There are football fans in many parts of the world who consider America to be a backwater of the sport. They view it only as a place where washed up players go to see out their careers, where the people don’t understand the game, and a place where they don’t even call it by the proper name.
But Richard Fleming has a very different view. Arsenal supporters will recognize him as a former host of the MatchDay Show on Arsenal Player and as one of the Club's play-by-play announcers. He recently left England to join Arsenal's partner club in Major League Soccer, Colorado Rapids, as their Director of Broadcasting and new play-by-play voice.
The veteran journalist, who worked for the BBC for 16 years, has covered the World Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and virtually every level of English football. But he also put in a lot of time studying the game in America and developed not just a fondness for Major League Soccer, but a very healthy respect for the growing league and its passionate following.
We caught up with Richard to talk about the game in America and how it is growing by leaps and bounds. In part one of our interview we discussed his move to the States, the evolution of Major League Soccer from a feisty start-up to influential league, and the state of the game in America.
There has been a big media push, the fan base is growing, there are soccer-specific stadiums, and I think it's the place to be.
What was behind your move to America?
"It was interesting at the time when I covered three MLS Cups in 2004, 2005 and 2006. So few major industries wanted to be connected with soccer. They didn't see it as a growth industry, whereas now, people want to be associated with the sport and I think it's noticeable that NBC have gotten on board. There has been a big media push, the fan base is growing, there are soccer-specific stadiums, and I think it's the place to be. That was one of my reasons behind leaving London and heading over here.
"It's a growing market. And you look at Europe and the rest of the soccer world where they are looking to bring in the Financial Fair Play, clubs are spending way beyond their means. There are so many clubs in England that have gone into administration, gone into liquidation, and money is tight. It still has popularity and the fans are still going but MLS is just slowly and patiently building it up, building a brand and it’s now in position where its strong and its getting stronger. And that's why I joined the new British invasion."
How is "soccer" in America different from the rest of the world?
"Over the years I've put together about 10 documentaries on various aspects of Major League Soccer. From the early days things were slightly different from what the rest of the world was used to: centralized contracts, salary caps, all of that. And then of course there is this hunger – which I know the rest of the world is now beginning to latch onto – the hunger for statistics. In Europe we never had anything like that. An assist didn't exist. You weren't listed for an assist in a goal. It's just crept into the English game more and more. So now there are things that are beginning to spill over in the other direction."
Why has it taken so long for soccer to take hold in America?
"It fascinated me that the largest sports-loving nation in the world never fully embraced soccer. So I looked into why it hadn’t really taken off in America. Historically there are people who point to the Wall Street crash as having a detrimental effect on the growth of the game and as the trigger for the downward spiral of soccer in the early part of the 20th century. It was very much an immigrant sport and the first thing to go industrial-wise were the saw mills and the steel works where a lot of the immigrants were based. And of course the sport that they played on a social level was soccer – was football. So the social side of the companies went and then the companies went under.
It fascinated me that the largest sports-loving nation in the world never fully embraced soccer.
"After that soccer always struggled to regain that popularity because then the other more popular American sports took over. The nationalist sort of fervor that emerged in the Second World War took grip and history suggests that NFL, the NBA, baseball and hockey took hold.
"Now it is reinventing itself with Major League Soccer. When I was over in 2004-2005 and 2006 they were just beginning to rebuild slowly because the [Tampa Bay] Mutiny and [Miami] Fusion had gone to the wall, other clubs were struggling, clubs were playing in NFL stadiums and many of the doom-merchants were saying, 'We knew that was going to happen.'"
What is the state of the sport in America now?
"Portland, the [Seattle] Sounders, the Canadian sides coming on – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – I think it's a huge indication to where this sport is going. I remember [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber saying in 2004, 'We'll build slowly. We're going to have soccer-specific stadiums and the growth is going to be steady and be patient.' Here we are, nine years later and there are 19 teams and more want to be on board.
"You've got a queue of teams looking to join MLS, looking to be that 20th franchise. New York is obviously the front runner and that's the favourite option of MLS but there is also Orlando, Phoenix, Atlanta a whole host of others. I think it’s even getting to the point where people are talking relegation and promotion and talking about two divisions. It’s an incredibly healthy state."
What is your impression of the fans in North America?
"I have noticed that the knowledge of the fans now is far greater than even in 2004 or 2005. There was an understanding then of course, but now there is a real passion. And it’s a huge pat on the back to the fans because they have got to this point despite the media.
"I think one of the big differences in North America is geographical – you don’t have stadiums that are 70 per cent home fans and 30 per cent away fans. You don’t have that rivalry in the stadium confines although there are pockets of fans who do travel.
"But there's a perception – the wrong perception – that fans outside of the US have because they listen to the vociferous anti-soccer fraternity that have a voice in the US that says 'It's not a sport' or 'It's for girls or the youngsters' and that perception has filtered over to other parts of the world. There is this belief that because soccer is not the No. 1 sport in the US that for some reason there isn't an understanding or knowledge. But I tell my colleagues, 'You know what? They know as much about soccer, football, call it what you like, as the rest of the world.'"
Many Premier League clubs – especially Arsenal – have a huge following in America. So where did this impression come from?
"Part of that is the media haven’t always fully embraced it over here. That, I think, is a huge applause for the fans that they have taken that upon themselves to learn, to educate themselves. They now know more about global soccer than most of the journalists who are working in it. They follow it, they are hungry for this sport and they have a passion that is as passionate as any of the teams in Europe.
I tell my colleagues, 'You know what? They know as much about soccer, football, call it what you like, as the rest of the world.'
"I think some of the media over here have – either by decision or by just taking their eye off the ball – have not kept pace with the growth of soccer. Whether that's because they felt that it's a niche sport or that their budget, their focus and their direction is on NFL or NBA.
"But the mass media is beginning now – NBC was a big push – and you can talk to some of the soccer journalists here who are as good as any soccer journalists anywhere in the world. There are those in the industry like Steve Davis and Grant Wahl and all of those guys who are working their buns off to promote this global game against those who are quite happy to just slap it down.
"But I think the fans have had to educate themselves and learn because there is a reticence on the part of the media for whatever reason. They haven’t kept pace with the growth of soccer. They are now beginning to because I think MLS has made them sit up take notice, because they are not going away, they are getting stronger.
"MLS is aware of the battle they still have to win over the hearts and minds in a very competitive market. The US is mad about their sports and like it or hate it, soccer is the global game. It's here to stay, it's building. It’s getting stronger but its growth has been perhaps slowed by those who refuse to see it as a genuine contender with the rest of the national sports."Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source