Stateside Latics fanatics savo(u)r US tour

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Wigan Athletic’s first ever USA tour is not just proving a success in terms of conditioning and team bonding — it has set the perfect stage for the beginnings of a US-based supporters club, as fans from all over the country communicated on Twitter and Facebook to meet up, get to know one another, and support the team.

Jon Sicotte, known on Twitter as @spikechiquet, is one of them. A sports copy editor at the Toledo Blade in Ohio and a freelance writer for TheCup.us, he started following the Latics three years ago after some web and FIFA-gaming based research, and hasn’t looked back since. He traveled to both Columbus Crew and Dayton Dutch Lions matches, and was kind enough to contribute a write-up and photos of each experience for the Amigos. Thanks Jon!

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Columbus Crew 1 Wigan Athletic 2

Although this Wigan trip was about the new squad limbering up for the Football Championship campaign, it really was a chance for Latics fans to find out that they are not alone. Through Twitter and Facebook, fans from all over the United States connected and got together to share stories, laughs (a few ales) and talk of their love of WAFC. Last Saturday, a group of us decided to go to the 4th St. Grill in Columbus, about a mile from Crew Stadium. It’s a Crew bar, but we were welcomed and had a great time (the bar’s Two-Hearted Ale/Chipotle sauce on boneless wings is fantastic).

The backgrounds of the fans were all over the board: a retiree from Illinois who has lived in the States for 35 years; a Texan who has been in the U.S. since 2005; a Canadian; an American with Wiganers in his family; and even some born-and-bred Americans that just happened to pick the Latics. A few of us tailgated right before the game and met a girl who lived in the area and was wearing a Liverpool kit, although she was from Wigan originally and was happy to see her town’s team playing in Columbus. She was waving a Union Jack proudly out of her car.

Crew fans and staff welcomed us with open arms and event security looked the other way as our group sat together despite having tickets all over the stadium. We may have been small, but we were mighty and we let the Crew know we were there! The array of kits was fun to watch. We met QPR fans, a few Manchester United, Man City and England National team fans in our journey. Michael, one of the guys I met while there, grew up playing youth games under Graham Barrow and the two got to catch up on old times before the match as well.

After the match, Ben Watson and Emmerson Boyce stopped by to chat with fans along with Roger Espinoza. Some of the other guys were down by the bench. A Wigan assistant coach handed up Wigan FA Cup posters as well. It was nice to meet Ben, I remarked I was happy to get to take a picture of the forehead that won Wigan the cup.

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Dayton Dutch Lions 1 Wigan Athletic 6

A few days later, I ventured to Piqua High School’s soccer field and assumed I would be alone since many of my “Twitter Crew” couldn’t make the second game. I was happily wrong. I was tapped on the shoulder by a teen named Chole. She, her mum, brother and boyfriend had been in Columbus, but also made it to Piqua for the Dayton vs. Wigan match…a three-hour trip from Louisville. They introduced me to Joe, who believe it or not, lives just down the road from me here in Perrysburg, Ohio. I also met a few more fans around us (I believe our crew stood eight strong or so) and we all braved the 90+ degree heat and humidity.

The players felt the heat as well. In fact, they stopped to take a water break at the 30th minute. The pitch’s grass seemed long and dry and dead, making it slow playing. Wigan was sloppy as well and tried to fool around at times instead of trying to be technically sound. Still, the second half was full of exciting goals and a few good shows of sportsmanship. Late in the match, after scoring a goal already, newcomer Grant Holt collided with Dayton’s keeper nearly outside the box. The goalie fell and was in pain near his knee. Instead of driving to the net, Grant kicked the ball out of bound and let the team tend to their keeper. A minute later, after a penalty kick was awarded, Wigan offered the services of Lee Nicholls to play the penalty instead of the injured keeper. (Dayton only had one keeper at the match). After Holt scored against his teammate, Nicholls stayed and finished the match for Dayton (I wonder if Mr. Whelan will get a few bucks for the transfer fee).

After the match, the players came up to our little group to take pictures and sign autographs. We caught a few more guys before they got on the bus to head back to Columbus. The team even brought out a few boxes of pizza to share with us and many young kids hanging around to meet some true professionals of the beautiful game.

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Dreaming of financial fair play — can Wigan ever win the league?

Ask a room of Premier League fans if Wigan Athletic could ever win the Premier League title, and your question will be met with derision and laughter. It is widely accepted that such an achievement is beyond a club of Wigan’s size and means. But what if the fundamental nature of financial competition were to radically change within English football? Is a future Premier League that Wigan Athletic could win, feasible?

It is not likely to happen this year. In fact, Ladbrokes are currently offering odds of 3500/1 against it. On the other hand they have Manchester City at 13/10, Manchester United 19/10 and Chelsea at 3/2. After that, the odds on the remaining clubs range from 14/1 to those of Latics. The bookmakers are clearly convinced that  the title will be gained by one of the two Manchester giants or Chelsea. However, if the financial ground rules under which the Premier League operates were to change radically, maybe a door would open for such dreams to come true?

In other sports, and in other countries, systems are put in place to stop elite clubs signing on dozens of highly paid players, preventing them from being available to other clubs. They also try to ensure that games are not so heavily weighted to one side that it almost seems like a foregone conclusion who is to win. Having the top players more evenly distributed between the clubs means that all clubs have some hopes for success. Their supporters are then more likely to stay with them, rather than being drawn to other sports, other entertainment, or other more wealthy clubs.

The Premier League was formed in 1992, after First Division clubs broke away from the Football League. The elite clubs had considered doing so for some time and the idea of a European League was mooted. At the time, English clubs lagged behind the top clubs in Italy and Spain in terms of revenues. Television money was burgeoning and the First Division clubs wanted a much larger slice of that cake, not wanting to share it with those in the lower divisions.

Since then the Premier League has become the most economically powerful league in the world, largely through selling itself to a global TV market. Its attendances are the second highest in Europe. Last year the average Premier League attendance was 34,601, beaten only by Germany 41,205.
It is no surprise in a league dominated by the elite that Premier League television revenue is far from evenly distributed among the 20 clubs. In the 2011-2012 season. Wigan Athletic received  £42.8 million in TV money. Manchester City received  £60.6 m and Manchester United  £60.3 m. Wolves received the lowest with  £39.1 million. It will be argued that the public are more likely to want to watch the elite teams, but the inequality clearly exacerbates the huge financial gap between rich and poor in the league.

In the 2013-2014 television rights are set to steeply rise, making it even more lucrative for Premier League clubs. At the same time, footballers’ salaries have escalated almost beyond control, the absurd spending of Manchester City and Chelsea exacerbating the problem. The League is looking at ways to provide more financial control. One realistic option is to follow UEFA’s initiative, which will require clubs to break even financially. According to BBC.co.uk, Dave Whelan supports the adoption of a financial fair play policy, saying that a proposal in this area has come from Manchester United. The strong inference is that United are envious of their near neighbour’s success last season.

Clearly a move towards Manchester United’s proposal would favour the interests of big clubs with huge fan support  like themselves and Arsenal, cutting out the excesses of clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. This might help to redress the issue of spiralling player salaries and stop multi-millionaires financing huge debt in top clubs. However, the end result is still going to be a huge divide between rich and poor in the league.

This columnist advocates the implementation of not only financial fair play rules, but also of a salary cap per club. The latter would prevent the elite clubs hoarding so many top players, making them unavailable for other clubs. It sets a limit on the total salaries that a club can pay each season. This does not preclude a club paying the ridiculous wages to some players that have become the norm, but it does limit how many players they will be able to accommodate this way.

The salary cap concept is used widely in American sports as means of stopping wealthy clubs achieving dominance by signing up the majority of outstanding players available. The National Football League (NFL) of the USA had a salary cap of $120 million per club in 2011. It is to be noted that since the Premier League was formed in 1992 only 5 clubs have won championship titles. Manchester United have won it 12 times, Arsenal and Chelsea 3 times each, Blackburn and Manchester City once. In comparison the NFL has had 12 clubs winning its championship in that time.

The implementation of financial fair play rules and club salary caps would not be easy. There are so many potential loopholes involved. However, there has to be a way forward from the current situation which has such inequities that it makes it virtually impossible for any club without huge revenues or massively rich benefactors to reach the top. Let’s at least give the average club in the Premier League some chance – although it may be slim – to win the title.

It is highly unlikely that Wigan Athletic will ever win the Premier League. At present, their chance is almost zero. Lets at least lower the odds and give clubs outside the elite few at least a chance to dream.