For us college students, Saturday mornings are practically non existent. Most of us prefer to spend them recovering from busy weeks by sleeping in until the late hours of the morning, or, let’s face it, the early hours of the afternoon. This is not the case for Alec Archer, a sophomore Psychology student at University of Portland. Alec is a die hard Portsmouth FC fan, a club in southern England who currently plays in the third tier of British football. From the perspective of another college student, Alec’s dedication is impressive. He frequently wakes up on Saturday mornings for 7 am kickoffs, and even invested in a streaming service to makes sure he could catch every game in the States.
“I had some leftover money from my summer job,” Alec said when I asked about the streaming service, “I figured why not use it to follow Pompey for a season.”
Alec’s support of lower league football remains an oddity amongst American fans. Even as soccer has become popular amongst American millennials, the vast majority of them have turned their allegiances to the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, and PSG, the biggest clubs in world football. As an MLS fan, I related to Alec on a certain level. Even though the Galaxy are a big spending, relatively large MLS brand, we each agreed that we supported ours clubs for a similar motive: the joy of being a part of a growing team. After being connected through mutual friends, Alec and I sat down over video chat to discuss our soccer fandoms.
Alec’s Portsmouth fandom started on a trip to England in December 2006, when his dad took him to a Portsmouth vs. Sheffield United match.
“Since that match Portsmouth FC has been my favorite club in the world,” said Archer.
Alec recalled being attracted to the matchday atmosphere and club tradition, an experience that he said was unlike any sporting experience he’d seen in America. While visiting family in London this past summer, Archer was again able to see his beloved Pompey play in a pre-season friendly match. He took a train down to Poole to catch the team. Upon being seated, Alec noticed he was sitting behind Portsmouth manager Kenny Jackett. I asked Alec if he struck up a conversation with him.
“I was kinda starstruck to be honest,” Alec recalled, “so I kinda just let him sit in peace the whole game.”
My conversation with Alec came at an interesting time for American soccer. As I have discussed in the past, MLS is starting to change the way they market their sporting experience to fans. Gameday experiences from recently added clubs such as Orlando, Atlanta, Seattle, and the likes have become communal, more vibrant, and more raucous as the game begins to attract a younger millennial audience. As a result, MLS executives have focused on expanding into markets that model this behavior. This is reflected in the league’s finalists for the next round of expansion. Two of the four teams, Sacramento Republic and FC Cincinnati, already have well-developed fan followings that play off the cultures of many long established British clubs. In this regard, it is useful for us to understand the communities that have developed around these European clubs.
Selling this brand of soccer to Americans will undoubtedly be difficult. Being one of the greatest sporting nations in the world, American sports fans have become gluttons for victory. This has caused American soccer to struggle to gain traction in the American sports market, because the quality of play is frankly not up to the standard we are used to enjoying. Regardless, getting Americans to buy into a growing soccer market is evidently not impossible. One of the most interesting parts of Alec’s story is how he has been able to make Pompey fans out of many of his friends.
“Every time I go back to England, I always look for discounted jerseys being sold at the end of the season. This way, I can bring back a few more jerseys to pass out to my friends,” said Archer.
This is an important aspect of Alec’s stories. His friends were willing to dedicate their fandom to a lower league English side thousands of miles away, rather than going with the traditional European powerhouses. I asked Alec how he was able to make his team attractive to his friends. His response was noteworthy:
“I think a lot of people identify with Pompey’s story. This is a team that’s been through a lot of hardship in the past few decade, being relegated out of the Premier League, and fighting bankruptcy. But things have started to look a lot better for the club in the past few years. In a lot of senses, Pompey is the classic underdog story, and I think people like being a part of that. Also, I found that the more sheer enthusiasm you have for your club the more others around you seem to pick up on it.”
Archer’s support comes out of a desire to be a part of Portsmouth’s rebuilding era. This is what I have deemed the lower league mentality: the opportunity to enter with a team at the ground level, and be a part of their rise to stardom. This is what many smaller football clubs can give to us as fans. As more money is being poured into world football, the fan experience at bigger teams has become more corporate, and as a result, and we have lost some of the spirit that makes the beautiful game unique.
Strikingly, Alec’s response modeled many of my opinions on American soccer. Personally, I have noticed how fervent devotion to my beloved LA Galaxy seemed to attract more fans, as many of my close friends began to support the team as well. Even more importantly, Alec has found a way to navigate around Americans obsession with winning. Although Americans are attracted to winning teams, it’s clear that Americans are drawn towards underdog stories that have the potential for greatness. In many ways, this affinity models the American Dream: the idea that anybody can come to America, start something new, and with enough work, can rise to success. This is moreso the brand of soccer that America currently possesses. Because our football history is so young, fans have the opportunity to create a culture that will last for many years as American soccer continues to grow. Since football teams are nothing without their fans, the beautiful game’s success in America hinges on attracting more fans to the game. Perhaps we just need to change the way we market the game to our peers in order to accomplish this.