29 October 2008

The Milwaukee Admirals

or, the least indie indie site in the room.

Last Saturday (October 25) i attended a Milwaukee Admirals hockey game in response to an assignment for my Indie Culture Seminar which asked me to write about a ‘site of indie culture’. I selected an Admiral’s game primarily because it was the least ‘indie’ indie site I could come up with. That is, the Admirals (and independent sports teams or leagues in general) perform many of the same tasks & fulfill the same roles as we might assign to indie culture: resisting (or at least defining yeah, this isn't my picture... It's from the Milwaukee 'sportsbubbler' blogitself against) 'mainstream' culture, providing a more 'authentic' experience than the overly commercialized mainstream product, and locating itself (often geographically or spatially, but not always) somewhere outside the 'mainstream'. I want, in some sense, to frustrate this working definition of indie culture by looking at an area of culture that we likely can mostly agree is decidedly not ‘indie’. I see independent sports leagues in as in some way defining themselves against the mainstream (major league sports) by paying players substantially lower salaries and often arguing (at least implicitly) for a more ‘authentic’ competition because of the lower, more equitable payrolls. The Admirals also operate with little to no media coverage (they get minimal coverage on local sports talk radio and newspaper coverage, but nationally get absolutely no attention). On the other hand, hockey games (and sports events in general) seem to be exactly contrary to what we might define as ‘indie’ in that the way they are marketed (corporate sponsorships abound both on the website and at the game), the commodification of all aspects of the game (souvenir shops at the Bradley Center are almost entirely filled with Admirals goods), and even the sport itself (which we might call a ‘mainstream’ sport as opposed to more ‘indie’ sports like Roller Derby or Frisbee golf).

* * *

Walking toward the ticket booth of the Bradley Center it becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly that this ‘site’ and the people walking into the site are anything but ‘indie’. Groups of 30-40something adults and families seem most prevalent. At the ticket booth, 20 minutes before game time the best cheapest tickets available were 3 rows off the ice. Walking around the stadium on our way to our section, a group of high school kids played “Brown Eyed Girl” on a stage set up on the lower level. We bought a couple beers (Pilsner Urquells, a beer of ‘distinction’), some popcorn, and found are seats as the zambonis were finishing up their circuits. (At Admirals games you can, evidently, buy a ride on the zamboni before the game and between periods. On one zamboni a young boy of maybe 7 or 8 was having the time of his life, while on the other one, a middle-aged man in a Packers sweatshirt waved awkwardly and I wondered who he was and why he might have decided to ride the zamboni, which seemed like such a kid-centered novelty).

The game got under way and I was immediately struck by the way fans seemed to be watching the game. Not being an expert on hockey (or really even much of a hockey fan) I can’t say for sure, but compared to the way I’ve seen professional sports fans watch games in the past, these fans seemed to attend to the game much more constantly than I had expected. I’ve been to one NHL game and a UND hockey game before, but both times my seats were much farther away from the ice, so the attention being paid to the game might have had something to do with the proximity (and given the low attendance and closed off upper deck everyone was close to the ice, relatively speaking). The crowd was generally quiet and when they yelled anything, it was generally specific instructions or critiques (“put a body on them!” “Play it in”) rather than the more general yells I am accustomed to (“C’mon!”s or “Boo”s). While on the subject of specific quotes, I noted that throughout the game, whenever a player would come out of the penalty box the announcer would say “And the teams are at equal strength” to which the crowd would reply “That’s Debatable!” This surprised me the first time it happened, but was a comforting ritual that instantly made you feel like a part of the crowd. The game itself was fairly exciting, a number of lead changes and ultimately the Admirals lost. A full account can be found yeah, this one's mineon the Admiral’s website if you’re interested.

The Admirals play in the AHL (American Hockey League), which currently serves as a feeder system for NHL teams, with teams generally having exclusive or joint contracts with NHL teams, but operating as an independent league. I was surprised by the number of people wearing Admirals gear as well as how many people had come up from Chicago and were wearing Chicago Wolves jerseys (particularly because Chicago has the NHL Blackhawks in their home market). In fact this segment of the crowd might be the most useful when talking about indie vs. mainstream sports. Why, when AHL hockey is an inferior sport at least from the perspective of the individual athlete’s ability, would someone choose to be a Wolves fan? Is there some extra cultural capital from enjoying this ‘more authentic’ experience, a less commercialized, less ‘sell out’ game? Or, perhaps they see their viewership ironically, some sort of ‘lo-fi’ hockey. Or, it might just be that there seems to be a lot more fighting and checking into the wall at this level. My clearest memory from the game is of the aftermath of an Admirals forward getting smashed into the glass just in front of us. The crowd around me was laughing and cheering and saying things like “Dude, did you see his face just before his face hit.”

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