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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.

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