I was thinking about Non-League Day as I fell asleep last night. If you don't know about Non-League Day, here's a bit of background:
"The "non-league football day" is the brainchild of James Doe, a lifelong football fan, supporter of QPR and follower of Harrow Borough FC. Its aim is to promote the semi professional game in this country by virtue of a fortuitous break in the football calendar. In James' own words:
'WITH ENGLAND PLAYING THE NIGHT BEFORE AND THE PREMIER LEAGUE AND CHAMPIONSHIP TAKING A WEEK OFF, I URGE ALL FANS OF THE BIG CLUBS TO GET OUT AND WATCH THEIR LOCAL NON-LEAGUE TEAM INSTEAD ON SATURDAY 4TH SEPTEMBER. GIVEN THE CURRENT FINANCIAL CLIMATE, CLUBS OUTSIDE THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE NEED ALL THE SUPPORT THEY CAN GET, SO YOUR PRESENCE AT A GAME WILL BE GENUINELY APPRECIATED. WITH TICKETS AND REFRESHMENTS AT A FRACTION OF THE COST, WHAT'S STOPPING YOU?'"
- from the Non-League Day website
Essentially, Non-League Day was a grassroots effort by English soccer fans to get people out to their small local clubs - with the Premier League dominating the headlines and attention, these mostly semi-pro and amateur teams exist on the fringes and even a few more fans in the stands can make a difference. Due to the international break and England playing on Friday, there was no soccer in the top two tiers on Saturday; James Doe's concept of pushing for non-league support was the direct, and admirable, result.
There's really no parallel to non-league football in the United States. We have lower division teams, but in a nation that covers so much space, there are simply too few to create the network of small clubs that exists in England. Perhaps more at issue would be convincing fans that anything lower than the top-tier is worth any time or money at all; we have a hard enough time convincing many American soccer fans that even MLS is worth a bit of attention. With noses thrust firmly upwards, they've turned their back on what they view on a lesser product that exists in their own backyard. Reconciling that various levels of the sport can be enjoyable in their own ways seems beyond the capabilities of too many of us; while the English rally support for semi-professional and amateur players, and often root for both upper-tier and lower level clubs with equal verve, we sit here fully capable of integrating more soccer into our lives but flatly refusing to do so.
Excuse me, but I just don't get it. I can't understand why local (relatively speaking - again, there's that issue of the US being a massive country geographically) is bad; appreciation of this game shouldn't rest on the biggest and richest alone, nor should it be dependent on the trappings of history and culture. Watching the Premier League and rooting hard - really hard, obsessively hard, nice-tattoo-you-got-there hard - for one of the Big Four or someone in that secondary group just below doesn't make you a soccer fan. It makes you an Arsenal fan or a Manchester United fan, certainly, but it also brings your passion for the sport as a whole into question. The very point of Non-League Day is that the game can be incredibly enjoyable to watch even when the players on the field make less in a year than Wayne Rooney makes in a minute. Simply put, fans only get out what they put in; the same arguments that apply to Premier League (or any big Euro competition for that matter) v. MLS, that the American competition is second rate or of terrible quality and is therefore justifiably ignored, should apply in England, but generally do not. Why?
I suspect much of the "problem" is a simple matter of time. It's natural that many Americans were attracted to the most visible and richest league, and considering the lack of comparable pyramid structures in American sports, there was simply no base of experience. In a professional setting, Americans just don't know how to appreciate distinct levels of competition. Even following scholastic sports is poor preparation, because though we enjoy the games despite lesser quality, the transitional nature of the college player and their nominal amateur status makes it too distinct for a connection to be made in our minds. College football is not to the NFL what League One is to the Premier League. Minor league franchises in hockey and baseball are more novelty than true rooting passion for locals over the age of twelve.
It would be ridiculous, and wrong, to expect American soccer culture to be anything like England's either in character or passion. I can't realistically expect a nation that is still learning to like the sport in meaningful numbers to suddenly understand that appreciating the game isn't just about the shirt the players are wearing, the size of the stadium in which they play, or the size of the check they take home. I can, however, hope that as American fans, be they the die-hardiest of big English club supporters or just casual viewers jumping on the bandwagon, mature with the sport, their ability to enjoy it grows wider while it go deeper. Be it MLS, Division II, college soccer, lower divisions in England, etc., etc., etc., there's little legitimate reason to close our minds to anything. We must acknowledge that true soccer passion, for the game and not just for one team, means reconciling that taking joy from the exploits of Rooney, Drogba, Gerrard, et al does not preclude us doing the same when the names are Saborio, Le Toux, Morales, et al.
Non-League Day was an admirable exercise because, as Chris of twofootedtackle put it, "without non-league there is no big football." As Americans sitting on this side of the pond, we weren't able to participate in Non-League Day in a physical sense. But might I suggest that if we want to join in with the spirit of the effort, the first step is to recognize a myopic view of the game, focusing solely the biggest and the best, keeps us from truly appreciating it.
Do we need a "Non-Prem Day" in the United States? It wouldn't even really require attendance, just a TV or a computer and a willingness to watch lesser-skilled players compete just as ferociously as their Premier League peers.