My first encounter with an American Premier League soccer fan occurred in 1997 when Fox Sports World (as the soccer channel was then called) began to beam a solitary live game every Saturday morning. I would make a weekly pilgrimage to a Washington, D.C., bar named Planet Fred to watch along with a motley crew of expatriate regulars. A hardy dozen of us would brave hangovers to gather at 10 a.m. and silently savor on the likes of Southampton laboring against Crystal Palace as if it was Barca versus Real Madrid.
Rare was the occasion that an American would join us. A couple college football fans might wander in early and accidentally catch the last five minutes of the game. They typically glanced at the drama unfolding on the tiny television screens with faint disgust before walking off to play the jukebox, gulp a Bud Ice and wait for the gridiron action to begin.
One Saturday, a frenzied Baltimorean pioneer changed all that. Proclaiming to be a die-hard Aston Villa fan, he strolled in to watch his team play Leicester City and proceeded to break every cardinal rule that normally held true. The newcomer supplied a running commentary throughout the game and nervously attempted to ingratiate himself with the regulars by reciting random statistics about Leicester City's players, which no one cared to hear. After he had referred to Leicester as "Lie-sester" one too many times, the largest Englishman, Little Rob, leaned across the bar and yanked the offender by the collar before whispering with menace, "If you watch in here, rule No. 1: Keep yer mouth shut."
Little Rob was a hulking man, and we never saw the Villa fan again, but I was shocked enough by his outburst to inquire what had made him snap so quickly. Pausing dramatically for effect, he rolled up his shirt sleeve and pointed to the Leeds United tattoo on his biceps while seethingly informing me, "I hate plastic fans."
A slanderous insult, the term "plastic fan" was bandied around a lot in the early days of the Premier League. True supporters traveled to watch their team, home and away. Anything less was deemed lesser, or plastic. Most risible of all were those who professed to support clubs they had no direct affiliation with, the ones who lived hundreds of miles away and who, if they had attended a game at all, did so as corporate guests or in the manner of tourists.
Little Rob was swimming against the tide. The English Premier League now boasts a global television audience of 4.7 billion in 212 territories around the world. Yet the questions surrounding the philosophy of fandom returned this past week when the EPL season kicked off. Everton dramatically stunned Manchester United, and a stream of passionate tweets like this one rolled into our Twitter feed: "@durky29 @meninblazers Only my 4th year as #EFC fan but judging by heart attack I am having I think I'm pretty emotionally invested."
More soccer is now broadcast in the United States than in England. The sport just has been revealed to be the second-most popular for Americans 12-24 years old, behind NFL.
But does a notion of a hierarchy of fandom still exist? Does the season ticket still trump the sports package? Or in this digital age, can we follow a team with the same passion as those who attend every game live in a town we may never have set foot in, courtesy of a combination of DVR'd games and concealed workplace computer screens and screaming blue murder at players from the comfort of a local pub?
"Going to watch the game in a pub is a poor substitute for the real thing," proclaimed Michael Cohen, 41, a London-born, Malibu-based music industry veteran. "Americans are knowledgeable football fans now, but if you travel home and away, week in, week out, you simply understand both the game and the players differently."
Cohen started watching Arsenal from age 4 and was soon traveling to away games with his uncle. "At the stadium, you can watch the whole game to see what players are doing off the ball -- who is moving into space, and who is tracking back," he explained. "Television cameras just follow what is going on around the ball. Because you don't get the same perspective on the match, your opinions can't be as valid."
After relocating to America in 1997, Cohen could not adjust to the rhythm of watching games in bars. "The first time I went back to England with my wife, I dumped her on my mum and dad, even though she had never met them before, and jumped onto a train to Blackburn to catch an away game. Thinking about that now, I realize how absurd that sounds, but it was born of an obsession that had been passed down in my blood. One you can't experience just by watching Fox Soccer Channel."
Bournemouth-born Scott Dixon, a 33 year-old sports marketer now living in Portland, Ore., spent his teens following Everton around England. "Back in the 1980s, you had to attend the games, because if you didn't, you never saw your team play because so little was televised live in Britain," he said.
That has changed to the extent that in Dixon's mind, all modern-day sports fans are faced with the predicament: Would you rather be at the event and risk a bad view or watch the close-ups on television? "I would always choose to be there," he said. "The atmosphere, the intangibles, the floodlights, your voice being hoarse by the end of the game, make richer memories than you can gain by glimpsing it through a screen."
Above all, what Dixon misses is a widespread football culture being front and center in newspapers, television and in everyday conversation. "The Premier League in England is the NFL, MLB and NBA all rolled into one, running year-round with a month off in June," he explained.
Dixon remains optimistic about the direction the game is going but admitted it will take more time. "The English league started in 1888," he said. "Football here really only took off after the 1994 World Cup. Fast forward another 50 years and as America becomes increasingly ethnically diverse, things will look very different. For now, we do what we can to keep moving the sport forward and savor the moments when engagement is dialed up in the post-World Cup glow."
Ped McPartland still lives in the soccer-obsessed city of Liverpool and admitted he used to look down at those who did not attend the game. A born-and-bred Everton season-ticket holder, he discovered the easy way to silence cocky Liverpool fans would be to ask them if they actually attended games. "None of them said yes," he remembered. "They could not get tickets for the game because visiting fans from around the world had snapped them up."
It's no longer that different to watch Arsenal at the Emirates or in a bar. They have worked so hard to make the stadium experience compete with the armchair experience, right down to the same bar-style food they serve, soon it will almost be impossible to tell the difference.” -- Michael Cohen, a lifelong Arsenal fan
For McPartland, the question, "Do you go to the game?" meant something deeper. "You were really asking, 'Do you know what you are talking about and can I respect you?'" he explained.
McPartland's opinion began to change after he encountered American Everton fans over Twitter, including Kansas-based supporter Eric Howell. Howell was a MLS fan who had developed an emotional connection with Everton after former players Preki, Mo Johnston and Paul Rideout washed up at the then-Kansas City Wizards. "I was fascinated by how a local conversation sounded when it was stretched worldwide," McPartland said.
The two started broadcasting a podcast, Followtonians, under the tagline "Same Club, different accents." "Recording the show has changed my perceptions," McPartland admitted. "I have so much respect for Americans who get up at 6 a.m. to watch football games. What they undergo to ensure they can interact with the sport and the amount of time and money they invest is amazing. Television, Twitter and the Internet mean they can follow the team at the same pace as someone who lives by the stadium. They are no longer two steps behind."
Despite this, McPartland maintained there is still a difference. "Fans watching at home in a pub cannot bond with players in the same way as those who attend the game and put off their opponents or give their own team a lift by singing their name," he said.
Cohen is not so sure. "Football has changed since I used to travel every week," he said. "It used to all feel so tribal. Now it costs a fortune to go, the atmosphere is totally sterile and it is full of new fans who don't understand the game and freak out the moment we are not winning."
With a laugh of resignation, Cohen added a final word: "On second thought, it's no longer that different to watch an Arsenal home game at the Emirates or in a Los Angeles bar. They have worked so hard to make the stadium experience compete with the armchair experience, right down to the same bar-style food they serve, soon it will almost be impossible to tell the difference."
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.