"I still get blank stares when I tell people I’m an Arsenal fan."
While soccer fans in America seem to be getting that reaction less frequently than before, it's still not exactly uncommon. And while it can be a distressing thing for someone who bleeds red and white, Paul Vernich has a different view. The co-founder of the Nashville Gooners says,"For me it’s just another opportunity to turn someone onto the sport."
MEET THE FANS: NASHVILLE GOONERS
Vernich and some of his friends in Nashville, Tenn. had become big Arsenal fans over the years and desperately wanted to share their passion for the sport and the Club. But it was difficult to track down more than a handful of supporters. "Everyone just watched Premier League games in their bedrooms by themselves - if they watched them at all - due to the early kickoffs," says Vernich.
So they turned to almost a kind of Guerilla Marketing to track down and get noticed by fellow supporters. "We started wearing our Arsenal shirts around town and growing from there, building a presence and a network of fellow Gooners," he says.
But the group won’t take all the credit. The growth of Nashville's soccer culture has been rather organic. "The city has slowly become a town of transplants," explains Bradley Burkhalter. "And with that you're seeing more and more soccer fans coming into the city."
Take the example of Nashville Gooner Brian Fisher. Despite never playing a competitive game of soccer in his life, the former basketball player became a dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal supporter in 2007. "Being an out-of-state student I needed a way to pay for college. So I took a job as a student assistant with my school's women's soccer team," he says. "After about a month on the job I fell in love with the game because of its similarity to basketball on the games' most basic level: pass and move.
Without a doubt, Arsenal overwhelms the pub. We show up in force and when we get going, everyone’s eyes turn to us.
"From there, Arsenal were an easy choice because our head coach was an Arsenal fan -- and he always used them as an example of the type of play the team should strive for."
There was also a surprising source of new fans in the area. "We have to give some real credit to EA’s FIFA," Vernich says. "This game is a big source of the popularity of the Premier League here. It gets people involved, teaches them the sport and creates supporters of certain clubs."
And now many of those new supporters turn out for early kick-offs at the Fleet Street Pub, downtown Nashville's only major pub that focuses on Premier League matches. "Everyone shows up in their colors," Vernich says, "Everyone shouts their club’s chants and a little friendly banter. But without a doubt, Arsenal overwhelms the pub. We show up in force and when we get going, everyone’s eyes turn to us. For the big games we easily draw 50 or more supporters."
As for the competition in the pub Vernich adds, "Spurs actually have the second largest following so the North London derbies get pretty intense, but all in good fun.”
"Even though we lost the second North London derby that was the moment when I knew this place was ours," says Burkhalter. "To see so many Arsenal supporters at 9 o'clock in the morning cheer on the Gunners...in Nashville.
"I got chills. It was awesome."
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