A thing called The Premier League Summer Series has just finished rolling through the Eastern USA – part charm offensive, part sales pitch. My beloved Brentford were on the roster and so the boy and me hot-footed it over to Atlanta to support the team there and at a following game in Washington DC.
Accompanying the series was the predictable click bait speculation that real Premier League matches could be played over there too, so it’s worth reflecting on the differences between how people interact with footie in particular, on each side of the pond.
Let’s start with the run-up to, the progress of and the aftermath of the match itself. This is heralded, compered, introduced and overwritten by, variously, stadium announcers, match day hosts, a multitude of screens depicting the action from a dizzying variety of angles and intermittent music, the relevance of which is not entirely clear.
The inability of stadium announcers to convey information about stoppages in play, substitutions, goal-scorers and the like concisely, and without turning it into an epic production, worthy of at least five Oscar nominations, is astonishing. As is the absence of the word “nil” from their vocabulary.
These levels of astonishment are closely followed by the match day hosts appointed to try and coral the spectators into some form of quasi spontaneous emotion in support of the players either just about to take the field, on the field, or who have just left the field.
However, there are only so many times that you can be exhorted to “make some noise” when the “noise” being made can only come from the 800 or so people sat in the arena at the time. Even when the arena is more heavily populated, it is a struggle to get an atmosphere going for many reasons.
Grouping supporters of the same team together encourages, or even is responsible for, creating group behaviours, such as chants, songs, witticisms and “noise.”
Conversely, not grouping spectators together in this way, as was the case for the Summer Series, diffuses the energy of the crowd. This is something that seems lost on stadium announcers and match day hosts: It means their efforts are fundamentally flawed from the get-go.
Alcohol is freely available, even to the extent that spectators can watch the match while sitting alongside in-arena bars. This is in contrast to the UK’s “no booze within sight of the pitch” structures. If nothing is at stake other than bragging rights, it’s low risk, especially with beer at $16 a pint. But in the context of a match between two close rivals with Premier League points up for grabs, the dynamics would inevitably be rather different,
Yet, there was no evidence to suggest that the stadium authorities in Atlanta had even considered such a problematic scenario as a possibility still less a necessity. When Atlanta United play at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, are there are no away supporters?
For sure, this could make the FIFA World Cup semi-final that is due to be held there in 2026, an interesting affair.
There are other cultural issues that also fall into the mix.
Much of the chanting, singing and other witticisms generated by British football supporters are offensive in tone and content, but remarkably during the two games I saw, there was the total absence of any audible swearing from the US-dominated crowd.
Also, the Americans seem to love to talk. There is endless chatter. I have noticed this at baseball games in the US too. Conversation is the thing, not the game of sport. Throughout the games in Atlanta and DC, there was a clearly audible, intrusive hum of conversation around the entire arena.
This is accompanied by a somewhat lackadaisical approach to whether one is sitting in one seat or queueing at one of the innumerable bars or food outlets, whether the game has started or reached the halftime break, and the notion that if you do need to cause your neighbours to stand up to let you through to an aisle, you should move as expeditiously as possible rather than stopping to chat in detail to the now standing people blocking the view for the two or three rows behind them.
Don’t get me wrong: Mercedes-Benz Arena in Atlanta is a wonderful building – a spacecraft that has landed gently from another world, an irregular polygon of glass and steel with fronds overlapping each other forming a protective bubble around the pitch. The roof is retractable or, as was the case for matchday, kept closed in order to maintain an air-conditioned 71°F.
The FedExField in the outer reaches of Washington’s suburbs, was described to me as the Old Trafford of US (American) football. Unlike Old Trafford it is certainly not falling to bits. A cavernous bowl surrounding the pitch with great sight-lines, seats and space to move around.
And I am not saying all things British are right and American approach is wrong. I simply observe that the differences in style and habit mean that meaningful Premier League matches held in the US would have a very different feel to them, if indeed they took place at all.
Seeing queues of supporters wearing the colours of a myriad of clubs queuing for selfies with players brought home the cultural gap: Put bluntly, there is no way a shirt-wearing supporter would want to be pictured with an opposing player in a truly competitive situation. It may be a shame, but it is also true.
Those flirting once again with the idea of Premier League games being held in the US have not really thought this through. Perhaps that is because they know as little about the reality of the game and how it is played as some of the new would-be U.S.-based supporters and sponsors they are trying to sell the idea to.
Image: Inside the Mercedes Benz Arena, Atlanta. Author credit.