Wednesday, April 20th, was the 226th edition of the Merseyside Derby. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Derby is the biannual meeting of the two top flight professional soccer (football) teams in Liverpool, Merseyside, United Kingdom. Liverpool Football Club and Everton Football Club have grounds (stadiums) in walking distance of one another, separated by a large public park in the same large city.
Their fans, both Reds (Liverpool supporters) and Blues (Everton supporters), work together, live together, and intermarry. The Derby is an event that quite literally grips the entire city. But for an American Liverpool fan like me, it’s an experience beyond the match itself that I can only imagine. And I’m not alone.
For fans of European soccer living in the States, watching matches and supporting clubs is a constant challenge of finding broadcasts, remembering time differences, and trying to find reliable information without the benefit of or access to local reputation and insight.
For local fans in Liverpool, team loyalty is mostly determined as an inheritance from parents or in rebellion against them. And in major cities and small towns across the UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, and every other European country, fans are, for the most part, provincial. They root for their home-town team. That’s because soccer is the lifeblood of sports in Europe (and pretty much everywhere else outside the US).
Derbies, domestic cups, the dreams of glory in European competition and the stress and heartbreak of relegation fights are all understood, a given, a universal sporting language. Most European kids dream of scoring goals, not touchdowns, and that translates into adulthood, with their domestic soccer leagues dominating the sporting world of every nation. In the States, some may say Boston is a baseball town, Detroit a hockey city, and football is king in Philadelphia. But from London to Munich to Madrid to Rome, soccer is religion.
So some may not understand how US sports fans can develop passion for a team an ocean away, playing a sport that is not as widely embraced in America, in stadiums they rarely, if ever, get an opportunity to visit.
But I’m not alone. As a nation of immigrants, America has always had soccer. It’s been there, in the background, played on youth fields and in back yards and alleys. And it is growing. As the reigning World Cup champion US Women’s National Team can attest, there is a spirited and growing following behind domestic soccer here in the States (1). Once floundering MLS is aggressively on the rise (2).
Yet the competitive gap in play remains between MLS and heavyweight European leagues like the English Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, the French Ligue 1, and others. That reason is, among others, what draws a large and growing number of American fans to European soccer.
When looking at the relationship between American fans and European soccer, one must start with England’s Premier League. With a common language, the foundation for interest is easy to see. Though it’s a spirited debate in many an English barroom, one could definitely make the case that the Premier League is not currently the top league in the world, a title it’s at least claimed for much of its existence. Both of the sport’s biggest stars, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, play in Spain’s La Liga, and since Chelsea won the Champions League in 2011-12, the winners have come from Germany once and Spain three times.
But that hasn’t stopped the Premier League from growing in popularity among Americans at a torrid pace. Thus far, it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship.
Last summer, American television giant NBC signed a mammoth deal to extend its right to broadcast Premier League games in the States. That decision was made after three successive seasons of increased viewership among US fans under their original deal (3). That growth in popularity was noticed by both sides; the cost for those broadcasting rights essentially doubled, with the deal believed to net the Premier League nearly $1 billion across six years (4). To make a quick comparison for American sports fans, projections suggest the Premier League will pass even the NFL in net TV earnings as soon as next year (5).
Other networks, like FOX, have also noticed, winning the right to broadcast both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League (6) and the 2018 World Cup (7).
BeIN Sports, a global sports television network, broadcasts to American viewers La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, Copa del Rey (Spain’s top domestic cup tournament), and even Football League Championship matches, the second tier of English soccer (8).
Increased access and popularity go together, and Saturday mornings, once the television domain of cartoons and bad infomercials, are now all about soccer. The five hour time difference might also help viewership, as matches rarely conflict with other prime-time US sporting events.
For fans like myself, there are obvious pros and cons. When my team plays an afternoon game, for example, it’s a 7:30 am start time for me. That’s terrible in that I lose one of two opportunities to sleep in (and have to tread carefully on Friday nights), and great in that, by 10 am, my whole day (including more soccer!) is still ahead of me.
It can be lonely, sure. At work, watching an FA Cup match on your computer or phone via a highly questionable Reddit feed, silently pumping your fist, hoping your coworkers don’t notice is a reality American soccer fans can all relate to. Trying to find a bar that opens at 9 or 10 am for a big match is a unique place to be both physically and psychologically. Americans are slow to warm up to the idea of scarves being essential fan gear.
But as the Beautiful Game and Americans’ access to it continue to climb the American sports hierarchy, it will continue to get less lonely for fans. Domestic storylines will draw more fans to the prestige of European soccer. Storylines like Matt Miazga (9) and Christian Pulisic (10). Events like the International Champions Cup will now provide Americans the opportunity to watch some of their beloved teams in person here at home (11).
Supporters (fan) clubs for European teams, especially English clubs, dot the American landscape. The title races in European leagues in May was watched with bated breath in more US households than last year, especially as ultra-underdogs Leicester City won the Premier League in England. The world saw another special edition of El Derbi madrileño (the Madrid derby, contested by Real Madrid and Atlètico Madrid) in this year Champions League Final. My beloved Liverpool watched a lead evaporate and lost the Europa League Final to the Spanish side Sevilla, who have now won that competition three years running.
Now it is summer. Fans of all clubs will follow every transfer rumor with glee. Fans will gather to watch the Copa Amèrica Centenario in the US, the UEFA Euros in Europe, exchanging club loyalties for national pride. And then, before you know it, it will be August, and another season will begin for new and old fans alike. For European clubs, they will almost undoubtedly be able to count more Americans among their fans than the previous season, and that trend looks set to continue.
Matthew Pappalardo joined Fanatics in 2015 and has a day job in SEO but doubles as a writer whenever he can. He is a huge baseball (analytics) fan and has a strong passion for soccer, especially his beloved Liverpool. He recently moved from Philadelphia to Chicago.