- Posted July 20, 2014 by
Strange Bedfellows: Soccer and San Diego Comic-Con
In the early 70s and 80s, soccer was the other football. ‘Our’ football was real because men smacked into each other, tackled and used their hands. If you were lucky, someone might know Pele, but that was the extent of American soccer knowledge. A decade or so later, David Beckham came into American consciousness, but not directly through soccer. There was a little movie around the time called Bend It Like Beckham, which starred an unknown actress called Kira Knightly. People in America wondered what was a ‘Beckham’ and from that many learned about the soccer star who was famous around the world except for the US.
Americans didn’t think of soccer as something real Americans did. While there were many schools and community groups that started soccer classes, these were mostly for kids. You had the term ‘soccer mom’ used to describe suburban moms who shuttled their kids to the field in minivans. ‘Real men’ thought of soccer as a necessary compromise before their sons (and let’s be real this was about the boys as sports go) could get into ‘real’ sports like hockey, football and even baseball. Soccer wasn’t considered a real man’s game because from the outside it looked like a lot of people running around, kicking a ball and for all that work the score could end in a tie. Americans needed something fast paced with a score, like hockey or football.
Before this year’s World Cup, soccer would get blips on the American sports radar. It’s important to clarify this was sports radar, not necessarily mainstream notice. David Beckham leaving England to come to a United States soccer team was sports news. His fame in the United States was more tied to his former Spice Girl wife and his endorsements rather than is skills on the field. Brandi Chastain shirt ripping exposure at the 1999 Women’s World Cup championship was supposed to be a defining moment that would elevate the sport, but again, having to be blunt about things, it was a more of a woman sports defining moment and American men marveled at her physique more than her playing ability.
It’s too early to tell if the United States performance at this year’s World Cup will propel the sport, but the media certainly jumped on the bandwagon. Every morning news show, from local to national to cable, spent time covering the event. Experts were brought on to decipher the ‘arcane’ rules to novice fans. Sports bars were overflowing with fans, TVs broadcasting the competition live. In a true showing of mob acceptance, beer soaked patrons would break out into chants of USA. When America lost, a good number of fans continued to watch the tournament.
Ironically, the history I just laid out of the history of soccer fandom in America is very close to comic convention fandom in the United States. In the 70s and early 80s, comic and sci-fi conventions were small, dedicated to hardcore fans. Star Wars was kind of the Pele for conventions because it introduced a lot of people to comics and sci-fi, increasing a new fan base that previosly included fans of Star Trek, Logan's Run and a few comics like Batman and Superman. Conventions were still, pardon the term, nerd-fests. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Tim Burton Batman films got more of the general public interested in conventions, but it was like Beckham in that it was still a novelty more than respect. Look at any reporting during that time period and many would use the lexicon of the Adam West Batman (POW, BAM) than some of the serious subjects being written in comics by Moore, Morrison and Gaiman. The echoes of William Shatner’s infamous SNL appearance exclaiming Get a Life was what most of the public thought of conventions like the San Diego Comic-Con.
There are arguably two points where the public perception changed about conventions. The better known event of when things changed was ten years ago at the 2004 San Diego Comic-Con. An unknown show called LOST was presented at the convention and the buzz from that appearance arguably built interest in the show which made it an instant hit for ABC. Many reports at the time attributed its popularity to the convention and since then producers made sure to get their projects showcased at the convention to generate conversation. It had mixed results but since Hollywood was so close to San Diego, many took the time during the summer to showcase their projects at the convention. More fans of those projects showed up and the convention slowly embraced pop culture along with comics and SF (which used to be called sci-fi). The other event occurred at the 2010 Comic-Con, which to me was the more conclusive event. That was the year Twilight made a big showing at the convention and there was a revolt by the true vampires. It was kind of funny for me seeing Twilight fans, for whom the only vampires they knew about were the Twilight type, interacting with the more gothic vampires. It was truely a clash of cultures. Impromptu signage was posted by the gothic vampires proclaiming Real Vampires Don’t Shimmer. It was the year when outlets such as Entertainment Tonight, Entertainment Weekly and other national news outlets made a push to cover Comic-Con, mostly because of the star power of the Twilight cast.
To me, this event was much like the World Cup coverage because the press coverage was all about the superficial emerging at Comic-Con. While cosplayers had always been a part of the event, news outlets looked for the sexy rather than the cool. In the past, I would see convention goers run past porn stars to catch a glimpse of Stan Lee or Neil Gaiman. Twilight fans lined up for days to get into a room to watch the stars of the movie. Much like the new soccer fans who became fans of the game because of the US involvement, a lot of the new people attending Comic-Con were there for movie stars and not comic book creators.
Comic-Con, and many conventions across the country, are getting the recognition they deserve, but maybe not the respect they had hoped for. I will give a lot of conventions credit, even including San Diego in this, where in the guests they promote they do try to have many current and former comic book creators on their honor list, but the promotion of the event by the press which draws the new fans in, are the current pop icons. At this year’s Phoenix Comic-Con I saw larger lines for the actors in the TV show Arrow than I did for Mike Grell, who revitalized the Green Arrow comics in the mid-80s. The comic industry plays into the pop culture fixation. I know it’s all tied to corporate linking, but when the revelation of Thor’s new direction is announced first on The View, when the change in Captain America is made on Comedy Central, old fans like myself begin to wonder if our wish for recognition was correct.
Like die hard, decades loving football fans (and I mean soccer fans) we hope the new people coming in will respect and learn the rules and tradition of the game, but the fear is the event will be changed by folks who don’t care to understand the lore and tradition of the event. We fear they will be fair weather fans, appearing because of star power rather than the guys and gals on the field who continue to publish incredible entertainment that is the basis for the next hot summer blockbuster.