More and more we are hearing about overseas fans of the Premier League and La Liga. Numbers are growing in football's 'emerging markets' throughout the world with unprecedented interest from the USA, Malaysia, China and more.
Liverpool chairman Ian Ayre recently commented that his club would like an end to the collective funding agreement in which all Premier League clubs benefit from an 'equal share of the pot' - he would like Liverpool (and all other clubs) to go their separate ways in terms of individually negotiating TV deals in foreign markets. Thankfully this was met with outrage from senior officials in the English game and it is believed that the other Premier League power-houses have distanced themselves from Ayre's comments.
This comes not too long after the Premier League bandied about the idea of 'the 39th game' - a possible additional game for each Premier League club in the domestic season to be played overseas - a larger scale version of what the NFL have been doing in London this past four or five years or the Italian's in the Beijing Super Cup.
This coming Sunday Real Madrid face Osasuna in a match that kicks off at 12.00 noon - something that Madrid are keen on pushing, including for el Clasico's, in order to benefit from the Asian TV market.
Football is changing - is it for the better or worse? Will this hinder the development of the domestic game within the emerging markets? How will China ever grow their own league and national team if the people are only interested in watching what Europe has to offer? Or will it raise the game to an all time high in terms of profile and attract more young people to play the game, therefore having a positive impact?
The MLS seems to be going from strength to strength and I often communicate with a number of Stateside NUFC fans on here and through Twitter. Those chats plus all of the above left me wondering what it must be like to support and love a football club from afar. I was born in Newcastle and live four or five miles from St James's Park - it dawned on me that I take that fact for granted. What would it be like if I couldn't go?
This week I caught up with Robert Schwoch and Tom Ziemer from www.newcastleunited.us (you may know them as @NUFC_US on Twitter) to find out exactly what it is like. Great guys. Enjoy:
Q. How did you get into football?
Bob: My mother is from Italy; one of my earliest sports memories is watching Serie A on fuzzy black-and-white TV in the â€™60s with my cousins in the little hilltop village in Umbria where my family is from. Iâ€™m a huge fan of the Italian national team, I support Roma, and Iâ€™ve been watching Italian football for years via satellite on RAI. I came to the Premier League more recently with the advent of regularly televised matches here on ESPN and the Fox soccer channels. English football is more exciting these days than Serie A, and Newcastle has surpassed Roma in my affections. But Iâ€™ve still never seen an English or Italian match in person.
Tom: I played (not particularly well) as a youngster in the mid-90s and half-heartedly followed MLS during its first few years, but soccer really slipped off my radar until the 2002 World Cup. The U.S. made the quarterfinals that year, which gave me a reason to watch and helped reignite my interest in the sport. I started watching Premier League and Champions League games a few years later when I got to college and have been battling the addiction ever since.
Q. Why Newcastle?
Tom: Most American fans tend to support Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool because they're on TV the most.
Bob: Also, most American fans are total plastic glory-hunting bandwagon-jumpers.
Tom: When I first started watching the Premier League, I kept an eye on both Arsenal and Chelsea. But I've never been one to root for the frontrunner, so I quickly ditched those two once I learned a bit more about English football. I didn't have a club team for a couple years - my main interest was the U.S. national team - until I learned that my girlfriend (now my wife) had been to a Newcastle match while studying abroad in Alnwick. So I figured it might be a mutual interest for us (I've since realized she isn't as consumed by soccer as I am).
Bob: No one on earth is as consumed by soccer as Tom is.
Tom: The more I read about Newcastle and watched its games, the stronger the connection felt. I grew up less than an hour away from Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of the Packers, so I could identify with Newcastle fans living in the northern part of their country and only caring about one team.
Bob: I identified with Newcastle almost instantly when English matches hit TV here. As Tom said, Newcastle is a natural for a Packer fan: a northern town, distant from the major population centres, associated with beer, famous for the devotion of the fans. That may be one reason we have a disproportionately large handful of Newcastle fans here in Wisconsin. I fell in fast with that crowd in the soccer pub near my house. They were the least pretentious and most fun. Newcastle fans looking for an NFL club to follow should consider Green Bay â€“ theyâ€™d feel right at home, except that in terms of trophies, the Packers are the equivalent of Manchester United.
Q: What are the benefits to being an overseas fan? The drawbacks?
Tom: I think the benefits have increased as technology has improved. We're now able to get any Premier League game, whether it's on TV or on the Internet (and I'm not talking about pirated streams). English fans aren't as lucky in that regard. We're also able to stay up to date on news and rumours thanks to the bevy of online sources.
The separation also sometimes allows overseas fans here to form purely rational opinions. When you're close to the situation, it's hard not to be blinded by emotion. Of course, sometimes that's more fun.
The biggest drawback is obvious: It's much harder for us to attend games. And, while the popularity of soccer is rising in the U.S., knowledgeable English Premier League fans, let alone Newcastle supporters, aren't that common. We connect through mediums like Twitter, but it's not quite the same as speaking in person.
Bob: This is going to sound like a joke, but Iâ€™m serious â€“ I like that the matches are over before anyone knows youâ€™ve been gone. Some Americans would view the time difference as a drawback, and it can be rather difficult when Newcastle plays a lunchtime game in England and weâ€™re dragging ourselves out to the TV or into a pub at 6 a.m. But it preserves most of Saturday or Sunday to be with the real world.
Other than that Iâ€™ll echo what Tom said. Our blog has become popular in part because we have a slightly more rational perspective being so far from the madness; English readers tell us that all the time. But Iâ€™m aching to get to Newcastle and St. Jamesâ€™ Park, especially after the U.S. tour this past summer, when we met so many Geordies and felt so at home with that crowd. It really validated Newcastle as having been the right pick as â€śmyâ€ť club.
Q: How far can soccer go in America? How big is the potential and will we ever see the U.S. win the World Cup?
Tom: The potential is obvious, given the U.S.'s size and economic standing. To me, though, it's a question of mentality. The U.S. national team has developed into a respectable side, but it's never played with the sort of flair that's required to reach elite status. I tend to think that's a direct result of the structured manner in which youth sports are organized here. Unless the U.S. starts to produce a handful of creative and technically gifted players, I can't see it winning a World Cup. And while the U.S. does have resources, it's not as if countries like Spain, Germany and Italy are going to stop supporting their national teams anytime soon.
Bob: The potential is gigantic, but I think it depends more on MLS than the national team. Soccer wonâ€™t attract or retain the maximum talent pool here until thereâ€™s something bigger to aspire to â€“ until people pay attention to soccer more than once every four years. I used to coach youth baseball, and my teams would lose lots of players to soccer because it was more fun to play, more democratic, with everyone involved and not so much standing around. But the more talented kids tended to stick with baseball. They had major-league dreams. Thatâ€™s why MLS took that name. It has to keep growing into that name. When American kids start dreaming of being a hero for the Red Bulls like they dream of being a hero for the Yankees, thatâ€™s when weâ€™ll see American soccer really contend internationally.
I know that a lot of you reading this are overseas fans. Please feel free to share your thoughts, experiences and stories in the comments box below (though you might have to forgive me if it takes a few days to publish the comments as I am off to that Real Madrid game that I mentioned this weekend!)
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