Monday, March 15, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Internet and Football

The other day, after catching some of the Juventus v. Fulham Europa League game live on my computer via an illegal internet feed, I left the house and clicked on my iPhone radio app to catch the remainder of the first half on BBC Radio London while I did my grocery shopping.  As I checked the mangoes in my local Toronto neighbourhood fruit stand while listening to up-to-the minute traffic updates from a city an ocean away, I had one of these moments we all sometimes have, contemplating the days of rotary dials, twenty-channel basic cable, and cassette tape walkmans, realizing how far we've come in such a short span.

One day when I was in Grade Five (Fifth Grade for Americans, whatever you call it in the UK), my class was told to gather round our lone classroom Apple computer.  Our teacher said that we were going to connect through a giant grey modem to a classroom computer in Russia.  While I had known it was theoretically possible to communicate over long distances via a computer (the movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick was a childhood favourite), to see it actually happen in front of me, to witness whatever it was they were instantaneously sending to us show up on that computer screen, was something else.

While I've written before about the obvious importance of television in popularizing the game here in Canada and the US, there are growing signs that the Internet (or digital media, or whatever you want to call it) is changing traditional football culture so quickly we've hardly had time to notice.

In 1994 the Premier League had finished its second season, the USA hosted the World Cup, MLS was a mere concept, and the world had just learned about the World Wide Web.  In 1994 we watched World Cup games alone or with family, or in packed bars.  We probably read a couple of newspaper stories about it.  Sometimes during the year, the local paper printed a European league table.  And even if you were absolutely hardcore Euro-soccer person, chances are you didn't likely know much if anything about any underlying financial issues coming to the fore, nor was there a very constructive way to compare one European league to another.  And a few years later when MLS launched, you'd be lucky if you found anything about it in the paper, even if you had a team kicking off near you. 

Sixteen years later and Americans and Britons send messages to Twitter trading do-it-yourself op-eds on MLS collective bargaining talks in between cracking jokes on a Premier League fixture everyone's watching live.  Irish bloggers write posts on for Premier League fan sites based in the Midwestern US, Canadians write comments mere minutes after articles appear on the Guardian Sport page.  London-based football fans trade notes on fan culture in DC, while Canadians attempt to sort out the financial problems of League Two clubs in Northwest England.

In other words, it's 2010 and we're all up in each others shit.  In the past I used to think it was neat to read through the sport sections of foreign newspapers, but none of the dizzying blur of regional references and unknown personalities would ever stick, so I'd go back to the simple life of scorelines and league tables.  Now anyone with an internet connection can find out all they'd need/want/stand to know about AEG's corporate holdings in MLS, or the rules and regulations of the Premier League board of directors.  Now I can troll through over a hundred years of newspaper archives in a matter of seconds.  Old match programs are reprinted, classic matches are search-able on YouTube.  The web is performing a non-stop, live-in-real-time autopsy on the entire history of the global game.

I don't want to wax romantic that the interweb is one huge Hegelian synthesis machine, but it's certainly fun to guess where all of this might be headed.  As television moves to the web, North Americans will be able to access Sky Sports from their living rooms, just as Europeans will be able to pick from any number of live MLS matches, live or to order. Our 'distinct' football cultures will slowly begin to merge and overlap in new and interesting (if not always lucrative) ways.  As more fans are able to compare sporting financial models from across the globe, football administrators will face even more pressure to adopt global 'best practices' in running their respective leagues.  And as large, ungainly media outlets are forced to cut costs and broaden content, in-depth sports journalism will be left to a sea of independent, often fan-biased bloggers working with their own resources.  Many club supporters will be smarter, more connected, and more knowledgeable as information about club and league power structures are exposed to an increasingly-global fan base.  Supporters' Trusts will be better able to organize as fans can more easily connect, and become aware of the broader issues at stake with their club. 

I suspect too that, much in the same way as massive advances in scientific knowledge over the last century led to a wave of religious fundamentalism/fanaticism, so too will a global football knowledge trust lead to an even more impassioned regional supporters base, and possibly a rise in 'ultra' fan culture.  As football culture goes global, the ground will take on greater and greater importance as the locus of fans' shared hopes.  Just as the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of the original artwork's 'aura' in the age of mechanical reproduction, so too will the 'real thing' —the live football match—take on a hallowed importance as club histories, best matches, to-order vintage replica shirts and astonishing goals compilations are only a few short clicks away.

Anyway, I'm certainly no Faith Popcorn (does she ever get anything right?  What a scam.) All I know is sixteen years ago I sat in front of my television amazed at the World Cup, knowing next to nothing about how other supporters viewed any of the games, with only Associated Press stories to guide me through any behind-the-scenes intrigue.  For many North American soccer fans, even though the football was being played in their backyard, USA '94 was a lonely experience.  Now, club debts, league financial guidelines, and prospective team owners are under the purview of amateur researchers with access to an ever-increasing global database of knowledge.  Now I can read the instant reaction of half of England to an international goal, in seconds.  Everything is exposed.  I'm all up on Richard Scudamore and you're all up on MLS CBA talks.

The only thing I can say with certainty is that it will be some time before we can fully gauge the effect this on-line panopticon has had on the global game.  I imagine it's likely not been all bad.


Webbie at Football and Music said...

As a British Expat now living in the USA I'm more than happy with everybody being up in my shit.

It is great to meet somebody here and have a good conversation with somebody who is knowledgeable about footie.

There are still some who resort to the usual remarks, but thanks to FSC (and online streams) football is truly becoming the global game.

Internet Radio said...

Looks nice. Thanks for your share. I am greatly encouraged by this post.

ESPNCommentary said...

Interesting theory. Increased interest in attending games live will be good for teams.

Andrew Traynor said...

Got to like anyone who throws Walter Benjamin into a discussion about football. I don't quite share your optimisim but this blog is a pleasure to read