Ted Lasso, Soccer Tribalism & Privileges Through Participation
Everyone Needs a Villain & A Chance to Advance
Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s weekly magazine on the intersection of community and society — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team. Maxwell is building a new type of social club.
Today we’re diving into what Ted Lasso, the founder of Foursquare, promotion & relegation in the Premiere League, soccer hooligans, and the 90’s club Limelight all have in common.
My girlfriend and I have recently become obsessed with Ted Lasso, a fish out of water comedy starring Jason Sudeikis in the role of an American Football coach who is hired to coach a Premiere League football (soccer) team. He just won a Golden Globe for it and it’s a surprisingly sentimental and deep comedy for something with a premise that is quite goofy on the surface.
We rewatched the first and only season this week and something struck me as the team expository dialogued to Coach Lasso the existential crisis they were facing in the final episode — if they didn’t win this game, they would be relegated — booted out of the Premiere League, the top U.K. Soccer league, down to the second division.
This is a concept that is foreign in American sports — if the Lakers have an awful season they don’t have any risk of sliding into the G League of Basketball. In true American capitalist spirit, some owner paid the league a lot of money to be in that league, so they aren’t going anywhere, and as a consequence the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (this year’s G League Champions) aren’t ever getting into the NBA.
But that’s exactly the way it works in soccer in most of the rest of the world.
And it got me thinking that perhaps one of the reasons why soccer culture around the world is so strong is the participatory nature of it, the dream that your local team could one day play in the Premiere league, inspires more lower division engagement, local rivalries and enhanced tribalism. The opportunity for your team to advance and the risk of relegation creates real stakes, a local villain, and gives real purpose to being a fan.
And it reminded me of an amazing experiment the founder of Foursquare is conducting in the Hudson Valley . . .
Stockade FC & The Foursquare Founder’s Soccer Experiment
Four years ago the founder of Foursquare, Dennis Crowley, decided to start a division 4 soccer team named Stockade FC in the Hudson Valley.
Dennis wrote up an amazing summary of his open-source soccer project here, but in short his mission was to change U.S. Soccer from the ground up, and he believed that the lack of a relegation/promotion structure was one of our system’s fatal flaws.
He explains relegation and the problems with the U.S. system way better than I could, so I’m including the full explanation and the dilemma it introduces:
Compared to the way soccer works throughout the rest of the world, the US soccer system (aka: the US Soccer Pyramid) is broken. In most parts of the world, if you start a team at the lowest level and you prove that can win matches consistently, then you earn the right to get “promoted” into a better league. This can happen over and over and over again until you find yourself playing in the biggest and best leagues against the biggest and best teams.
The same applies for the teams that lose. If your team consistently plays poorly, you can get “relegated” — knocked out of the top leagues to make room for those up-and-coming teams. Throughout the rest of the world, playing in the top leagues is a privilege, not a right.
These two systems working together are called “promotion and relegation” (or “pro/rel” for short) and the leagues that support it are called “open leagues.” It’s easily one of the most awesome things about the sport around the world due to its extreme accountability — teams who invest and succeed are rewarded while teams who neglect and falter are punished.
Meanwhile, the United States is one of the only countries that does NOT support promotion and relegation.
So let’s say you start a club from scratch (Stockade FC!), you invest in discovering and developing great players for your club, and your team consistently plays well. Regardless, the only way for your team to gain access to a “better” league would be if you were to buy your way in. And by “buy your way in,” I literally mean writing a big check in the form of an Expansion Team Fee to join an existing league like MLS (reportedly ~$100M fee) or NASL (reportedly ~$5M fee). These “buy your way in” leagues are called “closed leagues.” There are no “open leagues” in US soccer that connect D4 to D3 to D2 to D1.
It reminded me of a value we’ve spoken about at Maxwell.
Privileges Through Participation
As we’ve laid out the various perks of Maxwell Membership, extra guests, a key to the house, access to special dinner series, etc., we’ve made sure to build in the idea that there are multiple ways to contribute to the community, and earn perks, other than financial participation.
Rewards for financial backing are always a must to make the world go ‘round — after all let’s not pretend that part of the “hard work” of taking a team from the D2 to D1 is pouring lots of money into better players, in these days, often from foreign oligarchs.
But the ability to simply work hard and earn advancement, privileges through participation, is part of the motivation, and nothing illustrates that better than the 2016 Premiere League win of Leicester City F.C.
With two games of the season remaining, Leicester City had already won their first top-flight league title in their 132-year history.
This team were in the third tier of English football in 2009, and after climbing to the top division, they spent months last season in bottom place.
Any community wants to know that hard work will be rewarded. As Dennis continues:
If there are limited opportunities for a club to grow, then there are limited reasons to invest. And as long as there are limited reasons to invest, there will always be a shortage of quality lower-level clubs. And if there’s a shortage of lower-level clubs, the entire US soccer system misses out on the benefits of these clubs busting their asses to scout, train, and develop high-quality players.
But I’m going to take that one step further — limited reasons to invest emotionally in lower level clubs is what prevents the community around soccer, not just the teams, from thriving in America.
The Robber’s Cave Experiment & Soccer Tribalism
There is a famous study on tribalism called the Robbers Cave Study — post World War II some researchers wanted to delve into the origin of intergroup conflict. They took two groups of 12 year old boys — white, protestant, same economic background — as similar as you imagine — and put them on opposite sides of a summer camp and didn’t tell them the other existed. The goal was to figure out what they could do to get these homogenous-as-possible groups to hate each other, and they had a bunch of different ideas until they realized that the only thing they needed was to make the groups aware of each other’s existence and the tribalism was kicked off.
On their first meeting, the two groups began hurling insults. They named themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles (they hadn’t needed names when they were the only group on the campground).
It devolved rapidly as the groups interacted more.
When the contests and prizes were announced, in accordance with pre-established experimental procedure, the intergroup rivalry rose to a fever pitch. Good sportsmanship in the contests was evident for the first two days but rapidly disintegrated.
The Eagles stole the Rattlers’ flag and burned it. Rattlers raided the Eagles’ cabin and stole the blue jeans of the group leader, which they painted orange and carried as a flag the next day, inscribed with the legend “The Last of the Eagles”. The Eagles launched a retaliatory raid on the Rattlers, turning over beds, scattering dirt. Then they returned to their cabin where they entrenched and prepared weapons (socks filled with rocks) in case of a return raid. After the Eagles won the last contest planned for Stage 2, the Rattlers raided their cabin and stole the prizes. This developed into a fistfight that the staff had to shut down for fear of injury. The Eagles, retelling the tale among themselves, turned the whole affair into a magnificent victory—they’d chased the Rattlers “over halfway back to their cabin” (they hadn’t).
Each group developed a negative stereotype of Them and a contrasting positive stereotype of Us. The Rattlers swore heavily. The Eagles, after winning one game, concluded that the Eagles had won because of their prayers and the Rattlers had lost because they used cuss-words all the time. The Eagles decided to stop using cuss-words themselves. They also concluded that since the Rattlers swore all the time, it would be wiser not to talk to them. The Eagles developed an image of themselves as proper-and-moral; the Rattlers developed an image of themselves as rough-and-tough.
Slate Star Codex has a wonderful writeup that summarizes some of the lessons from this called The Ideology is Not the Movement, where the author Scott Alexander goes into his theory of how tribes are formed.
Scholars call the process of creating a new tribe “ethnogenesis” – Robbers’ Cave was artificially inducing ethnogenesis to see what would happen. My model of ethnogenesis involves four stages: pre-existing differences, a rallying flag, development, and dissolution.
I’d add a stage to his analysis, or at least a substage — Regular interaction with the “Other.”
The Rattlers and Eagles existed on the same campus, and the rivalry increased the more they interacted with each other.
I’ve always admired the tribalism soccer evokes. The soccer scarves, the hooliganism (Green Street Hooligans image below) — sometimes it’s over the top but I can respect passion.
Most sports miss out on this— tribalism around the Lakers isn’t very strong because most Laker fans only encounter other Laker fans. Our biggest rivalry is with the Boston Celtics at the other end of the country. The Clippers are irrelevant and I don’t even know a Clippers fan.
Sports communities need to exist on the same playing field in order to be strong.
And most sports communities have this — London has five Premiere League teams - Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, and West Ham United, and when they meet each other that is when passions are at their highest.
The UK even has a name for this — it’s called a derby:
A 'derby' is a match between local rivals. i.e. teams that are from the same city or the same part of the country. These local games have a special place in the hearts of fans and players.
Regular interaction with the “other” is super important for stoking this local community.
Local pride is the main reason, fans of both clubs see each other at school, work and sometimes even in the same family every day. When your club has won it is much easier to go to school or work the day after the game to boast about your team's victory.
If the tribalism that comes from a rivalry, ethnogenesis, whatever you want to call it, is linked to local interaction in this way, you can’t emotionally invest in real sports communities unless there are local teams to care about.
College Sports & Community/Rivalry Doesn’t Scale — Soccer Edition
And within this context, the American obsession with our amateur school level sports makes a ton of sense — the NCAA is the closest we come to existing on the same playing field, to having Derbies, and to having local loyalties.
In no other country is the university system set up such that it supports multimillion dollar sports franchises. Nick Saban, the head coach of the Alabama University Football team, gets around $9 million in salary every year. The NCAA is our de-facto lower division professional league, and it gives us that sense of community and emotional investment we crave.
I grew up in Southern California and went to UC Berkeley but we all had friends who ended up at USC, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon or Washington. We went home for Thanksgiving and saw our friends in our rival’s sweatshirts. Our fraternity had an annual Winnebago trip, where we’d make the fraternity pledges drive the brothers down the 5 Highway to Southern California to whichever of UCLA or USC was the away game that year, and every year there would be a vulgar bago trip t-shirt — my favorite was of running back Reggie Bush stripping for Pete Carroll (the USC coach) the year it became clear he had accepted payment/bribes to come play at USC — we may have been bros but we were creative bros.
The “Big Game” every year was with our across-the-bay rival Stanford. And importantly each of these Universities had anywhere between a 6,000-40,000 person student body and had developed an idea of how they saw themselves and importantly, each other. At its worst it was things like USC was the “University of Spoiled Children” and Berkeley was for kids who couldn’t get into Stanford (ahem) and UCLA had the more attractive student body and Stanford had grade inflation while Berkeley kids actually had to work for our grades . . .
But we existed in the same world, and we had regular interactions with each other.
In this way the Premiere League is actually more similar to the PAC-12 division or the SEC in college sports than the NBA, NFL or MLS.
The Limelight, Villains, Startups & Scenes
This was all underscored a couple weeks ago when Alex Danco published a transcript taken from a conversation with Jim O'Shaughnessy on his blog. In it Jim tells the story of how he and his friends used to show up at Limelight, THE trendy/underground nightclub at the time, in suits and ties after a fancy dinner.
Jim: Because we're wearing suits, that they would look at us and they'd pull us from the back of the line. They'd let us come up, comp us, give us passes to the VIP room. And you know me. I try to figure out-
Alex: Are you guests or are you props?
Jim: We’re props.
Alex: Yeah you were.
Jim: We're props. And that's very insightful because it took me a while thinking about it to figure out that that's exactly what we were. We were there for all of the super, super cool kids to mock and throw drinks at. We were the man.
Alex: You need a villain.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. And so we would go, and ultimately the tie would come off, the jacket would come off and all that. But as long as they were on, we were the props, we were the man. Everybody hated the man.
It wasn’t enough for all those Limelight cool kids to know that “the man” was somewhere out there — the Limelight staff understood on some level that they needed interaction with that other, that dropping a little of the enemy into the dance floor would actually help build the community.
But Alex had additional insight on the role of privileges through participation — specifically the ability and hope of advancement through a hierarchy and how important that is for a scene.
Scenes only work if people are really committed to advancing in the social hierarchy and the status ladder of the scene.
. . .[what] is essential for the scene working is having a critical mass of people who have all bought into playing the same game. You need to have a critical mass of people who have all decided that they're going to measure themselves by the same yard sticks, which is being cool within this very confined box of the Montreal ska scene, or people who go to the Limelight, or whatever it might be.
That possibility for advancement is necessary for the scene to thrive. The Rattlers need to ability to beat the Eagles. The local team needs the ability to actually make it to the Premiere League . . . even if it almost NEVER happens.
The problem with U.S. soccer’s lack of Pro/Rel is that it restricts its status ladder to the top rungs, cutting off all local teams from the ability to participate, advance, and stifling any local rivalries that could arise, ironically hamstringing the entire system.
It’s The Hope That DRIVES You
At the end of Ted Lasso, facing relegation he confronts the team about a phrase he had been hearing going around the locker room and the local pub — It’s the Hope That Kills You.
Ted Lasso gets it — it’s the hope that drives you, the hope of beating your cross town rival, the hope of making it in the big leagues, it’s the hope of advancement in some way that powers all great scenes, whether it’s the hope of being the next billion dollar startup or the hope of just being noticed at Limelight for your amazing costume.
The amazing thing is that if the Lakers, Patriots or MLS’s NYC FC or Galaxy opened up and changed to a pro/rel model they likely wouldn’t suffer:
In the English Premiere league . . . the rich clubs tighten their grip on success because a higher placed finish gets a bigger cash reward and therefore they buy the better players. It's a virtuous circle of success feeding money feeding success. As a consequence, only five different teams have won the Premier League since it was set up in 1992. In that period, 14 different teams have won the Super Bowl.
So the funny thing is it would be a relatively risk-less change for the teams at the top of the league as there would be a very low chance of the top teams falling out of the top tier.
But there’d be hope. And that hope would lead to more emotional & community engagement at all levels, growing the pie.
The Santa Monica Surfers might take on the Venice Beach Bums and stoke real regional pride, and someone might invest in that sports community hoping one day to boot the until-recently-mediocre Clippers out of the NBA.
Watching the A.F.C. Richmond team on Ted Lasso jump up and down, singing “Richmond ‘til we die” made me envious of a sports structure that I might actually be able to get excited about.
Maybe one day the U.S. Soccer system will change.
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David (@dlitwak) & The Maxwell Team