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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Sports

THE PEOPLE’S GAME: Dynamo, league have room to grow


Major League Soccer has become popular enough to warrant regular coverage in most major publications, even if it is in the back pages and next to high school football statistics.

This column’s purpose is not to crusade for MLS but to explore why MLS has yet to experience the popularity enjoyed by other soccer leagues.

In Houston, Dynamo games provide an exciting atmosphere for each fan.

Like other professional sporting events, the beer at Dynamo games is expensive, but MLS is one of the few soccer leagues that allow the sale of alcoholic beverages. Others, especially those in Europe, have abandoned the practice due to fighting and hooliganism.

The average Dynamo game attracts students, families and couples as well as rowdy, organized cheering groups; yet, the stadium is regularly at only half-capacity.

Some will argue that the Dynamo are not on the level of teams like the Astros or Rockets, but even these skeptics have to admit that they aren’t the Aeros, either.

They are two-time MLS champions, but their crowds still resemble high school football games. The largest crowd at Robertson Stadium this season filled about 18,000 out of the 32,000 available seats.

There are several factors that play into the sport’s and the Dynamo’s situation. The age of the club is a good place to start.

Although the Dynamo have won two titles, they are only in their fourth year in Houston.

Grandparents can’t take their grandkids to games to share an experience from their own childhood because the Dynamo games were not part of theirs.

The pace of the game may also play into the equation. Soccer’s critics argue the small number of scores in each game reduce the sport’s appeal and that games finish too quickly.

Those same people cite the strategy involved in a 1-0 three-hour baseball game and cannot see the parallels between it and soccer.

Compare this to places such as England, where 34,000 fans routinely fill stadiums, no matter who’s playing. Do their leagues have a better business structure? Is the rate of play there that much better?

As the U.S.’s fourth-largest city, Houston’s small number of soccer fans is not a result of small population. In a city with such a large and diverse citizenry, there are plenty of fans to spread amongst its many teams.

What about ticket prices? Sunday’s Dynamo game in Columbus, Ohio has tickets available starting at $16. Compare that to the $37 minimum for Barclays Premiere League, a major soccer league in England.

The issue of soccer’s lack of American popularity is too complicated to boil down to one reason. Instead, it stems from a combination of all of the above.

When it comes to history, England has it. Liverpool FC in the Barclays Premiere League has been playing against the same clubs since 1892.

Older patrons remember going to historic stadiums and are still enamored with their home team. They, in turn, pass that ‘fandom’ to the next generation of sports enthusiasts.

It’s akin to growing up a Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees fan simply because your parents and/or grandparents were.

Another reason is pride. If the Rockets have a rough season no one’s hopes are completely crushed. Fans always have football or baseball on the horizon.

In England, the only sport tied to one’s city is its local soccer team. When an underdog upsets a rival or a club wins a title the whole town feels that joy.

The bottom line is in Europe people wait all week to see their favorite team play 90 minutes of glorious futbol. They hang on to every possession.

How many Americans can say that about any sport, especially soccer?

Another unique aspect of the English experience is the sense of community involvement.

In England, most people meet up before the game at the local pub for drinks and then walk, with police escorts, to the stadium.

So many locals watch their club play every weekend that cities close the roads from the pubs to the stadiums, while the patrons whip themselves into a fury.

The only thing that Dynamo fans share is fighting for parking spaces and $7 beers.

Dynamo fans are more than welcome at soccer-friendly pubs around the city, but they are too far from Robertson Stadium.

The Amigo Energy tents at the stadium are a good excuse to come to the game early, but they don’t make up for a lack of pre-game options in the area.

Although there is no guarantee that having a downtown soccer-exclusive stadium would alleviate these issues, it is probable that the Dynamo would enjoy growth similar to that experienced by the Astros and Rockets.

MLS and the Dynamo deserve support. It is frustrating to see a half-empty stadium every weekend, especially from a club that performs well on a consistent basis.

MLS simply needs more fans in the stands no matter how old new to soccer or English-biased they may be.


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