Premier League Fans in America Connect over the Internet

By: BillEShears (Tyler Duffy)

The Kop End at Anfield stadium in Liverpool is one of the most magnificent sights in international football. Thirteen thousand red-sporting Scousers with scarves held high sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as Liverpool take the field. The players, the fans and the stadium itself merge into one incendiary, intimidating mass awaiting the lunchtime kickoff of a tempestuous Merseyside Derby match against hated rivals Everton.

Thousands of miles away, a solitary soccer-loving American, up at the crack of dawn, stares at the spectacle on his television set through strained eyes, his enthusiasm dampened because his coffee has yet to finish brewing. “There were people around the entire U.S. who were watching these matches, but, for the most part, they were probably watching them at home on the couch on a Saturday morning with no one else there,” one American fan said.

No one knows exactly how many English Premier League fans are in America, though Fox Soccer Channel averages 300,000 viewers for a live match. It is a substantial figure, but one spread over a large country with a population of 300 million, leaving fans both few and far between. “There may be two or three of us inside the city limit,” another fan said.

For English fans, following a Premier League club is inherently communal. For Americans, the experience often proves one of isolation.

Though fans in the U.S. have had access to Premier League matches since Fox Sports World (now Fox Soccer Channel) began broadcasting them in 1998, fans have remained remote from one another and unable to forge a community. With the explosion of “web 2.0” technologies like blogs, podcasts, and social networking sites over the last few years, however, fans in America have been able to connect with one another over the Internet.

“The Other Football” blog at the Orlando Sentinel is the most popular item on the websites with an average of nearly 15,000 page views per day. An American based podcast which focuses on the Premier League, World Soccer Daily, is routinely one of the top 25 most downloaded sports podcasts in the United States, according to iTunes. Even a smaller Premier League club, such as Fulham F.C., has a U.S. based supporters’ club with over 1,500 members.

Most fans cannot stroll down to their local pub to watch matches and converse with fellow fans or have the proverbial “water cooler” conversations at work. They cannot flip to the back pages of their local newspapers to get the latest gossip. They cannot park themselves in front of a television network like ESPN to immerse themselves in the 24-hour discussion culture. For them, the connections formed on the Internet are essential.

One way that many American fans have connected with others is by starting their own blog. Given the vastness of the Internet, it is impossible to determine exactly how many Americans are blogging about the Premier League. EPL Talk, a social networking site for Premier League fans, links to 27 blogs based in America, though there are undoubtedly many more.

Some such as The 3rd Half, English Soccer Talk, or The Beautiful Game discuss news and events league-wide. Others, such as DerbyYankFan follow an individual club.

Jonathan Starling, 23, a customer service rep for an insurance company in Jacksonville, Florida, began his blog “Blues Views and General Musings” in the fall of 2006, which would later become “The 3rd Half.” He supports Chelsea F.C., though his blog deals with the Premier League in general.

His posts fall into two general categories. The first is “match reviews,” essentially minute-by-minute analyses of Premier League matches. “I was really interested to start writing about what I was seeing,” Starling said.

The second category is his “rantlines,” which are often posted late at night or as early as 4:30 in the morning on weekdays. The titles range from “Grant should just shut up” to the “Thank You Captain Obvious Statements of the Day.” The rantlines normally include passionate passages, such as this one about Chelsea manager Avram Grant defending his players for crowding around the referee and complaining after a foul call.

“WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT, YOU HAVE THE GALL TO ASK WHAT IS WRONG WITH THAT? Where would you like me to begin Grant? the fact that it’s blatant intimidation? brings the referee’s decision into disrepute? makes your players look like screaming little brats that were told they couldn’t get that chocolate bar at the check out counter?,” Starling wrote.

The 3rd Half has also been a way for Starling to share his emotions about his ailing father. “I would like to personally extend a hand of thanks to those who have kept him in their thoughts, said kind words, and kept my spirits high throughout the last year,” Starling wrote. “You’ve refused to let me get down and have been encouraging at times when I simply thought about giving up.”

The 3rd Half has become so popular that it has been picked up and promoted nationally by the Champions Soccer Radio Network, an American-based Internet radio station. Starling is currently in talks with the station to develop The 3rd Half into a show for the network.

Blogging about the Premier League has even spread to American newspapers. The most prominent is the Orlando Sentinel’s “The Other Football.” The Sentinel started the blog in May 2006 to cover the World Cup, and kept it going due to its popularity.

Brant Parsons, 34, is the author of the blog. He does not have a traditional journalism background. He worked in radio for nine years, before being hired by the Sentinel to produce the Sports Section of the paper’s website. He was asked to write for the blog, after editors discovered that he was a soccer fan.

He became interest in the sport through friends in Denmark. He chose to follow Arsenal F.C. because Nike sponsors their jersey, though their distinctive brand of attacking soccer has kept him hooked.

Parsons concentrates mostly on the English Premier League, though he will occasionally pen posts about American Major League Soccer and other European leagues. The Other Football is the most popular item on the Orlando Sentinel website, averaging close to 15,000 views per day and around 250,000 views during an average month. Americans and English fans form the bulk of the readership, though it draws in viewers from far-flung places, such as Malaysia, India, and South Africa.

The blog has astonished Parsons’ peers at the Sentinel, not just for the popularity in terms of page views, but for the communal atmosphere it has created. “The time spent on my blog is almost double everything else at the Orlando Sentinel,” Parsons said. “So not only are we getting a lot of unique visitors and a lot of page views, but the people that come, obviously that are soccer fans, they are reading the whole thing, they are ingesting it, they are making comments,”

Parsons’ blog has been so successful that he now writes a weekly soccer column for the Sunday print edition of the paper. He has also spoken at company events about the blog. He remains skeptical, however, that his success will lead other American newspapers to start similar blogs.

“People in Orlando at the Orlando Sentinel don’t quite understand why a soccer blog would be doing so well,” Parsons said. I get some playful ribbing, but I still thin
k they don’t understand the magnitude of the sport and of the followers that are out there.”

Some Premier League fans have taken the next step, delving into audio through podcasts, taped radio shows that can be downloaded and played on an mp3 player.

The most popular Premier League podcasts are professionally produced by news organizations in Britain, such as “Football Weekly” by The Guardian and “The Game” by The Times. However, there are also many independent podcasts produced by fans themselves.

Podcasts, in general, make a great effort to interact with listeners. Nearly all of them maintain a website and a message board where fans can make comments, ask questions, and banter directly with the presenters. “For soccer fans its great because it’s almost like a sub-culture of people who listen to them and interact with them,” one podcaster said.

One prominent podcast produced in America was Soccershout, created by Phil McThomas and Tony Wildey. McThomas, 34, is an Englishman who works as a project manager for an IT company in Maryland. Wildey, 30, is a Scot who occupies a similar position for a company in New York.

”Soccershout was the podcast Tony and I wanted to listen to,” McThomas said. “Something that would cover the game from a very down to earth fan’s point of view. We weren’t journalists. We had no vested interest in the game. We were just trying to talk like two fans talk.”

Soccershout was an informal show approximately half an hour long and released five days a week, Sunday through Thursday. It featured game recaps and previews for upcoming matches in England and Scotland as well as analysis of the day’s top news items.

Podcasting was enjoyable for McThomas, who at times feels isolated from the soccer-crazed culture of his youth in Middlesbrough, England. “There aren’t a lot of Brits where I work now so the banter about football is definitely not there,” McThomas said. “I enjoyed having a little chat about football every night.”

But, there were negative aspects as well. Podcast require a substantial time commitment. For amateurs like McThomas and Wildey with small children and full-time jobs, spending a couple of hours every night producing an audio show was simply not feasible.

“We set ourselves a bar that was very difficult to maintain, especially when Tony had his baby and that was when the threads started to unravel,” McThomas said. “Once, I stopped doing it. It was enjoyable not to be doing it and I’ve been refocusing my energies.”

McThomas searched for a format that was easier to manage, but also could help people more directly connect with one another. His energies are now concentrated on his new social networking site, Clever Football. He hopes the site will avoid some of the problems with podcasting.

“Something that I realized is that audio is not natural still to a lot of people. It’s an effort to get people to download big audio shows and have a player to listen to them on,” McThomas said.

Clever Football employs an innovative social networking platform called Ning, a creation of Marc Andreessen, one of the creators of Netscape. Ning allows members to customize and create their own social networks for specific interest groups, rather than use a generic overarching system, such as Facebook or MySpace. McThomas used Ning to create a social network, specifically for fans of the Premier League.

There are around 100 members of Clever Football as of right now. The site includes standard social networking staples like a message board, friends, and groups, but also has novel features, such as “Chunter.”

Chunter, a British term for low, inarticulate banter, is essentially a message board, though with added versatility. Users can post their “chunters,” which may be messages, blog posts, links, pictures, or videos. They can also choose to “listen” to the chunters of other members on the site and receive live updates when that member creates a new post.

McThomas has worked to create his own tools for the site that are uniquely useful for Premier League fans, such as a match-rating system.

Because of the time difference, Premier League matches are often on at inconvenient times for American fans, prompting them to use a TiVo or a Digital Video Recorder to tape the matches for later viewing.

Many fans record multiple matches, but only have time to watch one. They often opt for what they think will be the best match, only to be horribly disappointed with a drab 0-0 draw.

McThomas’ newest edition to the site would alleviate that problem. With the match rating system, fans who watched the match live can rate the match 1 to 10 in terms of entertainment value, allowing other fans to go to Clever Football and view the average ratings before determining which match to watch.

Though Clever Football remains in its formative stage, Phil has optimistic plans for it.

“I really haven’t been doing a lot of publicizing of it. I’m at the point in development where I am now going to start reaching out and getting people hooked into it,” McThomas said. “Hopefully, once I get that critical mass. It will be like the snowball that just keeps on rolling.”

A social networking site that is on a roll is EPL Talk, started in August of 2005 by Christopher Harris, who posts on his site under the handle “The Gaffer.” Harris, 38, is a marketing executive from South Florida, who moved to the United States from Wales as a teenager.

The site’s initial goal was “to bring people together online at one time to celebrate the English Premier League and make it so it wasn’t so much of a lonely experience,” Harris said.

EPL Talk has done just that. Harris writes the EPL Talk blog, which receives approximately 15,000 hits per day, about 50% coming from Americans. He also publishes the EPL Talk podcast, once a week, which is downloaded by about 5,000 people, 90% of whom are Americans. The podcasts are mostly interviews, with various figures involved with the Premier League both in England and in the U.S. He also produces occasional live shows where a panel of guests field and debate questions called in by members of the audience.

The site also contains the EPL Talk Community, which has 470 members. It features eight regular bloggers who contribute posts about the Premier League as a well as a message board forum.

Another popular feature is the EPL Talk Chat, where fans can come together to discuss the weekend matches online as they are watching them. “They know they are going to have fun and they know they will be able to discuss what they are watching without anyone slagging them off for being a soccer supporter,” said Jonathan Starling, of The 3rd Half, who hosts the chats. EPL Talk also features complete television listings for American fans and a store.

The website has even been successful enough to get a sponsorship deal with Subside Sports, a company that sells Soccer jerseys worldwide.

Initially creating the site for Americans, Harris has been surprised by how many people throughout the world have been attracted to his Internet community. “It’s become global,” Harris said. “There’s people who get involved from all corners of the world whether it’s Japan, Australia, the Middle East and, surprisingly, a lot from England.”

Social networking sites such as Clever Football and EPL Talk serve the Premier League populace at large, but they fail to provide the intimate experience of following a club. That’s where supporters’ clubs come in.

Nearly every Premier League club has some type of supporters’ club based in the United States. Some, such as the Everton Football Supporters Club of North America, are quite small, with a mere fifteen members. Others can number members in the hundreds, if not the thousands.

One of the more popul
ar supporters’ clubs is Fulham USA, started by Tom Wille and Mike Benedetto in December of 2004. Wille, 30, an account manager for a magazine company in Chicago, met Benedetto, who lives in England, while posting on a Fulham message board. “Mike has some background skills with websites and I do writing stuff and we just kind of thought it might be a good idea to put something together,” Wille said.

The site had 100 new members within a day of its founding, and now boasts a membership of 1,550. Most are Americans, concentrated in areas where soccer is popular, such as the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the upper Midwest. However, there are also members scattered throughout Europe and, from more obscure outposts like Honduras and Australia.

Fulham USA is one of the only free American supporters’ sites. Many, such as Arsenal America, charge a $20 membership fee, which gives members access to tickets, as well as other features.

The site contains a blog, a photo gallery, a pub guide, and even an arcade. The most popular features are the message board and chat rooms. “We have good discussions with people who have differing view points,” Wille said. “I believe that it builds a sense of community about the group of Fulham USA. It’s unique. And, it’s kind of cool.”

The message boards provide a forum for Fulham fans to discuss all things Fulham. But, they also extend to soccer in general and other facets of life. Discussions in their “Anything Goes” section range from the Democratic Primaries to David Copperfield.

One user named Andy, a second-year teacher from Halifax, Canada left a post entitled “I’m thinking of quitting teaching,” which started a heartfelt debate about the teaching profession and the state of special education in Canada.

The online community at Fulham USA has even expanded into a physical community.

“Through the message boards, people meet up with one another. I was up in Minneapolis about two months ago and I met up with a couple people who had posted on the message board,” Wille said. “I know there was a guy who went out to San Francisco who met up with four or five people there last week who posted on the board. There are also people who make the trip to Fulham and get together.”

Websites, such as Fulham USA have provided exactly what American fans lacked, a community with which to share their passion. Whether it is “soccer” or “football” and whether it is played on a “field” or on a “pitch,” it is this common passion for the game that unites fans of the English Premier League. Though they may be typing away on laptops rather than sharing pints at the pub, American supporters will never walk alone.

The above article is a college paper written by Tyler Duffy (better known to people as BillEShears from The Guardian’s Football Weekly Podcast fame). To read his regularly updated blog, visit the EPL Talk Community or his Odds and Sods website.

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