Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dear WSJ: Sit Down and Shut Up

Our normal targets for the Fire Joe Morgan treatment are other blogs, or the occasional religion professor, and so today makes for a real treat: the professionals at the Wall Street Journal. You see, the Rupert Murdoch-owned rag has produced a very weird, slapdash effort to explain football to the Brooks Brothers crowd. And while well-written (i.e., no typos!!), it is still quite worthy of ridicule.

The original article can be found here. Let’s just say this effort exploded on the launchpad. Line-by-line analysis can be found after the jump.

Let's start with the title, shall we?

Taking a Stand in the Grandstands

Bleh. More like taking a dump in the headlines. And the subhead is even worse....

Overseas, Sports Fans Take to Their Feet; Not in the U.S., Where 'Everyone Thinks They're King'

And here we see the fundamental problem with this article, the cheap “Americans and English are different!” Yeah, yeah, they say crisps and we say potato chips. They have cricket and we have baseball. They have a queen and we have Brangelina. CRAZY!!!


Austin Kelley, huh? Nice name. Oh hey look there’s a picture!

Chelsea fans in 2005, above, stand at a soccer match in London.

First off, why did the WSJ use a picture from four years ago? Second off, the only reason that the Chelsea supporters are standing is because Fat Frank just scored a goal. Trust me, they were sitting on their hands just prior to and just after this picture was taken.

In the U.S., go to almost any professional sporting event and look in the stands -- just about everyone sits. But at soccer matches throughout the world, many fans prefer to stand.

What a weak-livered lede, complete with qualifiers... “just about everyone” and “many.” But of course not everyone, no! That would simply be going way too far.

This is also a good time to mention that the entire premise of this article is just plain wrong. I can personally think of about a million U.S. sporting events, especially at crucial times in games, when the “fans rise to their feet as one.” So much so that this has become a sportscasting cliche. And not every football game is 90 minutes of standing, roaring cheers. How about when Sir Alex Ferguson called Old Trafford "funereal?" When I think funereal, I don't exactly think vertical position. But we are dealing with broad generalities here, let’s not get too hung up on such details, right? Please, let’s allow our humble writer to continue....

The tradition of standing is so entrenched that games like Tuesday's UEFA Champions League semifinal at London's Emirates stadium often elicit battles between ticket-holders who want to stay on their feet and security guards who want them to relax a little.

“Hey buddy, why don’t you relax a little and sit down?” At least the writer discussed "battles" between supporters and security guards without mentioning hooligans and riots. Also, quite interesting that the author would mention the Champions League... Maybe because FSC just won the TV rights? You can almost hear the editor saying, “Hey Austin, go write something about soccer, maybe about how Americans and English are different or something.” "Sure thing boss!! Uh, what's soc-cer?"

In fact until the 1990s, stadiums in England included large standing terraces where spectators were treated like cattle. In America, however, custom and shouting have always kept people down in front at big-time baseball or basketball games.

Here is my biggest gripe about this article: absolutely no discussion of Hillsborough or Heysel except for a passing mention below. You would think that a legitimate news outlet would lede with an explanation of why English stadiums no longer feature terraces, which is the crucial part of this story. But no, the discussion of changes to stadium designs comes far below.

And in the meantime, the author decided to quote not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE independent sources for this lame-ass article. Remember when you were in college and you were on page 18 of your 20-page paper, and it was late and you wanted to go to sleep but you had to come up with two more pages, so you threw in a bunch of block quotes? Yup.... That's what's in store ahead.

"I don't see myself going to watch a game and sitting down," says Oscar Zambrana, a Bolivian-American in Virginia who runs the D.C. United supporters' group, La Barra Brava. "To me sitting down is kind of boring."

That’s the sort of hard-hitting journalism that wins Pulitzers: Oscar Zambrana from Washington, DC, thinks that sitting down is boring. Oh, and notice that he's an MLS supporter? Last time I checked MLS was in the United States. Just saying.

To explain the gulf in fan behavior, historians point to everything from labor laws to gender roles to cultural expectations.

Really? We’re conducting a sociological study now? In the Wall Street Journal?? Okay, well, let’s hear it.

It goes back to "the middle ages, when the nobility sat and the common plebs stood," says Rod Sheard, senior principle of the leading sports architecture firm Populous and designer of the Emirates. "All of America is nobility. Everyone thinks they're king in America."

With all due respect for the guy who designed the Grove, this has got to be the most asinine explanation ever for why Americans sit at sporting events, assuming that they even do sit, or used to sit, or always sit, or whatever. You can almost imagine Mr. Sheard receiving an email from Austin seeking a quote, and thinking, “Eh, I’d love to get my firm’s name into the Wall Street Journal, but what is this reporter talking about? I know, I’ll just say something about nobility and kings.” And then the quote even made it into the sub-headline!

Indeed, 19th-century baseball fans in the U.S. quickly developed higher standards for comfort than British soccer fans, says Steven Riess, author of "Sport in Industrial America, 1850-1920." "I think there was a sense of entitlement for American leisure clients that they didn't have in Europe."

Okay, and now our fair author is firmly going with this line of investigation. It’s Sociology 101 meets football, on the pages of the Wall Street Journal no less. Seriously, I thought that Wall Street had repudiated such soft sciences. Where's the discussion of supply-side economics??? Oh, hey there it is....

Baseball owners, in the American entrepreneurial tradition, helped create these expectations, by aiming at the tea-and-crumpets crowd, not the "rowdies." William Cammeyer, the man who is often cited as the first person to sell tickets to a baseball game, saw the civilizing and profitable effects of seating.

Uh, really? "The tea and crumpet crowd?" Is that the tea and crumpet crowd that usually reads the WSJ? Also, when I think about the Brooklyn Dodgers I always think tea and crumpets, certainly not Hilda and the Brooklyn Sym-phony. But okay, baseball owners wanted to make money by marketing toward the wealthy. Fair enough, I guess. Maybe this analysis is only a little bit off. It could always be worse, like using Lexis-Nexis to look up an old article from the 19th Century....

"A long wooden shed has been erected," the Brooklyn Eagle reported when Mr. Cammeyer opened his Union Grounds in 1862, "and benches provided for the fair sex." Women were the harbingers of respectability and higher ticket prices. "Wherever their presence enlivens the scene," the newspaper opined, "there, gentlemanly conduct will follow."

Was this whole exercise just an excuse for Austin to use the word "erected?" But, thank you for confirming that baseball in the 1860s was misogynistic. Very newsworthy that.

Quite a few people still stood at these early games, sometimes in the outfield. In St. Louis there was a beer garden in right field where players would have to retrieve the ball among the idle drinkers (the garden was in play). But as baseball's popularity grew, the owners were intent on providing more and better seats. When Albert Spalding rebuilt Chicago's Lakefront Park in 1883, he added plush luxury boxes with armchairs and curtains to shield kingly spectators from the sun and wind.

"Spalding was one of the folks who was pivotal in making baseball more like high-end entertainment," says Robert Trumpbour, author of "The New Cathedrals: Politics and Media in the History of Stadium Construction." "He tried to push the prices upward. He would argue that baseball players are every bit as entertaining as a Broadway show, and people pay a premium for that."

That's expert number three if you are keeping track at home. Austin really bringing his "A Game" to investigative journalism.

British soccer developed very differently. The clubs, some of which were started by workers from the Thames Ironworks (West Ham United) and the Woolwich Arsenal (Royal Arsenal), were usually partnerships controlled by local directors, not entrepreneurial owners, and the games were held on Saturday afternoons when laborers were given a half-day off.

Thank you Wikipedia for confirming where the names of a couple football clubs came from. And sure, there are absolutely NO entrepreneurial owners in the English Premier League today! Oh, and no effort to make money either. No sponsors on kits, no sponsors on the names of trophies, no sponsors on the name of the league (suck it, Barclays). Oh wait, we are still talking about the HISTORY of football. Because that has so much relevance to today, and because I'm sure that Austin will tie this all together in the end (I'll give you a hint, he doesn't).

The early stadiums were designed to pack in as many fans as possible and were far from luxurious. Many of them were designed by one man, Archibald Leitch, a Scottish architect who cut his teeth building factories. Mr. Leitch's Stamford Bridge, the site of Wednesday's Champions League semifinal, had only 500 seats when it opened for soccer in 1905, but it had room for 90,000 standing. (It maintained standing sections until 1994.)

With only a few paragraphs to go, we've finally taken our historical study all the way up to 1905. And Will Leitch's relative had something to do with Stamford Bridge? I guess I did learn something new.

"The working class in the 19th century and 20th century," says Gary Armstrong, who studies sports sociology at Brunel University in London, "didn't have a great deal of expectations about public facilities. They'd go from working in a coal mine or a factory to standing up often in an inch of mud in the winter."

Expert number four. And yet I still have no idea what this is all about, other than that the history of football was tied to the working class. Fair enough point, but the connection to standing/sitting is still flimsy, flimsy, flimsy!

In Britain, shoddy conditions soon became integral to the fan experience. Fans flocked to the big matches partly for the pleasure of being uncomfortable together. At the 1923 FA Cup final, some 200,000 spectators packed into the new Wembley Stadium, which had seats for about 35,000.

"It became exciting to be standing amongst people and to be part of that huge humanity," says Mr. Sheard, who designed today's Wembley with 90,000 seats and no standing room. "You're almost swept away into a different world for that hour and a half.... You're part of this huge sweep of humanity that's chanting and yelling and singing."

This is the only part of the article that captures any sense of real difference between English football and American sports, yet it is buried two thirds of the way in.

For the most part, spectators at NBA or NFL games plant their fannies and chow down on hot dogs. Now soccer fans are beginning to follow suit. After a series of disasters in standing terraces in the 1980s, many top European leagues, including the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, outlawed standing-room sections. Clubs have also enforced new rules to keep people in their seats. British fans haven't taken it lying down, though. Protest groups have formed, including "Stand Up Sit Down," which would like to re-introduce "safe terracing" in Britain. A 2007 survey by the Football Fans' Census showed 92% of 2,046 English fans supported their effort.

Again, not sure I buy the argument that American spectators (hey that's me!) always sit, but if they do maybe it's because Americans tend to be overweight? Hey, it's just as stupid an explanation as this article. Hire me, the Wall Street Journal!

In other countries, stadiums with standing sections are still common. In Germany some new high-tech venues, like the Allianz Arena in Munich, have incorporated standing terraces that can be converted to seating for UEFA Champions League games.

Safety may not be the main issue. "Standing terraces can be designed to be just as safe as seating," says Mr. Sheard. "There's just not the incentive to do it." Seat assignments allow for more accurate surveillance and crowd control, and they fit in with the newer, more corporate stadiums.

Uh, okay... Basically not paying attention at this point.

Plus, it's harder to see the game when you're standing in the middle of a crowd of sweaty fanatics singing, "Who ate all the pies?" Not that it matters much to some soccer fans.

As if anyone reading the Wall Street Journal would have any idea what this means.

"I don't particularly watch the games," said Mr. Zambrana. "I always have my back to the field, leading the chants...."I can watch the game when I get home."

Except that Mr. Zambrana IS AN AMERICAN TALKING ABOUT MLS GAMES!!! It all falls apart again. What a hack job. The Wall Street Journal should truly be ashamed. Look folks, this isn't all terrible, but it's a sliding scale. We just expect much better from a legit news outlet.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D8

Page D8 huh? Okay, maybe this explains everything.


Keith said...

Now, now, Spec. Newspaper budgets are collapsing. You couldn't really expect him to get a plane trip to England and Germany (which has "safe terraces") expensed, could you?

Sarah said...

This whole premise is ridiculous. At my school's (American) football games you don't sit down ever unless you're a 60+ alum. But I sat for most of the FA Cup game that I went to at the Emirates.

I really don't get what this person is trying to prove/explain with this article.

ü75 said...

Dissemination of tired cliches, Sarah, it's what newspapers tend to do best.

(and with that cliche, I could get a job with one)

EbullientFatalist said...

I don't understand the premise behind the article? How are we different? It would've been much better to explain Ibrox '71, Heysel, and Hillsborough and the movement behind all-seaters.

Nathaniel said...

"Safe Terracing"

I like that. It might be something I incorporate into my weekly trips to the "massage parlor."

EbullientFatalist said...

I don't trust "safe terracing" as employed by Germans.

Eladio said...

@Sarah -- yes, at VT, where I've had season tickets for 10 years, it's rare to see too many bodies sitting during the game. (Once I did hear someone yell at folks, "DOWN IN FRONT", and my wife yelled back, "UP IN BACK!" It shut the guy up.)

However, that's US colleges. In US pro stadiums, it's becoming much more leisurely. In fact, many NFL teams have actively asked fans to "behave" by not standing up during the game. Supposedly they found out that fights happen in the stands when people stand up, so they want every one to sit down.

That's all beside the point that this is one of the worst argued points in a newspaper article I've ever read.

ScottGA said...

What a worthless article. I remember many games at Clemson where we stood on the hill packed in no differently than terracing. It was a blast.

Hell, even the last Falcons game I went too, we were standing half the time. And Atlanta isn't exactly known for their rawkus sports fans. Nice ripping of that article Spectator.

ü75 said...

See, I like the stands at Clemson, though the hill (up to the street and around to the building)were great as a kid. Favorite, though, was how packed the 1987 College Cup was when we were literally on our stomachs watching the game pitchside, heads underneath the fence (yes, I'm that old). That was a blast.