Has the Market Called Time on Chivas USA?Why we need to celebrate Latino football culture in every team
by Nick Kosar | Wednesday, March 13, 2013
I think the experiment is over. Or, it should be over.
I’m all in favor of experimenting and trying new things. Notably in business. But one has to know when to call time on an idea that’s not working out. I think we’ve reached that point with Chivas USA.
I say this with all due respect to the Chivas USA fans. The underdog part of me (and the DC United part of me) has always said, “If I lived in LA, I’d probably root for Chivas.” I also say it with due respect to Chivas USA the organization, which appears to have done a lot to support local soccer endeavors. However, this is about what’s best for the league, for other cities without MLS clubs and for soccer in North America in general.
But mostly, it’s about one thing: The market is no longer there for such an experiment.
Top-down doesn’t work anymore
In the pre-internet and pre-mobile device days, when products were mostly sold in stores, suppliers of products battled in a game called “Scarcity.” Shelf space at brick-and-mortar stores is scarce. So, for example, the entertainment industry learned to manufacture a few hits. Top-selling albums made it into record stores, and top-selling movies made it into cinemas.
That model doesn’t exist anymore. People download whatever music or videos they want, no matter how obscure, because “abundance” has replaced “scarcity.” Instead of entertainment moguls determining what you’ll want, people find what they want, anytime, anywhere. Top 40 doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, the list of the top 50 best-selling albums of all time doesn’t feature one album after the year 2000.
And it’s that attitude that tells me that club owner Jorge Vergara, soccer mogul, can’t dictate that people in the United States (much less greater Los Angeles) will want a Mexican or Latino-focused soccer team. Just build a team – make it competitive, give it a cool name, colors and logo, and then let the fans help build the identity. Fans want a winner. They don’t want a feeder club (in baseball terms, a Triple-A farm team) for a team in Guadalajara, no matter how respected that Mexican club is.
And this “democratization” of consumer behavior has a unique parallel in soccer culture. Soccer fans’ role in building the identities of their clubs is more pronounced than in any other sport in North America. To begin with, soccer is relatively young. New clubs with new names are sprouting up everywhere. But it’s the fan experience that tells you that fans are integral in defining the identities of their teams. Only in soccer do you see amazing tifo displays that help define a team’s self-image and brand, or fans who are encouraged to bring their drums and flags to the stadium. Try that in the NFL.
Complex culture in America
The question of “culture” in America has always been complex and fluid. Every single immigrant group that has come to the New World has reinvented and redefined itself within just a few years. And that’s the same for Latino culture.
To begin with, Latino culture is diverse. Is a Guatemalan or Puerto Rican supposed to root for Chivas USA because they are all Hispanic? Maybe they don’t want to be tied to Guadalajara’s team. And what about Mexican fans who loathe Chivas Guadalajara? A cousin of mine married a great guy from Peru, and he in turn brought back an Alianza Lima jersey for me that I proudly wear. But that still doesn’t make the Universitario fan (Alianza’s cross-town rival) whom I met at Costco happy.
Latino culture is diverse in its generational aspects too. Just watch a Gold Cup Final match between Mexico and the United States and you’ll see the father rooting for Mexico (because he grew up rooting for El Tri) and the son rooting for the U.S. (because that kid is a native-born American and identifies with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan).
This doesn’t mean that Latino culture should be abandoned. Soccer culture in North America owes a debt of sorts to the support and enthusiasm of fans that come from Mexico and Central and South America. I’m all for embracing traditional soccer cultures. But that doesn’t mean fans need to embrace “the Latino team” (whatever that means).
You want to hear MLS games broadcast in Spanish? I know you can get that here in Washington, D.C. Lots of chants are proudly sung at soccer games in Spanish, by non-Spanish speakers. Or, go down to Raleigh, N.C. – probably not a place that people think of as a hotbed of Latino culture – and you’ll see that the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks take their fan engagement seriously. In the past offseason they asked their fans via Twitter which beer they wanted to see in their stadium in the upcoming season – and those tweets came through in both English and Spanish. Now THAT is cultural sensitivity!
Times have changed, in 10 short years
Back in 2004, when Chivas USA joined Major League Soccer, MLS only had 10 teams. Contrast that with today when the second-division NASL is about to add four new teams within the next year, one of which (Indy) already has more than 2,000 deposits for season tickets. I’m sure that MLS was grateful back then for the interest in forming Chivas USA, having just gone through a downsizing of the league. As I said, I respect the desire and effort to experiment with something new.
But a couple years later when Chivas USA started performing well, who was behind that success? In part, names like former manager Bob Bradley, Brad Guzan, Sacha Kljestan and Zach Thornton. The fact is, “Latino” does not necessarily equal “successful,” and success is what any fan really wants. If the team had built success on the backs of Hispanic players, then certainly they could have had better luck building a club culture around that. But it wasn’t to be.
So, by the same token, I don’t think Chivas USA can complain that its fortunes have gone downhill because it got away from its original mission. In the end, I think it’s just a matter of one thing: The world has changed and soccer in North America has changed, even in 10 short years. I don’t think a market that is increasingly globalized and “cross-border” in nature wants a “Hispanic Team.” I think the market wants Hispanics and Latino culture in ALL its teams and club cultures, which is as it should be.
Let’s celebrate and enjoy Latino culture and the lifeblood it gives to our soccer culture, but let’s do that in every team in North America. And then let’s thank and applaud the Chivas USA organization for a worthy experiment, and then hand that slot to another city in the United States. Viva Futbol!