I took a quick trip across the pond, as they say, to check an item off my bucket list. Along the way I came to see a number of things that US sports should take away from what I’d best describe as “The England experience.”
Initially my trip overseas was in an effort to get my Uncle Paul to Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club. Through a series of screwjobs (pardon me scheduling changes) LFC’s game for that weekend was postponed and we had to scramble to find another game to attend.
Arsenal has been my favorite soccer team for a few years now, so the adjustment was just fine on my part. I was disappointed that we were unable to check off Liverpool, but figured Arsenal would be a nice consolation prize.
More than 60,000 on hand for an FA Cup tie (that’s what they call it sometimes when we’d call it a game or a match), it was a raucous atmosphere in a playoff setting.*
*The FA Cup is not the EPL regular season but rather a side tournament that goes on during the course of the Premier League’s regular season. It’s the existence of this FA Cup that ultimately postponed Liverpool’s game that we were originally slated to see.
So now that you have the background, I’ll give you the good stuff. What’s it like over there?
While there are official team exchanges, finding tickets through the internet isn’t quite as simple as it is here in the states. Specifically in the case of Arsenal…entrance to the stadium is granted through membership cards. You have to be a season ticket holder, or a member of the club in order to purchase tickets. Once purchased, your personal card is what grants you admission into the stadium. If you have a ticket for that particular match, you’ll be green-lighted. Otherwise, you hold on to your card for another game in which you might purchase tickets.
If you’re a foreigner attempting to get tickets, you have to find a way. I purchased two memberships to Arsenal (you need one for every ticket you plan on purchasing to a given game) and bought a pair of tickets through the club. The other two tickets proved to be a bit more difficult to track down.
I reached out to Arsenal America. A number of the big clubs overseas will have official memberships with groups in the states if you’re interested in going to see a game. Arsenal America is in touch with season ticket holders, supporters, club members, and as far as I understand they’re involved with the team as well.
I got an email from them two days before the trip that they had an additional pair of tickets lined up for us. All I had to do was……
Go to the Official Supporters Club (In this case a house that has been turned into a bar) and ask for Paul (a bartender in the club). I was told that he’d have our names and our tickets as well. My crew filtered out of the Arsenal tube station and found our way over to the supporters club. Sure enough, Paul was there with a pair of season ticket holder cards to loan to us for the match. The price was to be 50 pounds per ticket, and we had to bring them back after the game.
Here’s the funny thing….he offered to collect the money AFTER the match. Bring the tickets back…and pay now or later, it’s up to you. I was blown away at the level of trust here. Paul was staring at four American rubes over for their first soccer game and he offered to collect the money AFTER the game. What’s to say we wouldn’t just skip town? I loved it. It made me feel quite sure that the ticket arrangement was going to work.
It did. We all got in. Thanks, Paul.
Conclusion - I’m not sure I’d like this…but don’t be surprised if team’s look to copy it. It’s a way to ensure that THEY keep the money they might be losing on the secondary market.
Heading into the game I wasn’t sure how the beer situation was going to work. Here you have one of the biggest sports in the world, with huge beer sponsorships as well. Yet if you watch an EPL game on television you never see an empty seat. You don’t see anyone sipping from a beer. You don’t see beer vendors. Why’s that?
There isn’t any beer (at Arsenal’s stadium at least) allowed into the stadium bowl. If you want to drink a beer you’ve got to do it in the concourse.
This leads to:
Fewer bathroom breaks
Fewer beer runs
Fewer obstructions of play
An entirely sober crowd (it was a 12:45 game, and the pubs were packed before/after though)
More attention on the game at hand
Countless other GOOD things
Beer is at the stadium…but the game is the star of the show. Seems like that’s how it should be, right?
Conclusion - Good debate here. It has its value.
3. The Singing
Or perhaps I should call it the silence. You don’t hear…
The Chicken Dance
There is no music played during the run of play. They aren’t trying to sell you anything during the run of play. There’s a game. You watch it. You don’t have “This corner kick is brought to you by ______” or anything distracting like that. The game is allowed to flow. No commercial time outs, and no commercial interruption of the actual game in any way. It’s a beautiful thing.
I like goal songs in the NHL because, well, you can sing them. What happens when there's a goal scored and NOTHING HAPPENS????
People cheer! What's that? No "Rock and Roll Part 2"?
The thing that bursts out of this silence is increased crowd participation. What happens when you put 60,000 people into a stadium bowl, remove the beer and the constant noise pollution of pop songs?
They pay attention.
Every pass is scrutinized. Every cross. Every ball that’s not played to a clearly open winger making a run down the right side. You hear swells of groans and cheers. The soundtrack is tremendous.
What is often called “The Beautiful Game” is accompanied by a symphony of natural sounds. Arsenal striker Olivier Giroux flashes open at the top of the 18 yard box and the crowd urges the ball to go in. It’s delivered and while on it’s way the cheers swell, and a groan follows as Giroud is unable to control it.
One particular pass that I’ll remember was a long ball up the near side of the stadium. The crowed groans as the ball is delivered because it appears that Everton (the bad guys) have a good beat on it and will quickly gain possession. It squeaks through. Arsenal is away and on the move. A cheer of surprise follows, with the rumble of building anticipation behind it.
The crowd interacts non-stop.
Oh yes…and the singing. I mentioned Olivier Giroud earlier in this piece. His last name is pronounced just like Claude Giroux of the Flyers. He scored a pair of goals in Arsenal’s 4-1 win, and when that happens it’s doubly exciting. Giroux has his own song.
As is often the case, there are chants from the 1950s, and from last week. Giroud’s goals were met with thunderous renditions of “Hey Jude” with the supporters bellowing
“Na…na…na…na na na na…GIR-OUD”.
Singing. Rejoicing. It’s hard to score in soccer so the goals are an earthquake of an event. You don’t miss it for beer. You don’t miss it texting your favorite player’s number to some text line that’s going to register to win you a jersey. You just feel it.
Arsenal has several go-to songs. (There are other clubs that have better ones, yes I know this)
There’s the staple “Arsenal FC, we’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen” (Every club everywhere sings a version of this song)
“1-nil to the Arsenal” was appropriate when Mesut Ozil opened the scoring.
“Que Sera Sera” was the choice once the Gunners had locked up a 4-1 lead on their way to a comfortable win.
Singing. It’s a ton of fun.
It’s the height of fan participation. This isn’t a group of people half-heartedly raising their hands to participate in the wave. They ‘aren’t clapping their hands because some pop artist shouted at them to: “Every-body-clap-your-hands….”
They’re singing about their team. They’re singing about their history. If US sports worked this way, you can rest assured that Sabres games you’d hear a song about May Day, or Derek Plante. The greatest moments in team history are immortalized in song.
The silence is beautiful. That which fills it, is even better.
Conclusion - We need songs. Lots of songs. We need to sing them all the time. If we're going to play music at games it must solely be limited to songs that we all will want to sing along with EVERY time.
4. The Away Section
Soccer takes this seriously, as they should. Arsenal v. Everton was an FA Cup match that wasn’t part of the season ticket campaign for the Gunners as it’s an additional playoff game in a separate tournament. This means that Everton is allotted a set amount of tickets for fans to purchase.
Let’s say they're given 7,000. That’s all they get. You cannot, I repeat CANNOT purchase tickets as an away fan unless you’re sitting in the away section. If you’re seen wearing the wrong color in the wrong section, you get kicked out. No questions asked. Everton fans sit in their section and nowhere else.
This translates to a painting of the good guys v. the bad guys. 85% of the stadium is clad in red with the remaining 15% in blue in the lower bowl at one end. There’s one more color too. You see some yellow. Blue is outlined by yellow.
I’d estimate that 90% of the security forces are dedicated to the border between the reds and the blues. With a long and well known history of fan-on-fan violence, they take this **** seriously.
Conclusion - I think about the NFL first and foremost here. If you want to take fan violence seriously, then this type of approach should be emulated. The first step toward doing that is likely adopting the ticket policies laid out in #1 above.
Singing, singing, and more singing. The game only lasts 90 minutes (plus stoppage time and a quick intermission). You’re in. You’re out. You’re back at the pubs where the revelry continues. The pub we went back to turned into a karaoke bar. Drink a pint and sing along. It’s like a giant celebration where the attitude that pervades is one of: “Today is a day of sports and we shall celebrate that!”
Conclusion - We should be singing all the time.