How a New York bar brought boots and pints to North America.
Jack Keane is recalling the days when he’d be threatened with physical violence for televising football in New York City. How dare you show that shit? shouted an instigator, some drunk East Village punk who was offended at the sight of the game. Don’t you know where you fucking are?
“He grabbed me by the collar over the bar,” Keane remembers. “He didn’t like me much, I’ll tell you that.”
This was the mid-’90s, when Manhattan’s East Village still had an extra layer of Giuliani-era grit to it and Nevada Smiths, the bar on Third Avenue that Keane ran, was the only place in town showing European football.
“It was a completely different neighborhood,” he says. “Filled with fucking crazy people. Cars being broken into, drug deals on the streets. It was a different era.”
Keane, an affable Irishman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game and an unwavering devotion to Manchester United, started working at the bar not long after emigrating from his native County Kerry in late 1993. By 1994, he had pitched a United flag on the bar’s facade and began showing matches to a football-starved community of expatriates and American supporters.
It was the dark ages of football in American, with the United States preparing to host a World Cup for a sport that its public had virtually no common appreciation for. Since the collapse of the North American Soccer League in the 1980s, the country didn’t even have a professional top division—Major League Soccer was a mere glimmer in Doug Logan’s eye.
It was a time when the notion that airing football matches in the U.S. could be a viable, lucrative endeavor received “zero respect,” in Keane’s words, from broadcasters. Burdened by extortionate broadcasting agreements with pay-per-view carriers, Keane would often record European matches for diehard fans who had no idea which teams won over the weekend.
“If you didn’t agree, it was very simple,” he says. “You got cut off.” He recalls what one Setanta Sports executive told him regarding the Irish broadcaster’s agreement with Nevada Smiths, which entailed a $20-per-head cover charge at the bar’s door that went straight into Setanta’s coffers: “You’re going to agree to it, Jack, because no one gives a shit about the fucking game in this stupid country.”
Some two decades later, roughly 50 supporters’ groups devoted to clubs around the world—from F.C. Barcelona to SK Brann—are organized in New York. The city has two professional teams of its own, and the arrival of a third in the Bronx is advertised on the walls of buildings in Chinatown. The U.S. has entered an era when as many teenagers are watching Major League Soccer as they are Major League Baseball, and when the streets of its largest cities bustle on Saturday mornings with fans, draped in their club’s colors, rushing to make kickoff. And to think that less than 20 years ago you could get beaten up in Manhattan for televising a football match.
In 2014, America has gone from a nation that couldn’t “give a shit” about football to one that presents the greatest opportunity today for the multibillion-dollar global industry that revolves around the sport. The dismissive attitude that once made football lusus non gratus in the States has rapidly transformed into an insatiable appetite for the game—such that the country is now viewed as one of the last untapped frontiers for a sport that has long dominated every other corner of the globe.
“Speak to any Premier League club with global brand-building pretensions and they will admit the United States is a top-three priority, alongside the Far East and China,” ESPN journalist Roger Bennett, who co-hosts the popular Men in Blazers podcast, told Eight by Eight. “The U.S. is not only considered fertile, virgin terrain, but it also is home to so many global brands. The big teams salivate as they look toward North America like hungry rottweilers.”
In March, Bennett reported an ESPN Sports Poll that claimed 18% of Americans aged 12 to 17 identify as “avid fans” of MLS—virtually tied with the number who identify as Major League Baseball fans. In 2012 the same poll showed football as America’s second-most-popular sport among those aged 12 to 24, ahead of the NBA, MLB, NHL, college football and college basketball, and only trailing the NFL.
Those are the kinds of statistics that persuaded NBC to pay $250 million over three years for the right to broadcast every single Premier League game to American audiences, starting with the 2013–14 campaign. It was a move that has paid dividends thus far: After more than 1 million people tuned in to watch Chelsea defeat Manchester United on Jan. 19, NBC averaged 609,000 viewers across the 17 matches it broadcast in February—making it the most watched month for Premier League football in U.S. television history.
As the top domestic league in the U.S., MLS has looked on these figures as a mandate to push forward with its own aggressive initiatives. The league has grown from a 10-team enterprise in 2001, when all its clubs were owned by only three separate entities, to a 19-team league with plans for new expansion franchises in New York, Orlando, Atlanta and Miami. Such progress has been driven by MLS commissioner Don Garber’s intention to have MLS among the world’s “top leagues” by 2022.
“Our progress and confidence have us believing we are staring at a moment of great possibility,” MLS chief marketing officer Howard Handler told Eight by Eight, noting that the league is prepared “to take advantage of our momentum and ensure the next 10 years are a decade of increasing dominance.”
While it would appear that the Premier League’s increased exposure in the States would benefit English football most, Handler characterized NBC’s agreement with the Premier League as “a positive for MLS” that serves as “a reflection of the growing popularity of the sport in this country.” He cited how the league had recently commissioned a third-party study that found that 60% of avid MLS fans also have a favorite team in the Premier League. “So there is certainly a lot of crossover,” Handler said.
With the MLS season in full swing and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil rapidly approaching, it’s worth remembering just how far the game’s following in America has grown to reach this point. Bennett recalls how, after moving to the States in 1992, he watched most of the 1994 World Cup by himself at a “deserted” bar in Chicago “with only the bar backs for company.” By the time the U.S. faced Italy in the 2006 World Cup, however, he was witnessing jam-packed bars in Washington that featured lines “snaking around the block two hours before kickoff.” Today, Bennett notes, “there is more football on offer here than in England.”
For Keane and others in New York’s devoted football following, it was the 2002 World Cup that served as the watershed for the game’s growth in the U.S. Over the course of that summer, Keane kept Nevada Smiths open for the tournament’s obscene East Coast start times—with matches in Japan and South Korea kicking off between 2 and 7 a.m. New York time. “People told me it wouldn’t work,” Keane said. But as the U.S. went on an epic run—defeating Portugal and Mexico before falling to Germany in the quarterfinals—Nevada’s was packed with supporters every night.
Describing it as “the biggest coup ever,” Nevada’s proprietor Paddy McCarthy remembered how, early one morning that summer, the bar got a visit from an NYPD squad car. McCarthy expected a hassle.
“Paddy!” the cops shouted as McCarthy came out from behind the bar’s drawn blinds to meet them. “How’s Ireland doing?”
“It’s about to explode,” said Kurtis Powers, head of Arsenal NYC, the largest supporters’ group in New York City devoted to a European club. “When I was a kid, you got called a fag for playing soccer. Now it’s being passed down to people’s kids.”
On weekend mornings, 14th Street in downtown Manhattan is flooded with Arsenal fans of every age, race and demographic, easily identifiable by their red garb. Most of them congregate around the Blind Pig—Arsenal NYC’s home bar, located less than two blocks away from Nevada Smiths.
Powers’s group is a testament to the overwhelming growth in popularity that the Premier League has experienced stateside over the past decade. Arsenal NYC started in 2007 as one of many fan groups that watched their matches at Nevada’s; seven years later, the group has grown so large that Powers said it recently seceded from Arsenal America, the official organization of American Arsenal supporters’ groups, and became a standalone organization.
“We probably had 600 to 800 people today,” Powers estimated on March 16, the day of Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham in the North London Derby, based on the sum capacities of the Blind Pig and two other overflow bars nearby.
The group has witnessed firsthand the effect of the Premier League’s elevated TV exposure in the U.S. While the supporters’ club keeps no proper membership, Powers says match-day attendance has increased significantly in the past year alone, with many having taken to Arsenal’s attractive brand of football and adopting the club as their English team.
Such rapid expansion, however, has also come with negative consequences for the very culture that the group is meant to facilitate. There are those, for example, who tell Powers that they support Arsenal because they played with them on EA Sports’s FIFA franchise.
“It has grown our numbers,” Powers said of the expanded following, “but it’s also brought a lot of people for whom this is their first experience. It has brought more people but not a better atmosphere.”
The match-day atmosphere at the Blind Pig became such an issue that Powers posted a letter on Facebook to the group’s 184,000-plus followers urging attendees to “get involved” and be more vocal in their support of the club. Powers said some of the longtime Arsenal diehards who used to watch at the Blind Pig now regularly congregate down the street at O’Hanlon’s, one of the group’s overflow bars on 14th Street.
“People used to learn from being around other supporters,” Powers said. “If all the diehards who have the knowledge aren’t here, then the new people” can’t follow their example.
The phenomenon of “plastic” support is a touchy subject for fan groups in New York devoted to European clubs. For expats now following their club in America, there’s the simple fact that their support is unconditional. “In England, you inherit this,” Jonesy, a member of the official Manchester City supporters’ club, noted in his native Mancunian accent. “Your football team is the only thing that’s cradle to the grave.”
Unfortunately, many of the city’s supporters’ groups haven’t witnessed the same dedication from American fans who have adopted their beloved teams.
Mark Barry of the New York Reds, the supporters’ group that Keane founded in the ’90s after pitching his United flag outside Nevada Smiths, notes that the group’s turnout has dwindled this year because of United’s disappointing Premier League campaign. Elsewhere in Manhattan, John Pepper, membership secretary of the official Manchester City supporters’ group, says his club’s membership has more than doubled—to 96 paying members from 44 last season. “The difference is New Yorkers,” Pepper says.
According to Barry, the composition of match-day turnouts has also changed. “It used to be majority expats with a sprinkling of Americans. Now it’s vice versa,” he says.
As a new generation of fans in the States have come to discover European clubs and adopt them as their own, Powers stresses his own group’s desire “to build an inclusive community” f or all who have pledged their allegiance to Arsenal.
“We never wanted anyone to have to prove themselves,” he says of the group’s attitude toward new fans. He compares the dynamic to how, as a kid first getting into his local punk-rock scene, he was never begrudged by elders who had seen seminal groups like Black Flag and Minor Threat in the flesh.
“Having more experience doesn’t always make you right,” Powers says. “But there’s a lot you can learn.”
There are three haunts on Market Street in Newark, N.J., that accommodate fans of the New York Red Bulls, the only club in America’s top flight currently serving the MLS’s largest market. El Pastor, a homey Portuguese restaurant with a drab, beige interior worthy of a Midwestern bowling alley, houses the Empire Supporters’ Club—the oldest club of its kind in the MLS, established in 1995. In the patio area outside, women in sunglasses sip margaritas through straws and paunchy men in Dax McCarty jerseys espouse their love for Aussie-rules-football. Just across the Passaic River, in the town of Harrison, the silver-gray facade of Red Bull Arena awaits its first contest of the 2014 MLS season.
“They let us paint that on the wall,” Tim Hall, an ESC board member, says, pointing to an exposed wall displaying the group’s logo. “How freaking cool is that?”
If you want to witness the front line of American soccer’s growth within its own market, attend an MLS match. The league would point to how its average match-day attendance has grown to 18,608 in 2013, compared with 14,898 in 2003, as evidence of its success. But for the passion that provides the league credibility as a sporting product, look no further than the diehards.
The fervent match-day atmosphere that surrounds Red Bull Arena is a testament to how far the New York club—and the league as a whole—has come over the past two decades. Hall remembers the early days when “maybe 50 people would show up” in the ESC section to watch the MetroStars (the club underwent a rebranding in 2006 after Red Bull’s takeover) in the cavernous Giants Stadium. The converted NFL venue was a place where, by many accounts, supporters frequently clashed with an arena security force that simply “didn’t get” the manner in which the fans supported their club.
“They were not terribly welcome,” Mark Fishkin, who co-hosts the Red Bulls podcast Seeing Red, says of the way fans were treated during the Giants Stadium era. That claim is echoed by Terror, one of the founding members of the Garden State Ultras—the small, tight-knit self-described “ultras” faction that models itself on the passionate fan groups of Eastern Europe. “It was horrible,” Terror recalls of the group’s experiences at Giants Stadium. Security “strong-armed you. They had no problem hitting you in the neck.”
For Terror and his fellow Ultras, supporting New York—“I don’t support the brand. I support my club”—offers an experience more substantial than following any other American sports team. “This is where you go to be a diehard,” he says. “American sports are boring compared to this.” And while noting an affinity for European clubs like Millwall and CSKA Moscow, Terror also expresses his skepticism for American fans who primarily support foreign clubs: “Personally, I’d rather go to a match than sit in front of my TV with coffee.”
It’s a view shared by Jeffry Wierzbicki of the Viking Army Supporters Club, who can be spotted leading chants before the thousands who congregate in the South Ward supporters’ section of Red Bull Arena. “I went to one game and instantly I was hooked,” Wierzbicki, a Viking Army board member who joined the group in 2011, recalls. “The fans standing for the full 90, singing. It really makes you feel involved in what’s happening.”
As the final notes of the national anthem are sung out before the 2014 home opener, the supporters in the South Ward lift a massive white sheet up on a pulley toward the roof of the stadium—a tifo, to borrow the Italian term for a choreographed display of support. A mural of Red Bulls coach and club legend Mike Petke—Supporters’ Shield lifted above his head, the New York City skyline behind him—hangs imposingly before the arena.
“That’s a supporters-owned trophy,” Wierzbicki said of the Red Bulls’ 2013 honor, the first in the club’s 18-year history. “Mike Petke is a historic figure who was very important to us as a player, and now as a coach. He’s brought that to us. It really is something that you don’t feel in a lot of sports.”
Every diehard football fan in America knows the trials of a struggling online video stream, and Keane is no exception. It’s a weekday night in February at the Football Factory—the venue he opened in the basement of popular Midtown sports bar Legends in 2011, after leaving Nevada Smiths—and he’s trying to show Flamengo’s Copa Libertadores match against Ecuadorian side Emelec to the 20-odd fans who have gathered.
Even in 2014, the contest isn’t readily available on TV, so he’s pulled it up on one of the laptops he keeps behind the bar, which he in turn hooks up to monitors perched around the room. But the stream isn’t cooperating—it lags and pauses, to the great frustration of the Flamengo fans—and so a diminutive, curly-haired woman in a red-and-black-striped shirt walks up to the bar to voice her complaint.
“The Internet, darling,” Keane states diplomatically, “it’s like the wind.”
These days, there’s no shortage of bars and restaurants around the city willing to show matches—but with one look around the Football Factory, its walls lined with countless scarves and autographed jerseys representing clubs from around the world, you immediately sense something different.
“What makes it so distinct is that we’re solely committed to football,” Keane says. “It’s football, no matter who’s playing.
When Keane left Nevada’s, he took most of the supporters’ groups housed at the bar with him. Today they are the clients that make the Football Factory—named after the John King novel about football hooliganism in London—the new mecca of the football-viewing community in New York. About 35 different supporters’ clubs call the bar home—from Empire Supporters Club members who get bused out to Harrison on match days to Alianza Lima fans who pop in because they know Keane’s ready and willing to show their club’s matches.
“Nobody anywhere can compete with me because no one is willing to,” Keane says. “If I get an email from someone who’s genuine about watching a game, there’s no time I won’t open up for them.”
As someone who’s witnessed—and, indeed, facilitated—the growth of the sport in this part of the country, Keane has his thoughts on the direction the game is headed. While he is more than accommodating to American fans of European clubs, he notes how many are “too young to know where football came from,” citing how a global brand like Chelsea F.C. was once known for the National Front presence in Stamford Bridge’s Shed End. As for the North American game’s prospects for growth, he claims that American clubs need to hold themselves to a higher standard on the pitch: “There’s only one place they should be competing: in the Copa Libertadores. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone.”
With the summer’s World Cup rapidly approaching, Keane says the tournament is always a catalyst for increased interest in the sport. “You all of a sudden have 10% to 15% more people coming in,” he notes. In fact, this year’s showcase could be the tipping point for Keane’s operation—he says the crowds at the Football Factory have already gotten too large for the space, and he’s looking for ways to expand.
In the end, Keane attributes a good deal of his success to the vast, diverse, transient metropolis that over the past 20 years has come to embrace the game he loves. “We have every nationality here wanting to watch football,” he says. “If you’re in New York and you concentrate on something like this, it will succeed.”
A feature article from Issue 03. Order your subscription from our Shop.