The romanticism with which Englishmen approach the AFC Wimbledon story does not bear scrutiny. It is the tale of a jilted lover, a spurned advance, then cruelly fashioned into a dagger to the heart. Ripping one’s soul and essence from the body and transporting it to a foreign land. What remain are ashes. Nothing shall be built upon these foundations for a thousand years. Or so they thought. Because from those very ashes – and it is no metaphorical exaggeration (well alright, perhaps a little) – nothing short of a miraculous phoenix-like football club was born.
In the wake of the Dons’ unceremonious move to Milton Keynes, the fans and supporters of this dead club rallied and persevered to ensure local football would be their legacy to the area, and those that followed. Whether they ever anticipated such a meteoric rise is debatable, yet inconsequential. AFC Wimbledon are here, they are staying and they are now, heroically, once more football league.
It is a fable that warms even the most cynical soccer hearts and yet over here, in America, it means diddly squat. That is not to say that Americans cannot appreciate this rags-to-riches story. After all, the American sports canon is filled with daring-do and tales of the underdog. In many ways this is the epitome of the quintessential American sports story. All but for the fact that franchise sports teams are a way of life stateside, which serves to distance the American fan from AFC Wimbledon’s legacy.
Franchising is big business in American sports, relocations and league realignments happen on a regular basis. There is a constant totting up, throughout a season, to evaluate whether a franchise is fulfilling it’s market worth within a given region. All of which leads to infuriating reports in the papers for the fans to try and decipher. Some well established teams will probably never move (New York Yankees, Green Bay Packers), but for everyone else it is a constant re-examination of not only is the team playing well enough on the field, but is the market/ fans/ networks living up to promises made off it?
Last Friday, Atlanta hockey fans held a wake to commemorate the passing of their professional NHL team Atlanta Thrashers, who are relocating to Winnipeg, Canada (over 1,500 miles away). The team has only been in Atlanta since 1999, but they attract an average crowd of ~13,500 fans per home game. Not overwhelming by NHL standards (28th out of 30 teams), but nothing to sniff at and not miles away from the MLS average attendance (16,675 for 2010). I couldn’t help thinking that’s a lot of fans that suddenly have no team to support. The next nearest NHL team is in Nashville, about 250 miles away. Some fans may turn to local semi-professional hockey to satisfy their puck-lust, but most will just lament the move and get used to not watching live professional hockey. The attitude here is when a franchise moves, it moves. As do people, as does fashion. It is not worth crying over.
It’s not an uncommon situation for American fans; as a consequence fans’ support often comes with more conditions and less commitment than you can expect in the English Football League system. In the US, fan loyalty can only safely be invested in school teams, who will almost certainly never relocate, which in part accounts for the fanatical devotion to college sports.
The most obvious reason is the cost to start and run any kind of semi-professional team is exorbitant for most supporters groups to even consider absorbing. Coupled with the fact that a lot of semi-professional sports leagues operate close to breaking even, makes the prospective dream a financial nightmare. This feels like a contradictory sentiment, given how much US sports’ fans spend on games, merchandise and TV packages to follow their chosen teams. Yet, it will almost certainly never be the case that a failed franchise team’s fans will rise up and, on their own back, re-instate the team to the local region, cementing that bond between community and club. As much as the romantic idea of Wimbledon may appeal to the American fan, it is truly fantasy football.
picture by rockinpaddy on flickr.