Courting the Sport Vote – or not

Where does sport fit into the current Canadian election campaign? I throw that out there having heard much about climate change, niqabs, debt, and refugees, but nothing about sport (and little about healthcare) – there have been a few references to arts funding, but sport seems to be left out of this election entirely. So I’ll stand up a say why we should at least articulate something about it and leave it up to the parties to figure out what they believe would fit with their platforms.

To begin with I shouldn’t say that sport is completely absent from the politics of this country. The current Conservative government has made it clear that they will not contribute any funds to sports construction around the country – there have been many opportunities over the past few years – Toronto, Regina, and Quebec City have looked to the federal government for money for stadiums or arenas without success (and I’m inclined to agree that we shouldn’t be throwing massive amounts of money at huge corporations or the millionaires that hold cities for ransom with pro sports teams). The Conservatives have also brought in that tax credit for registering your kid in sports. This sounds great, hockey is not cheap, but of course this is one of those benefits where you have to spend money to get money – it disproportionately favours those that already have the means to pay for their kids sports and does nothing to improve the lot of those families that have limited means yet also want to have active kids. It also turns out that many of our great athletes that have left the country to ply their trade professionally elsewhere may have lost their right to vote, most famously Wayne Gretzky cannot vote yet endorsed Stephen Harper and the party that disenfranchised the Great One. So sport is there, but not in any way key to the debates. Sport is so absent that one of the main reasons that Mayor John Tory did not bid for the 2024 Olympics after the success of the PanAm Games was that he could not secure federal promises of support during the current campaign (so maybe we dodged one there with our extra long election campaign).

But what is new with sport? In this season of outlandish and unrealistic promises, why is there no platform for sport? Hey, promise that you’ll bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada and you’re sure to bring in a few votes, right? Go to a baseball game and show that you’ve jumped on the Blue Jays bandwagon with thousand of other voters. Actually, don’t.

Looking through the main parties platforms, only the NDP have thrown sport anything – a $28 million promise to fund sport for disadvantaged youth. Nothing from the Conservatives, Liberals, Greens, or Bloc. But sport matters. Even going back to a 2005 Conference Board of Canada report “Strengthening Canada: The Socio-Economic Benefits of Sport Participation in Canada” highlights the benefits of encouraging the entire population to be actively involved in sport. This is not just the health benefits associated with active lifestyles, but the authors also cite benefits to social cohesion, skills and the economy – buzzwords that all politicians love!

C’mon federal party leaders, hop in there and do something crazy that can snatch a headline for a day: promise a proper Challenge Cup for hockey (like the original Stanley Cup), get the CFL to work on that soccer league that is supposedly in the works, fund an infrastructure program that includes public pools, create cycling networks in major urban centres, expand and more fully fund the National Park system, there is an endless list of ways that sport can be worked into great policy for Canada, all it takes is some vision.

Work or Play?

FIFA 16 coversTomorrow is one of the most important soccer days in the year, not for any game in the calendar, but for the release of EA Sports FIFA16 video game. While it is just a virtual game, the importance of it to many kids (and yes, adults too) is in its ability to draw fans deeper into the real game. Many discussions between the boys at my son’s soccer practices have revolved around getting the game, who they want to play as, and which version or console they have. These boys already have a strong interest in the sport, but through playing the game it creates an attachment to teams and players that they may not have developed otherwise (why does a Canadian 10 year old regularly check on the results of Exeter City [English League 2] for any other reason than he spent most of a virtual season as their leading scorer?).

Each annual iteration of the game consists of some minor tweaks to game play and controls, but the most important change (and the reason people keep buying it) is the updates of team rosters to stay current with the latest changes in the transfer market and inclusion (and subtraction) of the stars of the game. For the first time the game will include a group of playable women’s teams – not the club teams, but the national teams of many of the participants in last summer’s Women’s World Cup. When EA first announced the women’s teams that were to be included in the game, one entry – Canada – stood out; Canada would be the only country in the game where the women’s national team would be playable, but the men’s national team would not. Sigh. Granted our women are consistently ranked around 10th in the world, while our men have spent most of the last few years ranked around 100th. So somewhat belatedly, EA Sports – based in Vancouver and therefore largely a Canadian game – announced that the Canadian men’s team would be playable in FIFA16. This is great for men’s and women’s soccer in Canada, being able to win the World Cup as Canada in this game (yeah I know there are already jokes about  how you’d probably have to turn the difficulty way down) gives the future players of this country a chance to dream, but it also gives them a chance to learn who currently plays for Canada. While Christine Sinclair is already familiar to many Canadians, now kids can follow the development of Cyle Larin, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Tesho Akindele, and Jessie Fleming. If there is one thing the national teams need, it is to become that team that you want to be a part of as a fan or as a player. The women have that – just consider how they were treated throughout the WWC that Canada hosted this year, but the men have still struggled to find a strong following. The men’s team has the acute problem right now of not just needing to fill the stadium during its current World Cup qualification cycle, but needs to do so without its games having any current broadcasting deal. Despite the ratings that the women’s team brought in over the summer, the CSA and Sportsnet terminated their broadcasting deal just before Canada began its road to (hopefully?) the 2018 World Cup. FIFA16 with its ability to play as Canada helps can help to build that supporters base not just this year, but far into the future.

But not all has worked according to plan since the announcement that the Canadian Women’s team would be included in FIFA16. Last week EA was forced to announce that 13 players that were to be included were being dropped from the rosters of their national teams because they are currently players in the NCAA and their inclusion in the video game would affect their scholarships and eligibility to play on their US college teams. This affected 1 Spaniard, 6 Mexicans, and 6 Canadians – including Lawrence, Fleming, and Buchanan. Now EA made it clear that the players involved were not being paid in any way for their participation in the game (and with the thousands of men’s players the game includes there is no way they could compensate players and still make a game), yet the NCAA has held firm and insisted these women not be included in the game. What makes this so odd is that the women listed were not going to be included in the game as NCAA players – those teams aren’t part of the game anyway – the women were solely being listed as part of their national teams.

Don’t think for a moment that this is in any way about protecting the amateur eligibility of 13 women, this is entirely about the several thousand men that participate in NCAA college football and basketball. Or more precisely, protecting the NCAA and its billion dollar sports industry from having to compensate the thousands of football players and basketball players in their system. College sports is extremely lucrative, look at the success of March Madness or the BCS for how much college sports brings in through TV and advertising revenue. Yet its players receive no pay for their play. Well, okay they get scholarships and a college education for their efforts, but the NCAA as it currently functions, brings in billions in revenue for rather minuscule labour costs. It is such a successful system because for both football and basketball it is largely the only route to a professional career in the sport later on. Student-athletes (as the NCAA calls them) are trapped working on their athletic skills (and yes academic skills, but there is also a lot of controversy about that) for very little actual pay, in careers that already have limited timespans, in the hopes of becoming a pro after school. Yet players are not considered employees or workers by the NCAA. In

At least the US values its post-secondary education system (?)

At least the US values its post-secondary education system (?)

fact the players of Northwestern University recently lost a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision where they attempted to claim they were workers and therefore entitled to unionize. Now belonging to a union isn’t simply about pay, it is about many other protections from abuses of employers, and the ability to work as a group of employees to make working conditions better, but consider the discrepancy between how the players and the coach of these amateur players is compensated. Players receive a generous scholarship – as long as they are athletes at the school, but this is not actual pay. Pat Fitzgerald, NWU football coach, receives a $2.48 million pay package and only ranks 39th on the list of highest paid football coaches in the NCAA. Look across the NCAA and you will find that the highest paid state employees in most of the US are football and basketball coaches – yet players are not entitled to a fraction of the revenues that they generate for their schools. That is what drives the need to prevent 13 women from being able to virtually participate for their national teams in a video game – the need to prevent football and basketball players from similar participation – or compensation.

The need to protect the NCAA from its players has affected the possibilities for another Canadian as well. Sprinter Andre De Grasse won two bronze medals at the recent IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Beijing, yet was forced to forfeit his prize earnings from the meet as it would have prevented him from keeping his eligibility status in NCAA. Again, this has little to do with De Grasse receiving his rewards as one of the world’s fastest men, and everything to do with the idea that one of the more lucrative sports might find a way to pay their athletes. And this isn’t about some ideal of amateurism in sport – fans don’t care one way or the other if athletes are paid for their efforts, consider the eyes fixed on any major sporting event such as the Super Bowl, Olympics, Champions League, World Cup, etc. – amateur or pro, people watch.

It is a shame that one big step for the representation of Canadians and of women in a video game has been derailed by the greed of an organization “protecting” their amateur athletes.

It’s a Woman’s World

Carlotta Schlein - Swedish Captain

Carlotta Schelin – Swedish Captain

A quick post so I can dash off home to watch the Women’s Euro semi-final between Germany and host country Sweden. I won’t be alone, this is a highly anticipated match in Sweden – having sold out and expecting a large TV audience in the soccer mad Scandinavian nation. The total attendance for the Women’s Euro has already broken the record set four years ago in Finland, and there are still four more games to go. The tournament has met with such success that it has forced a men’s game between Swedish powerhouse IFK  Gothenburg and Helsingborg to shift so it will not conflict with the final. Should Sweden get to the final they are expecting that the TV audience will surpass the 3.8 million that watched the 2003 World Cup final between Sweden and Germany, that’s over half the population of the country – so it’s not just the women watching. I’m glad the women’s game can attract such a high level of attention, as it bodes well for the game not just in Sweden, but in other countries that have latched onto women’s soccer.

Once you’re reaching those sorts of numbers for a country, you’re looking at Superbowl-like numbers, where the game becomes one of those shared cultural experiences. I’m thinking about the importance of the ’72 and ’87 Can-USSR hockey series, or even the recent Olympic gold medal hockey games and how they become important moments for the nation. While these are usually more important as wins, Canadian soccer has its own pivotal moment during the Olympics last year when the women lost to the USA in the semi-final, and won the bronze vs France.

All of which sets the bar very high for Canada in two years when we host the Women’s World Cup. Will we be able to generate the interest in our own country to support the games? The growing interest in the sport in general and the women’s team in particular bodes well. However, the lack of women’s professional soccer within the country makes it difficult for fans to follow on a regular basis. While the CSA is supporting roster spots in the NWSL, there is no franchise located in Canada. It takes time for fans to identify with a team and it’s stars, so Canada is going to need a good performance in some friendlies ahead of the tournament to really highlight who their players are.

But despite the growing popularity, the women’s game still faces a number of hurdles – in a recent post on BBC Sport about the English team’s elimination from the Women’s Euro, almost half of the comments were deleted because they didn’t meet the moderator’s rules or various other offences that get your comment banned from a forum. While yes these are mostly trolls, the degree of banned comments shows a high level of hostility to the women’s game. It was worse than most North American forums where the argument goes that soccer isn’t a sport. Then again, the class connotations of the game in England are far different than in North America. English football is a working man’s game both in play and spectatorship – few Englishmen I met found David Cameron’s interest in Luis Suarez at all convincing. In North America, the “soft” reputation of the sport and its elitist middle and upper class associations has given the women’s game a level of acceptability, and to some degree popularity that is unusual in women’s sport. So oddly, the very class association that has held back the acceptability of the men’s game in North America has given the women’s game a firm base from which to grow.

Welcome Party

This will seem like old news, but I am using my blog to work through a conference paper about Canada’s World Cup Qualifier in Panama last September.

So Panama “welcomed” Canada to their country by staging a all night party outside the Team Canada hotel featuring blaring music, chanting, drums, flags, fireworks, sirens, basically anything to keep the Canadians from getting a decent night’s sleep. This was actually encouraged by the Panamanian FA, and worked to good effect as the Canadians didn’t really show up for the game.

What my paper is about is trying to look at the importance of that performance outside the hotel, not just to the distraction of the Canadians, but as a way of asserting a Panamanian nationalism. There are a few parallels between Canada and Panama in the world of soccer: in both countries, they have a strong national tie to a different sport – hockey for Canada and baseball for Panama. This is in part due to the histories and cultures of the nations – Canada had a long winter and a long history with hockey, summer was for football, or possibly baseball. As for Panama, their cultural sport legacy comes from the Panama Canal. As a virtual protectorate of the US through much of the 20th century, they ended up a baseball nation. Look at the world and you will find that the general division of sport powers follows a pattern where British colonies adopted cricket or rugby (and to a lesser degree soccer), British financial colonies – more influenced by their business in the early 20th c. ended up playing soccer, and American protectorates ended up playing baseball.

However, Panama has been on its own (as much as any Latin American country can truly be on their own with their “good neighbors” to the north) since the US turned over control of the Panama Canal in 1999. Soccer seems to be growing in the nation, I would argue as a response to a distancing of the Panamanians from their US history. Over their history ideas of nationalism have come as a reaction against the US presence in their country. The first martyrs for the country were killed in riots against the Americans back in the 1960s and this moment in Panamanian history serves as an important point for the party outside the Canadian hotel almost 50 years later.

Diana Taylor discusses Latin American performance as a form of repertoire in her book The Archive and the Repertoire. Various performances are examined as a way of transmitting cultural memory and making political claims. In this context I am arguing that the party outside the hotel, by a group that was already attuned to nationalist sentiment by wanting to cheer on the Panamanian team were echoing an act of Panamanian nationalism that is directed toward gringos. Now I know that Canadians are not always included in definitions of gringos, but we don’t exist entirely outside those definitions either. In this case, the Canadian team served just as well to play the part of the gringo for the Panamanians.

There is another important echo in the repertoire of this party: Operation Just Cause. While most of the Panamanians keeping the Canadians awake weren’t even born when the riots against the Americans took place, many of them may remember or would have heard from their parents about the last American intervention in Panama in 1989. Operation Just Cause was launched to remove Manuel Noriega from power, as he was a US ally gone bad. The invasion culminated in a siege of the residence that Noriega was hiding in. The American troops deployed a set of loudspeakers that blared music all night long as a form of psychological warfare designed to hasten his surrender.

Well, 22 years later and Panamanian stereos seem to have contributed to a Canadian surrender on the soccer pitch. The reaction in Canada was interesting with many commentators and fans saying that the party wasn’t fair or good sportsmanship, and a few others that seemed to say “Why didn’t we think of that?” Coming after riots in Toronto around the G20 and a riot in Vancouver around the Stanley Cup, I think there was little appetite for that sort of disturbance in Canada. Another interesting point is the way that Canadian sports analysts described the Panama party as an expected part of playing in CONCACAF. This is in no way reserved to the Latin American nations, during Euro Qualifiers in 2011, the Portuguese team was greeted at the Sarajevo airport by Bosnian fans who particularly enjoyed mocking Cristiano Ronaldo. They also followed the team bus and even used laser pointers on the Portuguese players during the warmups. Gamesmanship is by no means a preserve of Latin America, if Canada is going to play with the big boys we’ve got to be ready to play against (and like) the big boys.

So a quick shout out to the CanMNT, who play on Saturday against Denmark, and Tuesday vs. USA. Go Canada!

Oh, and if I’m on to anything in this paper we’ll see how Panama greets the US this summer during the final stage of World Cup Qualifiers.

Happy Sinclair Day!

Sun Media

Christine Sinclair

Christine Sinclair is Canada’s soccer heroine right now. With today being 12/12/12 and her just recently being named the winner of the Lou Marsh Athlete of the Year, a number of people have paid tribute to her by unofficially declaring today Sinclair Day (her jersey number is 12, if you were still wondering about the connection).

Although she was named to the Lou Marsh Award (becoming the first soccer player ever to win the award, and first woman since 2008), there was a lot of disappointment in Canada that she was left off the shortlist for the FIFA Ballon d’Or player of the year award. Some in Canada suspect a FIFA conspiracy for Sinclair’s outspoken criticism of the referee in Canada’s controversial 4-3 loss to the US in the Olympic semi-finals and her subsequent 4 game suspension. While that is a possibility, I’m more inclined to agree with her coach, John Herdman. I’ll say that it is a travesty, but likely more due to the fact that so few female players have major name recognition that it’s not surprising when asking a poll of coaches, captains and media from around the world that she was missed out when up against Marta, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. Of the three, Marta is certainly the weak link at the international level, but apparently had a great season with her club. As for the other two, both were important parts of the USWNT gold medal winning team, so good for them. Still, it would have been better to recognize Sinclair for her absolute stand out season and the amazing role she played in getting Canada to its bronze medal in London.

Within Canada though, she has received a level of recognition that is rare for soccer players in this country of hockey. Perhaps that is why she was such an easy choice for the Lou Marsh Award. Last month I noted how she ranked equal billing with Steve Stamkos in a Nike campaign and wondered what that meant for the sport of soccer in Canada. The level of attention she can attract between now and the Women’s World Cup in 2015 will do nothing but benefit her sport in Canada.

If women’s soccer can experience such a rise in this country, is it possible for men’s soccer to one day follow? It will be much tougher. Media focus is very set and slow to adapt to changes in sport interests – just turn on any of the Canadian sport channels now and count the seconds until there is a mention of the hockey strike. They have an interest in maintaining the status quo in sporting culture in this country. However, soccer is the largest youth sport in the country now so there is perhaps a generational shift coming in the future.  If so, perhaps one day the best male athletes may be encouraged to play soccer than hockey. Sinclair is a phenomenal player no doubt, now having won the CSA player of the year award 10 times in a row, but is it possible that there have been male athletes out there who could dominate Canadian soccer in a similar way, but as a child strapped on skates instead of cleats? We tend to play the sports we follow and follow the sports we play, so until a deeper soccer culture develops in Canada it will be difficult, especially for males, to see a future in soccer when all the reporting focuses on a league that has decided not to play.

Thanks Christine, you are an inspiration to many kids out there. I’m sure that my son is inspired by the CanWNT and their run in the Olympics, just as much as he was inspired by watching the CanMNT in their World Cup Qualifiers this year. Happy Sinclair Day! It’s a nice way to cap an amazing year for soccer in this country.

The Agony of Defeat

I’m speechless. Well that shouldn’t matter, it’s a blog so I’m typing, but what can I say?

8-1.

8-1.

8-1.

It doesn’t seem real. Maybe if I go to sleep I’ll wake up and the game won’t have happened yet. Canada will be about to play Honduras and we’ll still be in the running for the World Cup.

No. I feel it like a punch to my stomach. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the players. I am proud of them, I thought they had some great moments over the qualification and were even improving over the six matches I saw them play. They had played so strong on defence, that was my least concern, I was worried that they would have trouble scoring today without so many forwards. Today came from out of the blue.

What I am happiest about is the way soccer has received so much more attention over the last few years, and in part this was due to the way the men’s and women’s national teams had played. I worry that this will be a reason to turn away from a sport that we just don’t compete at. My own hope was never the World Cup – that would have been too much of a leap for the program, but a chance in the hex would have kept the interest going for another year. Now it’s back to square one, and a three year wait before qualification begins.

Positives from this campaign:

– Teamwork: Considering the team I saw against St. Lucia back when this all began, the team isn’t even comparable. Back then there were missed passes, no coordination and too many long balls.

– Solid, solid defense (okay today notwithstanding): In all the games I saw over the last two years they only allowed one goal at home – to St. Lucia. Including the friendly against the US (okay considering their recent form maybe that isn’t such a wild accomplishment).

– Aggression: Canada was thrown off by Honduras’ chippy play, flopping and general annoying behavior. Against Panama, Canada gave it as good as it got. (without the flopping) If we want to play with the big boys we’ve got to act like the big boys.

-Fan support: Each game grew the crowd. From 10,000 fans for the game against St. Lucia (far too many of whom were cheering for St. Lucia) to 18,700 fans when we played Cuba (with only a few scattered Cuban fans). It got loud. It became a home field advantage.

What we still need:

-Goals: can never have enough of those.

– A few more years to develop players: This was why the attention was so important – to keep the next generation of players interested.

– Still more fan support: I dream of the day when they have to move the games to BC Place (yeah, I’ll miss them), we need our own Aztca Stadium (Mexico’s national stadium), but BMO will work until then.

-Discipline: Two bad red cards over the campaign was too many. Yes Occean’s was ridiculous, but we’ll never get a break with CONCACAF refs so we have walk that line even more carefully.

What hurts isn’t that we’re out, that was inevitable. What hurts is both the way that we went out and that I think we could/should have made the hex. Being a Canadian soccer fan means cheering for another country in the big tournaments, but it was nice for a while to be able to cheer for my country.

 

Participant Observation?

I’ve found the potential downfall to my academic research, it will likely be the largest obstacle I face in my field research and I’m not sure how I can approach this difficulty: watching a match.

Last night I watch the Canada vs Cuba game at BMO Field in Toronto. Canada won 3-0, but as I walked out of the stadium I realized that actually being at a game will be a very difficult complication for me if I study fan behaviour – I was totally lost in the match. I’m sure Marcus is slightly embarrassed to have to sit with his dad who yells and screams at the Canadians for 90 minutes, boos the linesmen and ref at appropriate moments and heckles the opposition as they lie on the ground or make the long march to the tunnel following their red card. Once upon a time I was a reserved quiet fan who only made a lot of noise when we scored, but over the last two years of the qualifying campaign I’ve turned rabid. I have become my own research. I’m interested in fan behaviour, but I have become one. Granted I don’t sit in the South End with the Red Patch Boys, but my heart is there.

I’ve noticed the crowd has changed with me over the last two years too. Back when we were playing minnows like St. Lucia, the crowd was smaller, the visitors had vocal support and the team played more tentatively. This year was very different, the team soaked up our encouragement and payed it back at the end, they celebrated playing at home and knew they could count on us to drown out all the visitor supporters. I want next year to have meaningful games, we’ve come so far as fans in Toronto, I don’t want to have to wait and start all over again.

But this brings up the games yesterday. Canada won 3-0 yes, but that was hardly a surprise when all the Cuban subs defected to the US, leaving them with just 11 players on a team that hadn’t scored a goal in the qualifying round and hadn’t even managed a tie. So we won, that should have helped right? Problem is that when Cuba is such a pushover, all the teams have feasted off of them and it hardly made a difference to the pool. More troubling was the 0-0 tie between Panama and Honduras. The conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but think that the tie was planned. Panama plays Cuba next and needs only to draw to qualify, Honduras hosts Canada on Tuesday and the result will determine the group. By drawing Panama, Honduras just needs to win, where if they had lost to Panama they would have needed to beat Canada by at least two goals. Panama just gifted Honduras a lifeline. Oh and Canada will have to get a tie without not only Dwayne DeRosario, but also Olivier Occean (who was given a weak red card by the ref last night).

As you can see I’ve already spent far too long thinking about all the permutations and combinations in qualification. I should actually be devoting my thoughts to midterm papers and readings.