This season’s ‘off-season’ (if there ever truly is an off-season for football obsessives?) has provided me with an intriguing opportunity to compare and contrast the spectator cultures and experiences of two distinctly different sports in unusual contexts.
First up, Mrs. Football Nerd and I headed off to New York City for our almost-perennial holiday visit and with our own football-watching season having drawn to a close just five days previously, there was no way in this world that we could resist a trip to watch some ‘soccer’ on the evening of our arrival.
Having spent a couple of years of my youth growing up in the bordering state of New Jersey and having nurtured an understanding of, and penchant for, America’s pastime: aka baseball, and specifically the New York Yankees since those formative years, I have been highly fortunate in being able to make regular pilgrimages to the self-proclaimed ‘Cathedral of Baseball’, Yankee Stadium, now also home to the Big Apple’s newest sports team, New York City FC (NYCFC).
NYCFC were formed in 2013 as a joint venture between Manchester City and the Yankees and entered Major League Soccer as the 20th expansion team in 2015. Unlike as would undoubtedly happen in Europe or South America however, they are not seen as some Johnny-come-lately target for vitriol and hatred, instead their introduction was welcomed by their local, at least in terms of metropolitan area, rivals the New York Red Bulls, themselves backed extensively by a certain energy drink company, whose vice president at the time, Joseph Stenson, said: “We’re excited to have another MLS team in the area, it’ll help to raise awareness and coverage of MLS soccer in the area.”
Since their formation NYCFC has grown both as a club and in terms of its support, the ‘Third Rail’ their first recognised independent supporters club which boasts a number of chapters, has its own dedicated section of the stadium and aims to “to be the electricity that powers New York City FC, from the organization to the players on the pitch”.
Our first induction into the New York City matchday experience came when ‘guest’ (for that is what supporters are called in the States!) relations representative, Jonathan, called me the day before the game to ensure that I was “all set and good-to-go for the match the following day?”, not something we are used to experiencing for games in England!
Unfortunately for Jonathan and his thinly-veiled sales pitch the time difference meant that his call came through post-bedtime for those of us having to be up before dawn for our flight to New York. If I had perhaps been slightly less fogged by sleep, I would have enquired whether a free upgrade to a luxury suite and complementary drinks might be on offer for the inconvenience of having been woken up!
After an afternoon spent revisiting some our favourite haunts on the Upper West Side, we rode the subway up to the Bronx. Upon exiting the station what struck us immediately was that there wasn’t the usual throng of people milling around the concourse as there is for Yankee games, while NYCFC do seem to be building a reputation on the New York sports scene, there remains a significant way to go if they are ever going to rival the city’s real team, the Yankees.
Once inside, we found it intriguing, if not puzzling, to see that the pitch was marked out across the outfield, however as ballparks are designed around the diamond with four large tiers behind home plate and along the first and third baselines there was acres of space between the touchline and the stand and a decidedly lopsided feel to the place. Our seats behind the goal being angled to our left towards home plate only added to this surreal feeling.
Our visit for the game against Cincinnati FC, coincided with LGBT Pride Night. As far as football in England has come with the initiatives such as the Rainbow Laces campaign, we couldn’t help but wonder how the rainbow-themed: smokestacks to celebrate goals, jerseys, corner flags as well as the appearance of members of the NYPD Gay Officers Action League and Tonewall a gay acapella band, would have been received prior to Premier League matches?
The game itself was a lively affair with a much-improved style of football than we had remembered from a previous visit to watch Thierry Henry play for the Red Bulls; the fluid and dynamic City front three pulling the Cincinnati rearguard all over the place and racing into a 3-0 lead with just half an hour on the clock, the mini-Aguero-like Argentinian Maximiliano Moralez specifically impressing.
Yankee Stadium being designed as much for income generation as for sporting motives, there are more refreshment options than any normal human being could ever need, including the hawkers that roam the stands offering food and drink you didn’t even know you wanted, although I fear that Mrs. Football Nerd is still trying to come to terms with paying $15 for a can of lager even if it was getting on for two pints in size!
Cincinnati pulled one back through an own goal late in the half and at the break we decided to engage in the age-lost tradition of changing ends so we could experience the atmosphere amongst the Third Rail die-hards in the bleachers (the cheap seats to us here in Europe).
As dedicated as they were with their singing, chanting and throwing beer around (a wasteful move in our books given the prices!), there was a feeling we couldn’t shake off that it was somewhat stage-managed. It may have been designed to replicate the ultra movements of Europe and especially South America, but it didn’t perhaps feel as natural as it could and should have; although neither of us will forget the innovative ‘New York City Boys…’ refrain to the tune of the old Slade classic ‘Cum on feel the noize…’.
Late in the game a familiar face appeared on the Jumbotron video screen: that of parent club manager Pep Guardiola, there for something of a busman’s holiday we concluded. The game finished up 5-2 and had kept all of the 18,500 crowd intrigued. The evening itself had been highly entertaining, although it feels very much the case that if NYCFC are truly to achieve their lofty ambitions they will probably need their own soccer-specific home, finding a suitable location within the five boroughs however may not be that straight-forward.
… and so to London for a clash between baseball’s historically greatest rivals: the Boston Red Sox and my very own team for all these years, the New York Yankees, at the London Stadium. West Ham fans’ issues with their relatively new ‘home’ have been well-documented, but as Major League Baseball seeks to follow, albeit a little belatedly, in the footsteps of the NFL (American Football) and NBA (Basketball), the stadium built for the London Olympics offered a space just about large enough to create a baseball field within its confines, although seasoned baseball commentators had suggested that the fences: 385 feet at the furthest point, made it somewhat ‘cosy’.
Watching the first game of the inaugural ‘London Series’ on TV the previous evening while it may not have looked much different to a ballpark in North America, the 30 runs scored on 37 hits in a game that lasted for 4 hours and 42 minutes, suggested that this was not the usual set-up and whether by design or happenstance the stadium was going to favour hitters and ensure on-field action and plenty of it.
My associates for the afternoon were: my Dad at whose instigation last September we had headed off to New York to watch these same two teams in a crucial couple of late season games on consecutive evenings; Our Kid with whom I hadn’t watched a baseball game since our youth some three and a half decades previously; and Paul, Tranmere Rovers die-hard, World Cup travelling partner and complete and utter baseball novice. As we rendezvoused in the bar along with Paul’s wife and her best friend at their rather swanky apartment building a mere ten minutes from the Olympic Park in Stratford, we reflected that the last time the four of us had been together was for Brazil v Costa Rica at the World Cup in St Petersburg. Somehow we suspected that this might be an altogether different experience!
After making our way inside, procuring some of the readily available and not quite Yankee Stadium-priced refreshments we took up our seats just in time for the national anthems and the introduction of the two starting line-ups, all done with the expected American razzmatazz. Just as it had seemed watching on TV the previous evening, the stadium was transformed and barely recognisable, the sight of the top of Paul’s apartment building over the far stand a reference point to remind us we were in fact in London, England, not in Boston or New York.
Once again the game started in an unfamiliar manner with way more runs scored in the opening two innings than you would normally expect. The crowd it seemed, perhaps somewhat disappointingly given the expressed vision for the event was to spread the word of baseball, was largely made up of American expats and tourists using the games as an excuse to visit London and the UK.
The organisers had however gone completely to town on the entertainment during the course of the game, we had: ‘The Freeze’ – a masked, unknown sprinter, who gives a selected fan a 200-yard head start and still usually catches him in a footrace; the grounds crew’s rendition of the Village People’s ‘YMCA’ as has become traditional at Yankee Stadium since an impromptu performance during a rain delay; ‘Sweet Caroline’ a Fenway Park favourite as it allows fans to suggest “…Yankees suck”; and “Take me out to the Ball Game”, the seventh inning stretch staple of ballparks across the States.
However definitely most bizarre of all was a mascot race featuring the four most notable Brits as voted for by Major League Baseball fans; in case you are wondering the four characters were: Winston Churchill, Henry VIII…Freddie Mercury(???)…and… the Loch Ness Monster! The selections saying so much about American perceptions of Great Britain!
All of this gave the afternoon a carnival feel in which what was happening on the field worked in tandem with the entertainment designed to keep the crowd engaged. Even though the games were actually highly meaningful and important regular season games, they felt more like exhibition games, a chance for the Brits and Europeans in attendance to experience baseball and perhaps to encourage them to visit the US to take in games in more traditional venues.
The series will be repeated next year with the Chicago Cubs and St Louis Cardinals, also traditional rivals, already named as the participants, and I am of course planning to be in attendance, assuming Euro 2020 watching commitments don’t get in the way. It does however feel that the event should be pitched (get it?) and enjoyed as something different and to grow interest in the game of baseball, rather than the first steps in trying to establish the sport in Europe. Major League Baseball’s 162-game schedule and huge logistical challenges make that highly improbable.