The Tribalism of MLS

FOXBORO MA - OCTOBER 16: Fans of the New England Revolution react during a game against the Kansas City Wizards at Gillette Stadium on October 16 2010 in Foxboro Massachusetts. The Revolution won 1-0. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

I am a supporter of the New England Revolution. I have supported the team loosely since 1996, fervently since 2002, and hardcore since 2010. They are my tribe.

I go into every game realistically, but in the back of my mind, I always believe the Revs will win 4-0. If the Revolution are playing on national television, I will watch it. When the MLS All-Star ballots was released, I voted for every single New England player that was on it; meanwhile, I was mortified that Stephen McCarthy and Chris Tierney were absent from it.

The thing is I'm sure there are Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and even Chivas USA fans that feel the exact same way about their tribes. As the hashtag #MLSAllStar trended on Twitter, we could see people sticking with their own tribes. I know that's what I did, it was probably what you did too. Similarly, if MLS is on national television and it is not our own tribe, we seemingly refuse to tune in. Thus is the nature of MLS's tribal supporter.

It seems that soccer leaves a lot of us feeling more tribalistic than other sports. The thought of cheering for, watching, or voting for players on another team is appalling. So many times we will just ignore the other teams until we play them. Then our vitriolic hatred will be focused solely on that team for the week leading up to the game, the ninety plus minutes during the game, and the aftermath of said game ... or at least until we're ready to move said hatred onto the next opponent.

Sure, I personally have ridiculous feelings of support and rivalry about teams in other sports, but none as deranged and irrational as the ones I harbor in soccer. In college gridiron football, I am an Auburn fan. So everything from the University of Alabama is evil, ugly, and a crime against God; however, when Trent Richardson went pro and had a special on ESPN where he took a cancer survivor to prom, I could assuage my hatred and place aside my support long enough to admit that Richardson just might be a decent guy. I couldn't do that for Dwayne De Rosario, for Chris Rolfe, or really for any non Revs player in MLS -- which I guess is somewhat ironic considering the single-entity structure.

I will never vote a Chicago Fire player for an All-Star game, I don't care how much I want to like Sean Johnson. Heck, I have difficulty cheering on Landon Donovan when he suits up for the National Team because of his Los Angeles affiliation (I tend to get over that one quicker as I am a "country before club" guy). While the Houston Dynamo have built an incredible stadium that I'm envious of, I will never be "happy for them" because I am a New England tribalist; so 'eff those guys.

It is an almost unexplained phenomenon in MLS. Unlike in the majority of foreign leagues there is no past racial, religious, or political turmoil that explains our tribalism. In North American sports there are no Celtic-Rangers, Barca-Real, West Ham-Millwall. Our rivalries are based on results, not history. We see this when Celtics fans vote for Kobe Bryant as an All-Star or when Green Bay Packers fans admit just how good Barry Sanders was. But MLS is apart from the other leagues there. We are more heartfelt in our hate.

My six-year-old knows the navy blue team is the goods and everyone else is the bads (I've raised him well), so he is always shocked when I watch MLS on ESPN or NBC Sports and two teams not wearing navy blue are playing. There really is no need to wonder why MLS is the third highest attended professional sports league in America, but fall behind all the major sports, and a lot of fringe ones as well, in television ratings. I know my own New England tribal attitude made it tough to watch the nationally televised New York Red Bulls-Chicago Fire match the other day. After all, it was an event not featuring my tribe. However, in the other sports I will watch whatever is on. Not in soccer though. That is not our team, that is our tribe.

MLS wants us to care for all their televised events, and I guess that is a sign of a successful league. But, for most of us it is "[fill in team's regional base] 'Til I Die!", which itself is an obvious tribal call. It is our teams success that matters, so screw everyone else. And that too is a sign of a healthy, successful league. The tribalism will always exist. It should always exist. After all, I'll be damned if my children support D.C. United or the Houston Dynamo.

Is tribalism hurting long-term television ratings? Maybe, but it is also partially responsible for saving and changing MLS's culture. And right now MLS, NBC Sports and ESPN are putting money on tribalism helping people embrace the league as a whole. But is that still really tribalism? Who knows?

Too many questions. Not enough answers. I'm New England Till I Die, though someday in the not too near distant future, perhaps I will be MLS Till I Die! Just don't expect me to cheer for the Red Bulls, or United, or the Sounders, or the Union, or Dynamo, or Galaxy, or Fire, or the Crew, or FCD, or TFC, or...

Do you believe MLS, and soccer in general, is a more tribal sport than others? Could this be hurting TV ratings? Comment below...

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