Flags erupted out of a sea of black and red as already-hoarse voices roared their approval. Even the enormous flags, the drum of creaking metal and a haze of smoke couldn’t obscure the fact that D.C. United was now up one-nil, though I could only see the scoreboard if I bounced especially high off the rolling grandstands. It was my first experience at an MLS soccer game, and I loved every minute of it.
That’s why when I read an article on the area blog DCist last week outlining the laughably low wages earned by a majority of MLS players, I was outraged. The passion and excitement I feel at United games was suddenly cheapened -some of D.C.’s players don’t even earn a living wage.
I went to my first United game last fall with a few friends who were also new to the MLS. We rolled out of the Stadium-Armory metro station two hours before game time and made immediately for a patch of what was once grass where United’s supporters were already gathered for pregame tailgates. The atmosphere was more like a carnival than a soccer game. We bought our $25 tickets from a re-seller from Barra Brava, one of United’s organized supporters’ groups, working out of the back of an SUV.
We ripped open the bags of chips we brought to the tailgate and began to walk around to the various grills and tables set up on the crowded field. Trading a handful of chips for hot dogs, drinks, and burgers, I felt like I was at a family reunion, even though I didn’t even speak the same language as the majority of Barra Brava supporters.
The fan support from Barra Brava and other groups like them is phenomenal. The players are more personal than any other athletes in professional sport. The MLS should raise their minimum salary not only to recruit new players but also to reward the players who currently make the fans’ experience so exciting.
Until game time, we kicked around a dusty soccer ball to get to know a few fans who were all too willing to share their passion for United with a first-timer; we learned a couple of choruses from the most popular songs, including this gem personalized for an opposing New England Revolution starter:
Has a very nice hair-do.
But his mother is a whore,
And he can’t score goals!”
When the entire section of fans is bouncing up and down on the grandstands singing for the entire game, the songs’ lack of political correctness becomes less important than the fans’ passion. Though RFK was barely filled halfway with fans that day, Barra Brava’s field level seat sections were packed. No one sat down, no one stopped singing-it was just an unwritten rule. Despite the hazards of smoke bomb burns, showers of beer, elbows to the face, and learning a new language through expletive-laced Spanish insults and chants, my first experience in the Barra Brava section of a D.C. United game was one of the most exciting professional sports games I’ve ever been to.
What drives these fans to United games certainly isn’t the mystical allure of RFK stadium but rather the professional soccer players who have forged an immediate personal connection with their biggest supporters. Players, who instead of throwing chairs or bats into the stands, took time after the game to celebrate with the fans in front of our section. They even led the stadium in a final round of celebratory songs.
What is even more troubling is the gap between the league’s best paid players and those being paid the league minimum. More than half of D.C United’s 31 roster players are being paid less than $50,000 while midfielder Marcelo Gallardo is being paid $1,500,000. L.A. Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, the league’s best-paid player, earned $5,500,000 in 2008.
$33,000 is not enough to stop top quality young talent from leaving the United States for top European and South American Clubs, where the pay is not only better but also fans fill entire stadiums with the same intensity as our small section. As the MLS expands to new markets in the next couple years, the league should focus on attracting the top quality young talent as a way to grow a fan base for the sport. With more exciting games and top quality talent, I know stadiums like RFK could be filled to capacity with fans who are screaming and cursing at the very top of their lungs.