English soccer club Everton has loyal fans in the U.S. too

When Marshall Lamm was growing up in Dallas, soccer was considered little more than the waste of a football field. So years later, when Lamm became a fan of the English Premier League, he had no idea how to pick a team for which to root.

"In England, if your dad was a West Ham fan, your grandfather was a West Ham fan, every family member is pretty much a West Ham fan and you don't really have a choice," he said. "But over here you can be a fan of any team."

So after giving the matter some thought, Lamm used the Six Degrees of Preki formula to determine his allegiance.

Preki, a former U.S. national team player and Chivas USA coach, once participated in the Dallas Cup tournament. The Cup sponsored a clinic that Preki and Lamm attended. Preki went on to play in the EPL for Everton, which is based in Liverpool.

"I had that connection with my hometown. Plus I'm a Beatles fan. [And] my favorite color is blue," Lamm said.

It was so obvious. Everton was his team.

And now the club is trying to become America's team as well, playing up its rich history and a lineage of U.S.-born players that runs from Joe Max Moore and Brian McBride to Landon Donovan and Tim Howard. It lent its coach, Roberto Martinez, to ESPN as a commentator and sent him back to the U.S. last fall to shake hands and pose for selfies at a soccer fan fest.

The club may soon have American owners as well if a group led by John Jay Moores, former owner of baseball's San Diego Padres, is successful with a reported $300-million bid to buy a controlling interest in the club.

"We saw the States as an opportunity because clearly the interest in the Premier League is growing and we know it's a key territory for all the clubs," said Richard Kenyon, Everton's director for marketing and communications. "There's opportunity to grow a fan base and potentially commercial opportunities as well. But that's not the only reason we do it.

"We do it because if fans want to support us, we're going to reciprocate and do everything we can to make it a good experience for them."

First, the club has to introduce itself to that U.S. audience. Although Everton has spent more seasons in the top division than any club in British soccer history, winning more titles than Manchester City and Chelsea combined, the last of those championships came nearly three decades ago. And that may be one reason why it hasn't built the international profile of clubs such as Manchester United, which once claimed to have more than 650 million supporters worldwide.

So Everton has tried to sell itself to the public in a uniquely American way — by appearing in a Hollywood movie. The climatic fight of the boxing film "Creed" was filmed at Goodison Park, Everton's iconic home, during an EPL game with West Bromwich Albion in 2015. (Spoiler alert: the game ended in a draw, the fight did not.)

"It was a really good opportunity to show [the] incredible atmosphere that we create in a football game," Martinez said. "It gives you a real insight of following the colors and following the passion of a football club."

It didn't hurt that Sylvester Stallone, who received an Oscar nomination for his role in the film, is a diehard Everton fan as is the movie's villain, Liverpool-born boxer Tony Bellew, who wore the club's badge and colors during the faux fight.

"They're sort of an underdog team; we love that fighting spirit. It just all seemed to make sense," said Jonathan Glickman, president of MGM's motion picture group. "It was important to Tony that it be Everton. He talked about that all the time on the set."

Lamm, 44, a San Francisco-based publicist, has been spreading the gospel as well. Seven years ago, he joined David Kurtz, 43, an Internet entrepreneur in Venice, Calif., to form Everton USA, a U.S. supporters group they say has grown to include more than 100 chapters in all 50 states, four Canadian provinces and even Costa Rica, where fans get behind the Toffees.

Kurtz said he dumped the NFL for Everton after watching only one game on TV.

"That was the moment I bought my first Everton shirt," he said. "And once I sort of got entrenched with the fans, it was very clear that Everton was a bigger part of my life than I ever thought it would be."

Still, such following pales in comparison to the size of the U.S. fan bases enjoyed by EPL clubs Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. But the passion for Everton is deeper, Lamm insists.

"Once you've chosen Everton … you'll never be the same," he said. "The tradition, the family nature of the club. You're not going to want to leave. And you're not going to jump around.

"There are no half-ass Evertonians."

That's not necessarily a good thing because the club will break your heart more often than it will warm it. Everton has finished as high as fourth in the EPL only once since 1989 and it's in the middle of the standings more than halfway through this season, having blown leads to lose or tie six times since Nov. 28.

That, too, is part of what Everton is selling to U.S. fans. The club is authentic and its fans loyal, says Kenyon, who notes that although the club plays in one of the more impoverished areas of England, one in seven households in the area have paid to watch Everton play in the last 4 1/2 years.

"Many of my most joyous moments … have been created by Everton Football Club," said Roger Bennett, one half of NBC's quirky "Men in Blazers" and an Everton lifelong fan. "In great times it makes you feel feelings that you're meant to experience in real life but are numb to.

"And in dark times I always tell myself it grows you as a human being."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 07, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Everton develops a loyal following among U.S. fans - British soccer team has a booster club with more than 100 chapters in 50 states." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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