“Come to an event”.
To cynical and subtle Europeans, nothing is a bigger cringe than American Sports culture. Cheerleaders, half-time shows, a sponsor for absolutely everything. And rows upon rows of adults festooned with a garish and nauseating array of stars and stripes. Flags, face paint, costumes…. the whole culture is so far from European Football tradition, it is easy to convince yourselves that Americans would never be able to “do” Football fanatic properly.
But Andy Leary is prepared with apt retort. “That’s the response. Come to an event and tell me about that after”.
This is the National Team fan group you really should know about.
The American Outlaws refer to themselves as “The Unofficial Supporters’ Group of the US National Team” and have been getting increasing acknowledgement in the USA for all the right reasons. Tifos, corteos, chanting. In-game action worthy of terraces from Germany to Turkey. What is the story?
Treat every day like Independence Day; deck out in Red, White and Blue.
We spoke to Andy Leary, Treasurer of the American Outlaws Hartford Chapter; “[We are] building a lifelong fan base for at least the US National Team and by extension the American Soccer Fan Culture. It’s the area behind the goal where everybody’s standing, the part that’s trying to bring the atmosphere at the games to the next level”. Gameday action starts with a good ol’ American Tailgate (essentially a big BBQ and beerfest) before a corteo march toward the ground. “We try to get all the members and it’s a big sea of people in red, white and blue, holding up scarves. It’s a beautiful, incredible sight”. Inside the ground and it is the usual bouncing, singing, scarf holding, flag waving, and stunning tifos.
But this is a country-wide organisation. Not just a couple hundred Ultras. The American Outlaws are comprised of smaller regional non-profit “Chapters”, each named either after their city or county and required to produce an official Chapter logo and name a specific bar or drinking spot for member meetings. While the national level AO team work closely with the American Soccer Organisation to determine ticket allocation and price and provide information and services to away games, the local Chapters are responsible for putting on the big show. The Chapter responsible is the one closest to the match venue. This includes a pre-game Tailgate and the in-stadium coordination, providing capos, drummers and organising tifos.
At first sight the customs loosely resemble what fans are doing on European terraces. But The American Outlaws are not simply trying to clone the European Ultras’ Model. This is where the story gets interesting; “a lot of the American tifo designs are never trying to be denigrating of the opponent. All these displays are trying to be positive for the US rather than negative for the opponent” explains Andy. Part of that is the tax filing; the Chapters and National organisation are not registered as political organisations and have to be apolitical. Be it Glasgow, Dresden, Rome or Istanbul, Ultras and fan groups usually do not shy away from perpetrating a political message. But for AO, it is solely about pushing and developing the appetite for and acknowledge of Football and its culture.
The approach to hooliganism, a controversial but stalwart topic of fanatics worldwide, is another characteristic that distinguishes The American Outlaws. “American sports culture just doesn’t lend itself to that sort of thing. Nobody goes to a sporting event wanting to get into a fight. They wanna go, watch and cheer. I certainly don’t want AO to have a hooligan reputation”. The American Outlaws have read the history books and learnt the lessons well. One initiative introduced is the “AO Watch”, in which they work closely both with the US Soccer Association and stewarding during events to identify attendees intentionally causing trouble. Attendees and fans at the games report directly to the stewards to combat unwanted behaviour. An old-school Brit or Pole would perhaps look down on such a notion, but it seems to be working very effectively and, well, keeps supporters happy.
But the main question we wanted to ask; where have The American Outlaws come from? Where has this fanatical interest in the one sport that the USA always shunned come from? Andy identifies one key factor; Exposure.
“I always remember Saturday morning on the Sports Channels. It was either fishing or a re-run from the night before. And [suddenly] you have a live sporting event!’”. There was money to be made from TV rights in the USA as there were no other sports available to watch early Saturday mornings. It was a cheap airtime slot as nothing clashed with CET 3pm kick-offs on the East Coast of the USA. Americans were suddenly exposed to the European leagues playing the best Football available in the 90s. By now, there has been an entire generation that has grown up watching not only the best Football in the world, but watching the fans and their behaviour. Americans slowly soaked in what they were watching not only on pitch but also in the stands.
A general US culture has also influenced what fans are doing during games; “Every time I’ve been to an AO event, there’s at least one guy that’s brought a trumpet (reflecting influences from Latin American culture). You don’t really see tifo displays in England. You don’t really see bands in Germany. I think not just the Outlaws but the MLS and the lower level supporters groups wanna try and bring all of that in. We wanna try and bring the best parts of each culture”.
“That’s where the American Soccer Culture is a reflection of America as a whole”.
You might find them laughable, garish and cringey. But The American Outlaws demonstrate American openness to ideas and love for exploring new things. They are succeeding in cultivating a fanatical Football culture in the USA, but doing it their way. Legitimacy, at the end of the day, is what makes a fan culture believable.