Football, Fussball, Soccer
The atmosphere was electric both inside and outside the stadium, the supporters colorful and loud. The scene at HSH Nordbank Arena in Hamburg last Wednesday, where I was among the 48,000 who saw Hamburger SV defeat VfL Bochum, 3-1, was similar. It was enjoyable, but it was hard not to feel a bit wistful at the same time, knowing that the game in the U.S. may never achieve that kind of prominence.
But prominence can be a double-edged sword. With it comes saturation, corporatization and reduced access for the common fan - the lowest-priced ticket I saw available for sale at HSV, for example, was 35 euro (about $47), a Coke was 4 euro, and the Hertha game had been sold out for nearly a month.
Who brags about seeing an aging, popular band in a large stadium years after their first platinum album? Nobody. But everyone wants to be able to say they were there at the beginning, standing in a small, smokey club listening to a bunch of unknowns destined for stardom. Counterculture is cool, and it can be a brand as well. No-frills can be appealing in its own way, especially in an era of luxury suites, seat licenses and the like. Based upon my experience at the Millerntor stadium, just blocks from Hamburg's famous Reeperbahn red light district, going punk rock may be just the ticket for Major League Soccer.
The Millerntor is home to FC St. Pauli, whose motto is "Non established since 1910". The Pirates of the North returned to the Bundesliga's second division last season after four years in the regional leagues and cannot hope to compete with HSV athletically or financially. But neither can any MLS club, so it's worth looking at how FCSP manages to fill both its mostly rickety, 23,000 -seat stadium and its souvenir shop each time it plays.
The Millerntor's brand-new, 12 million euro south stand features terracing for the ultras, seats for fans who want a bit more comfort and even a few suites up near the top. Sven Brux, a 20-year St. Pauli employee who handles game day organization, security and press, confirmed that the suites don't necessarily conflict with the club's anti-establishment philosophy: "Well, here they're not so big." The stadium's other three stands are old, small and bare-bones, and will be replaced eventually, Brux said. But in the meantime, they do the job. They're close to the field and the roofs hold in the noise -- a stark contrast to the open-air, shallow stands that seem to feature in just about every copy-cat MLS stadium that's been built so far.
The fans show up early, gathering around the sausage and beer carts that sit outside. This is not a family and youth soccer crowd. There are kids, certainly, but they're more likely to be wearing little leather jackets and carrying pirate flags than they are to be sporting shin guards. Anti-fascist T-shirts (a swipe at HSV), earrings, leather and anything else that might make you think you were at CBGB in the 1980s, in addition to FCSP's distinctive brown jersey, are everywhere. Those same shirts moved briskly at the very modern club shop.
The fans create the atmosphere. They are the event. The singing is constant, the rejoicing following FCSP's two goals against Mainz euphoric and the cheers and banners creative. On this day, they throw balls of paper toward the field to mock the bizarre incident that contributed to HSV's UEFA Cup elimination a few days earlier. Brux himself was wearing a badge reading "I [heart] Papierkugeln".
Prior to the 2007 season, MLS introduced its 'Game First' initiative, designed in part to professionalize the presentation of its games. A reduction of in-stadium announcements and background noise, better television broadcasts, etc. played a part in reducing the clutter surrounding the match. My day at St. Pauli convinced me that the league should go further.
Clubs are wasting their money on amenities at stadiums that do nothing to generate atmosphere. Gourmet food stands that distract fans, high "roofs" like the ones in Sandy and Commerce City that add only to the facility's cost and not its noise level, multiple, glass-enclosed suites and shallow stands that separate fans from the field suck the life from an event. That money, if available, should be spent securing the site itself, not on the facility. Better to have basic, humble digs downtown than a soulless palace in the far-flung suburbs. Toronto FC has it right, and everyone knows it.
Present MLS as the alternative to the corporate, overpriced NFL or the slow, tired, drug-riddled farce that is Major League Baseball. Be punk rock. Be pirates. Be the up-and-coming band at the crowded, smelly club that people are dying to get into. Get your message out to the millions who don't just consume the popular and obvious. If the atmosphere is there, customers will want to be as well. A place to stand and a few basic refreshment vendors should be sufficient. The fans for whom that's not good enough aren't going to add to the spectacle anyway.