Soccer Tailgating – Where Traditions Clash Together
May 15, 2019
You may not know this, or believe it, but the interest of soccer in America is on the rise. Although football (or American football to the rest of the world) is considered the most popular game here, football (known as Soccer in the U.S.) is steadily climbing the ranks of popularity as well. Among other factors, the expansion of Major League Soccer over the past 10+ years, along with world-famous footballers coming to the U.S. to play, and the ability to watch matches on national networks have led to an outstanding resurgence of soccer in the country. I’ve only been really following soccer for about 2 years, and I’m by no means an expert in the sport or in its histories and traditions, but one thing that I find to be pretty neat is the fan base for each club. They are dedicated, passionate, and seem to live and die with the successes and shortcomings of their club, showing off their passion in a multitude of ways. Knowing this, we wanted to see what fans do before the match starts. How do fans prepare to see their favorite club play? Mostly, we wanted to see what kind of, if any, soccer tailgating was happening.
Rise of Major League Soccer
There is no denying that Major League Soccer, and interest in the sport of soccer in general, is on the rise in America. Since 2012, the league has seen a constant and steady rise of 27% in interest among fans that are 18+ years old per Nielsen Sports Sponsorlink. As MLS welcomes the growing interest in the U.S., the outlook for professional soccer hasn’t always been this rosy. The league was founded in 1993 and operated its first season in 1996 with 10 teams. The beginning saw some interest from American fans, but, overall, the first few years proved to be tough to maintain that momentum.
However, even with the league still losing money, they began expansion efforts in 1998 by adding 2 more teams. This expansion continued on steadily throughout the mid to late 2000s, and is continuing to this day. Currently, there are 24 teams in MLS, with plans to add 2 more teams (Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC) by 2020 and 1 team (Austin FC) by 2021. Despite their early financial struggles, and the contraction of 3 teams, MLS set itself up for a resurgence in the 2000’s.
The proof can be seen in the rise of attendance at MLS games. With an average attendance of over 22,000 in 2017, it was ranked 3rd behind the NFL and MLB. In 2019, reigning MLS cup champions Atlanta United (in only its 3rd year in the league) had an attendance of over 70,000 for their home opener. Granted, it helps that they play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium which is also home to the Atlanta Falcons, but it’s still impressive nonetheless.
There are many reasons for the growing interest of soccer in America. Immigrants who come to the U.S. from soccer-loving countries (which is basically everywhere else) are bringing their love of soccer with them. National growth is also happening at the grassroots level, where kids are getting involved at a young age. Another reason is the rise of building soccer-specific stadiums; teams no longer have to play in traditional American football stadiums, they can build and customize their own playing grounds to help grow the brand and identity for themselves and their supporters. The increase in young domestic players like Christian Pulisic, Timothy Weah, and Tyler Adams going overseas to play in European leagues is drawing more viewing interest. One other reason is the signing of world renowned soccer talents to MLS teams. Names like Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Beckham, and Thierry Henry had brought a level of talent that isn’t typically seen domestically.
By no means is MLS anywhere near the level of the leagues in Europe, South America, or other parts of the world. But at a domestic level, interest in MLS is rising among the main sports in America. With North America picked to host the World Cup in 2026, and the U.S. slated to host 60 of the 80 games, including the semi-finals and final, it’ll be interesting to see if MLS can continue its trend.
Similarities of Cultures Between America and the United Kingdom
Sporting traditions, such as matchday or pre-game activities, tend to vary from country to country. In the end though, I don’t think we’re all that different. When it comes to soccer in the United Kingdom, it’s more typical for fans to flock to a pub nearby the stadium for food, drinks, and partake in some chants with other supporters. As it gets closer to game time, they’ll march down the road, continue the chants, and enter the stadium in a grand fashion. Soccer stadiums there are usually built in the middle of a city center or metro area, with the mode of transportation tending to be either by foot or by train. For these reasons, there typically aren’t large parking lots available near the stadium, which brings down the possibility of tailgating before a match.
I got to experience something similar to the U.K. version of pre-gaming last year. A group of us attended the final 2018 home game for Minnesota United. Not only was it the last home game of the season, it was the last game at their temporary home at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. There was a large push to try to break the attendance record for a soccer match in the state of Minnesota, and they did. Over 52,000 fans attended that game! Oh, and on top of that, they were playing against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and LA Galaxy. That was pretty cool.
While there wasn’t any tailgating specifically set up, we did attend a pre-party at the nearby Surly Brewing Company. It was the place where hundreds of supporters and fans ate, drank, and hung out before the match started. As it got closer to game time, the march to the stadium began. We were led by a brass band as we walked through neighborhoods and city streets. I have to say, it was pretty awesome and added to the overall experience of that day.
On the other side of the coin, when it comes to tailgating in America, especially for football, it’s quite common for fans to arrive at the stadium by driving or public transportation. But there are plenty of parking lots set up around the stadium, making it ideal for tailgating beforehand. Instead of going to a pub for food, drinks, and hanging around other fans, that all takes place in the parking lot. Fans will show up hours before kickoff to tailgate, which adds to the overall game day atmosphere around the stadium. So while the locations may differ between us, I think the prevailing elements are similar to each other.
Tailgating at Soccer Games
Tailgating is mostly an American institution. If you talk to other sports fans from around the world, you’ll find that tailgating isn’t something they do before games. While tailgating hasn’t found itself embedded into the culture of soccer in the U.S. like it has in football, there are some teams in MLS who have adopted the long-cherished sports tradition. These are a few of the teams who allow some sort of tailgating or pre-game activities before a match starts:
Los Angeles Football Club
Los Angeles Galaxy
New York Red Bulls
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Quakes
At the national team level, tailgating seems to be fully embraced before matches. Supporter groups, like the American Outlaws, setup tailgating events before every men’s and women’s national team game. It’s my belief that as the sport continues to grow, tailgating could work its way into the fabric of how soccer is celebrated and enjoyed in America. There was a time when MLS tried to “Americanize” the sport by changing some rules that were standard in other parts of the world, but they mostly backfired in that endeavor and the original rules were reverted back in 1999. However, if the U.S. truly wanted to “Americanize” the sport, then I don’t see any better way than to embrace tailgating before matches.
After looking at some tailgating activities that happen at MLS games, there doesn’t seem to be a big shift from what happens at other sports events. Grilling some meats and other foods, playing games like Cornhole, and having a few beers tends to be the common trend. Where I can see it differ is the types of games that are played, such as Wobblrs, a new recreational and training game.
It can also differ with the singing of team chants by supporters.
Overall, it’s nice to see fans take the excitement and experience of tailgating and bring it to the world of soccer.
So there you have it! We hope you enjoyed this look into the rise of MLS, a look at pre-gaming cultures between the U.S. and the U.K., and the role that tailgating currently plays here in MLS. Now we pass it off to you, what experiences have you had with tailgating at a soccer game? What, if anything, could be adopted from other countries to enhance pre-game festivities here? Let us know in the comments below, thank you for reading!
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