"We were just a bunch of Gooners fumbling in the dark for each other."
These days it seems like you can find Arsenal supporters everywhere you go in North America. It’s just that sometimes you may need a flashlight to find them. Zac Boswell, one of the founders of Arsenal Grand Rapids can attest to that.
MEET THE GRAND RAPIDS GUNNERS
"Arsenal doesn't have a huge following [in Grand Rapids,]" he admits. "But I have a feeling there are a lot of Arsenal fans out there waiting to be found. And new ones to be made."
The advent of more Premier League television coverage on this side of the pond has been a bit of a Catch-22 in a way. Ten to 15 years ago, the options of catching an Arsenal game on TV were limited. Your best bet was to seek out a pub owner with a satellite dish and a penchant for serving beer early in the morning. However, it also meant that fans found each other. Connections were made. And supporters groups were established.
But now supporters and casual fans can tune in to watch the Gunners from the comfort of their own home or maybe at whatever random local sports bar has an available TV screen. They can often be isolated and not even be aware of each other's existance.
I have a feeling there are a lot of Arsenal fans out there waiting to be found. And new ones to be made.
And that's what was happening in Grand Rapids. According Arsenal Grand Rapids member Dan Weatherhead, "There seem to be a lot of soccer fans in the GR area, but it's hard to assess how big the fan base actually is." He was one of the early adopters of watching games at the new SpeakEZ Lounge in downtown Grand Rapids. There were not many others.
Early in the 2012/13 season, perhaps a dozen fans from a range of teams turned out. But Weatherhead says that as the season went on, a change started to happen. "More people started to show up for matches and the atmosphere was getting much better."
Now the scene there is more like what you would expect from an Arsenal bar. "Arsenal fans tend to congregate on one side of the bar and have the most consistent turnout, around 15 for the more important games." Boswell says. "At our pub, each of the teams - even clubs like QPR - have two or three consistent supporters. So on derby days – any derby, really – there is plenty of jovial conversation and even temporary supporting of other clubs just to spite others. It's a fun time."
And the group expects the environment to improve even more this year. "I think there are likely a lot more people watching from home and disparate bars," Ruiter says. "The city has only just now gotten an out-and-out [soccer]pub and people are really beginning to organize around it." Weatherhead adds, "The attendance for games at the SpeakEZ went up by one or two every week last season. So word seems to be getting out."
Most people admire the dedication it takes to get up early on days off and make time to support your team.
Perhaps a sign of the times: it’s not just the fans that are capitalizing on the growing interest in the game. Boswell says, "SpeakEZ is upgrading screens and sounds over this year to entice others away from the big sports bars in town."
Still, there is an inevitable question that pops up in any bourgeoning European soccer market: will local fans be okay with waking up and going to a bar as early as 7 o'clock in the morning? "There is usually a look of disbelief, and then one of concern for my health at having a drink so early," quips Ruiter. "But joking aside, most people admire the dedication it takes to get up on days off and make time that early to support your team."
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