, but it left the country with a renewed thirst for the game. Perhaps it was a new thirst, just a different demo? Perhaps that is what scared the NFL into taking some legal action against the league? Regardless. The sport was in the suburbs. Was in the country. And was being played by record numbers of kids.

As a kid, you knew your big teams. Manchester United. Liverpool. But there was no real place to watch. It was a fun time to follow the sport though and the environment created an oddball class of fans. Bleached hair, hemp necklaces, hacky-sack. Landon Donovan is a product of this bizarre click, thinking back.

When the World Cup arrived in 1994, the country was properly primed. To this day, it remains the most attended event in the tournament's history. [Important to mention that I, myself, am first generation American on my mother's (English) side - and in the late nineties spent some time back in England. Leaving it at that, for now.]

1996: MLS, DC United won Cup
1997: MLS, DC United won Cup
1998: MLS, DC United runners-up
1999: MLS, DC United won Cup

In 2004 DC United won the MLS Cup again but by that time I was living down in North Carolina and after the 2002 World Cup showed me a much more fantastic world, I could care less about the league.


2002: NHL, Hurricanes Stanley Cup runner-up
2002: NCAA, Duke wins NCAA
2005: NCAA, UNC wins NCAA
2006: NHL, Hurricanes win Stanley Cup

After a quick stop in Virginia Beach for a year, I moved to North Carolina for college. Once the 2000s arrived I was living down there on my own. The Hurricanes making a run early in their history was a big deal for the area. Tickets for matches became a sort of thing to have. Of course, you have basketball that dominates the area and one or two of the teams down there are always winning something.

2006 was a transition year for me once again as I was jumping back and forth between NC and Ohio for work. The Carolina Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup was neat and remember the parade was a big deal, but the year was dominated by the World Cup in Germany (for me).


2006: NCAA, OSU Ranked #2
2008: MLS, Crew win SS, Cup
2009: MLS, Crew win SS
2014: NCAA, OSU ranked #1
2015: MLS, Crew Cup runner-up

The King of the Castle in Columbus, Ohio is The Ohio State University. It's dominance over the region stretches back 100 years. Sure, as the city grows, there is room for a couple pro teams in hockey and soccer but nothing comes close to OSU.

Fans of the football team have near religious attachments to the football program. While The years have but up a barrier between me and big-time college athletics, it's impossible to not feel the tractor-beam-like pull of a successful season (which most are, parity is what US leagues need though right?).

Like the other places I've called home, Columbus comes alive in her own way when the Buckeyes are near the top. There's that "magic" I've experienced in the other places I've lived.

What didn't move the needle in the time frame is Major League Soccer. The Crew (CREW!) won the MLS Cup in 2008 and I couldn't be bothered with it. There were people that were, but it was a small group and it certainly didn't mean much to the city. It might as well have been Ohio University winning something or a large high school winning a state tournament.

2014 was the first year I lived in a town where a college "won" division 1 college football. In fact, it was the first year of the "playoffs" for the sport. I suppose that's pretty neat but I don't think it'll be something much remembered down the road. With massive ratings declines year over year, I expect this current format to be short lived. In other words, I won't be telling future generations about how I experienced the 1st winner.

MLS CUP, 2015

So, here we are. 2015 Columbus Crew SC. New investors. New faces. New BRAND. And finally, a championship final to call their own. It was pretty neat. I even ventured out to the Cup final to experience it for myself.

We are more than a month on from the game now though and I find myself asking myself "where was the magic?"

My heart has hardened over the years towards college or professional sports. It hasn't stopped me from watching or enjoying but I am more curious about the inner goo of teams and leagues than who wins things. It also hasn't stopped me from observing and experiencing how a city responds to their champions.

Personally, after spending the last five years writing tens of thousands of words about MLS and the Columbus Crew, I half expected some deep-seated wire to get tripped and the fireworks to go off. It didn't though. I suppose the other half is more than a half, then. MLS just hasn't done anything for me since the beginning in regards to championships.

I know that there will be kids in the area that will remember this MLS final like I remember my local teams making runs at titles in my youth, but they won't remember an entire city wrapping their arms around a team. No wall to wall local news coverage of smiling adults on the snowy streets of Washington with 'Skins toboggans getting randomly high-fived by passers-by. No region springing to life like Tobacco Road or how Columbus finishes off yet another successful football season like a very large and satisfied bear heading into a winter slumber in a cave atop his kingdom.

Going over what Crew SC were able to accomplish this year is none of those romantic things. In fact, running back over it feels like checking off a series of company goals. Think of those pictures you saw recently of team office folks during the MLS "super draft." THAT is the image I hold in my head when thinking MLS titles.

Build strong front office
Rebrand tired image
Revise gate to tix sold metric
Improve social metrics
Reduce loses, +% merch
Win league trophy
Upgrade office (paint walls)
Reduce staff turnover
Revise attendance policy

Every team has these things, of course. But no league puts them so front and center as MLS does. It's all about rules, fan engagement and soft items like that. So precious little of it has to do with heart. I mean, I see it in the players but it isn't projected very well by the league.

The intensity of MLS and the "super draft"

I don't believe it has to do with lack of history. Soccer has been in the US for over a hundred years. When the Bullets won the NBA title in the late '70s they had only just merged with the ABA. When the Redskins were winning the Super Bowl in the '80s the league the NFL was only in its teens. Maybe it's the deep non-current organized league history of teams that drive fans? There's some independence when you dig into the histories of NBA, NHL or NFL teams (MLB has always maintained the independent "club" philosophy).

MLS likes to market its youth but other modern leagues aren't as old as we like to think. NFL being the big one. When MLS was formed 21 years ago we were only on Super Bowl 24. Not sure how old the NBA really is. I'm not even sure they know. Doesn't prevent either of them co-opting deep histories beyond their current formations.

Now that I've gone over my little sports history and self-reflection MLS comes off even more as a league pooped out by modern incarnations of our organized sports in the US. It's the pure and unsullied version of what they want. Business and profit first. In fact, MLS is much more like what we see now in St. Louis with the NFL rams leaving. No benches being ripped out of the stands. No marching band left marching decades after the team abandoned them.


Lots of open ended items in post. There seems to be one thought that sticks with me after going over my little history. With no independent spirit or passion in the their history to point to or pull from, events that should matter - just sort of happen.


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