Identity and the Premier League: Connecting England’s top clubs to teams in North America
Identity may be the most important part of a professional team, but only when you stop to think about it. How we view a club is a concept so mundanely accessible -- the facet of the team we start to grasp the moment we become aware of them -- we never talk about the concept’s significance. We do discuss how the images of the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Lakers, and New York Yankees affect those teams’ perceptions, but we rarely debate the nature of those images. We just know what the Cowboys are, just like we know the nature of the Lakers. Or Yankees. Or Canadiens, Red Sox, Celtics - everybody.
But consider, for a moment, being an NFL fan in London, seeing a Dallas Cowboys and Washington game on your television, and having no clue as to the significance of those two teams. Imagine knowing nothing about their histories, legacies - their context in the broader culture of American football. If all you had to go on were standings and statistics, how could you ever grasp the weight of that game, let alone the unique nature of that matchup.
That’s why exercises like this one can be helpful. If you’re giving the Premier League a try this weekend, parallels between North American sports franchises and Premier League clubs can be a useful baby step, giving you some minimal, accessible context for your first games. When Liverpool host Stoke City to open the season on Saturday (7:45 a.m. Eastern NBCSN), these examples become a short-hand, one that tells you a well-established, historically immense club is facing a team with a smaller, more specific identity.
And if you’re already a Premier League expert, somebody who doesn’t need to have lines drawn across the Atlantic Ocean, consider providing some alternate examples, below. Many Premier League clubs have histories that extend back to the 19th century, making any one-to-one comparison to a North American sports inherently narrow: reductive. Perhaps we focused on history when we could have looked at the present, or looked at perception when a more nuanced story would have created a better parallel? If the goal of this exercise is to provide a bridge for new fans to access the Premier League, your examples (sure to be detailed in the comments, right?) are bound to be as good as mine.
That caveat out of the way, consider this an elaborate decoder ring - a way to translate a sliver of identity from one culture to another. We’ll start with Arsenal and work our way to West Ham United, giving you some idea of how each Premier League club would see seen through the lens of North American sports:
|PREMIER LEAGUE CLUB
|N.A. SPORTS FRANCHISE
|Arsenal and Atlanta are both considered elite teams that compete near the top of their respective leagues, but their true periods of dominance expired about a decade ago. Still each team, driven by their distinct philosophy, is on the cusp of returning to the top of the game despite not being able to spend with the richest teams in their league. Atlanta has always favored developing young, tools-driven players, while Arsenal’s tendency to buy young and look for bargains has helped them through recent seasons of financial constraint.
|While each teams’ recent history has contained both near misses and huge disappointments, both clubs’ glory days lie more than three decades ago. Miami’s 1972 squad remains the only NFL team to complete a perfect season, with Don Shula’s team going on to win two straight Super Bowls. In 1981-82, Aston Villa became one of five English clubs to win the European Cup. While neither organization has ascended to those heights in recent times, both remain historic, well-respected members of their leagues.
|New Orleans Pelicans
As you’ll figure while making your way through all 20 teams (and God bless you if you do), we’re trying to zero-in on one, maybe two prominent features of each club. It’s a very narrow way of doing things, but let’s not take this exercise too seriously.
If we did, we couldn’t justify this parallel between two curiously re-branded teams. Cardiff City, known as the Bluebirds throughout their history, changed their colors to red at the insistence of Vincent Tan, who bought the club last year. Like New Orleans, who discarded Hornets for Pelicans this summer, Cardiff will look for a few players to carry them up the league, with Andreas Cornelius, Gary Medel, and Steven Caulker serving as fuzzy analogs for Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Tyreke Evans.
Before Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and Mark Cuban (Dallas) bought their teams, both organizations were sleeping giants, albeit for different reasons. Chelsea were a London-based club with its own, large venue and a unique history, while Dallas were a fledgling team in a huge sports market playing in a league ripe to leveraged by an ambitious investor (which made a number of NBA teams sleeping giants, but stay with us).
Since Abramovich brought Chelsea in 2003, the club has won three league titles and a European Cup. And since Cuban took over the Mavs, Dallas have claimed their first NBA championship. Along the way, both organizations became one of the most fashionable in their sports.
|New York Islanders
The New York Islanders grabbed the eighth spot in last year’s NHL Eastern Conference playoffs, but for many years they were an underfunded team overshadowed in their own market. That description’s a perfect fit for recently promoted Crystal Palace. And just as the Islanders grabbed their league’s final playoff spot, Palace’s route through last year’s Championship playoffs casts them as team number 20 in this year’s Premier League.
Still, whereas the Islanders had a minor, Mike Bossy-fueled mini-dynasty 30 years ago, Crystal Palace have never won anything of note. Apologies for not noting this at the top, but none of these matches are going to be perfect.
|Both Everton and Chicago are among the oldest and most storied franchises in their leagues, but unfortunately, each team has gone about 25 years since their last title. Chicago’s last championship was in 1985, while Everton claimed England’s top division in 1987. Both teams have, for the most part, been competitive during the last quarter-century, and while it will be easier for the Bears to end their drought, both teams are seen as historic clubs that have rarely been true title contenders since the 1980s.
London, which Fulham calls home, is by far the biggest market in the Premier League. Conversely, Edmonton is the third-smallest city by population in North American professional sports.
Despite that obvious difference, the perceptions of the Cottagers and Oilers are remarkably similar. Both clubs are viewed as limited teams who, whenever they win, are punching above their weight, leaving their coaches and players to be patronized when they make runs to Europa League or Stanley Cup finals. Realizing their team will rarely compete for big things, the teams’ fan bases have a different perspective on their teams’ successes.
|Hull City Tigers
|Like Cardiff City and New Orleans, both of these teams have undergone recent re-brands, albeit minor ones. Hull recently changed their name from “Hull City AFC” to “Hull City Tigers” (it’s simpler, the owner claims). Miami came up with a new color scheme to mark the end of the Florida Marlins. In both cases, however, the teams aren’t expected to be competitive. Miami’s last in the National League East while Hull City are being picked for relegation.
|Boston Red Sox
|Some of these connections are cumbersome to the point of reaching. Others are obvious. There was a large crossover between Liverpool and Boston Red Sox fans before John W. Henry bought the Merseyside club. Now that both teams fall under the same umbrella, the link is undeniable. Both are historic if slightly hard-luck sides, albeit in different ways. Boston just recently exorcised their Curse of the Bambino (in no way are they a hard-luck team anymore) while Liverpool has yet to claim a title in the Premier League era.
|Los Angeles Dodgers
|Manchester City and the L.A. Dodgers are both iconic in their own ways, but it’s taken new investors to return these teams to prominence. For City, that return is complete, their huge spending allowing them to claim the Premier League two years ago. This year, adding four significant players over the summer, they’re stocked for another run. The Dodgers have Major League Baseball’s second-highest payroll and, thanks to a recent run, find themselves on top of the National League West. Both clubs, embodying so much of their local community’s sporting identity, have changed drastically, yet each have returned to contention.
|New York Yankees
|Like Liverpool’s link, this is a lay-up, even if the New York Yankees have entered a relationship with United’s chief rivals, Manchester City, to own and run Major League Soccer’s next team (New York FC). Commercially, Manchester United is the only English club that can rival Spain’s big two (Barcelona, Real Madrid), a stature that’s allowed them to finish no lower than third in every season since the Premier League’s 1992 debut. While they don’t get linked with the “evil empire” label as often as the Yankees, United are an empire, nonetheless.
For people who knew (and enjoyed) the Dominique Wilkins-led Hawks teams of the 1980s, this comparison will make sense, as Newcastle always seem to have more talent than their results produce. The Magpies haven’t won a first division title since the 1920s, even though they had their own Wilkins in Alan Shearer from 1996-2006.
Atlanta’s only championship came in 1958, and while recent teams have featured players like Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford, they’ve failed to mount a significant playoff threat. The futility was reminiscent of the under-achieving Toon squad that featured an attack of Micheal Owen, Mark Viduka, and Obafemi Martins. Or last year’s nearly-relegated team.
|St. Louis Blues
|Norwich aren’t the most glamorous of entities, but they’re an established, well-respected club with a strong group of supporters. Like the Blues, they’ve never claimed a first division title, but they have won two League Cups. St. Louis has won a Presidents’ Trophy and two Campbell Bowls. Both teams going into their upcoming seasons with modest expectations, and because they’re outside their country’s major media markets, they often tend to be overlooked.
|Two small market teams on the edge of their countries, neither Southampton nor Minnesota are known for winning titles. The Twins have won three World Series, the last 22 years ago, while Southampton’s only major honor is the 1976 FA Cup. What each team’s really known for is developing talent. The Twins have a remarkable knack of getting value from their farm system. But just like the Saints (the team responsible for current stars Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott), the Twins rarely have the resources to hold on to their products.
|Fair or not, the Grizzlies have become know as a physical team whose recent, relative successes are built on their style’s ability to match up well against particular opponents. And fair or not, Stoke is seen the same way. This season at the Brittania, that may change, with Mark Hughes brought in to move the Potters away from the Tony Pulis era. And with Dave Joerger taking over for Lionel Hollins in Memphis, the same might happen at the FedExForum. But until we see these teams actually start playing differently, they’ll carry their physical reputations.
|Both England’s northeast and Philadelphia live with a sporting chip on their shoulder, each regions casting sideways glances toward London and New York. Beyond geography, both the Black Cats and Eagles have renown fan bases and a limited, distant history of success. Despite spending considerably in recent years, Sunderland hasn’t won a title since 1935-36 (though they claimed the FA Cup in 1973). Philadelphia’s own recent expenditures haven’t cured a title drought that extends back to 1960.
|Golden State Warriors
|It’s hard to see a clear connection between Michu, Swansea’s sharp-shooter who led the team to last year’s League Cup, and Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ long-range sniper who’s returned the Oakland-based team to relevance. Yet like Golden State, Swansea’s seen as a new, “fresh,” exciting team on the Premier League landscape, one whose success has been built on an attractive style of play. And like Swans, guided from the sidelines by legendary player Micheal Laudrup, the Warriors are also coached by a prominent ex-player: former Knicks and Pacers point guard Mark Jackson.
|Los Angeles Clippers
|Despite their franchise being resurrected after the acquisition of all-star point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers’ brand is so bad that no Spurs fan will be happy with this link, yet if you look at the states of the current teams, the comparison is irresistible. Both are second teams in their regions, living in the shadows of Arsenal and the Lakers. Both are on the verge of overtaking their rivals, and both are fueled by players among the best in their leagues (Bale, Paul). And, if either get a couple of breaks, they could prove unexpected title contenders in 2013-14.
|West Bromwich Albion
|West Brom were one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888. Though now considered a modest club by the Premier League’s financially-enhanced standards, they’re one of the more prominent in the Midlands. In Major League Baseball, the Reds are also considered a modest (mid-market, if you will), though they have an extensive history. The current version of the team dates back to 1881, with the club’s predecessor was an original member of the National League before being kicked out for selling beer and playing games on Sundays.
|West Ham United
|Kansas City Royals
Unlike the Reds, the Royals don’t have an extensive history to match West Ham, a club that’s 118 years old (the Royals began play in 1969). The commonality here is the role player development plays in the club’s legacy.
The Royals quickly went from expansion fodder to division-winning relevance the only way you could before free agency: scouting and player development. By their third season, they had a winning record, and from 1976 to 1985, the Royals won six AL West titles.
West Ham’s development legacy rests in England 1966, with the Hammers providing Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, and Martin Peters to England’s only World Cup winner. Today, players like Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick carry on that tradition of development, though like the Royals, West Ham are struggling to be more of a factor in the actual standings.