With the Red Stripe: Hi Travis and thank you for taking time to answer our questions. Firstly, let’s talk about you: Who are you and how did you become a fan and member of VfB Stuttgart?
Travis: As to VfB, my fandom is a long — and probably boring! — story.
The short version, though? I played soccer as a youth, so always enjoyed the sport; the American sports teams I followed were lousy for almost three decades, so I was looking for something else to support; because of my German heritage, I’d always been drawn to Germany. Once Bundesliga games became available on TV in the States in 2015, I gave the league some attention, found VfB, and have been a fan — and a member — of VfB Stuttgart ever since.
The long story… well… it’s kind of in three parts.
Part one is I played soccer as a youth through high school, so I always enjoyed the sport. I was a classic #9, if by “classic” you mean “terrible”! I like to think of myself as the youth version of Martin Harnik. Let that sink in!
Part two is that while I liked soccer, in the U.S., American football is by far the number one sport, not even close, and it was almost impossible to watch international soccer of any kind unless it was the World Cup, at least not until maybe the mid-2000s. Anwya, the American team I support, the Cleveland Browns, had been terrible for a solid 25 years, and after so much terrible, awful, just hideous, and boring football, I was looking for a change.
Part three is that I was looking for something to support, and in the States, that meant either the MLS or the Premier League as they were the only leagues on TV. But for whatever reason, those leagues never interested me — I found MLS boring and England just never interested me (which is ironic as my wife is an English teacher!). But in 2015, FOX Sports started to broadcast Bundesliga matches on TV, and that opened up a lot of American eyes — including mine! — to the various clubs around Germany. And as my last name and my family’s heritage is pretty solidly German, and as I had always supported the German national team in the World Cup, and I was drawn to that part of the world (in fact, Jeff, who is on the podcast, he and I travelled to Germany in 2012 for a two week trip — and then again in 2018 — and just fell in love with the country), and the more I researched the uniqueness of the league (the fan culture, the 50+1 rule, relegation), well, it became clear I was going to find what I was looking for in the Bundesliga.
That’s a long way to say I started to watch Bundesliga matches in 2015 — around the same time you guys started your blog! — but that doesn’t answer why I’ve become a devoted (and at times, over the top) VfB fan!
Again, once the Bundesliga was available to actually watch on TV, then it came down to finding a club. And as a history teacher, I get a perverse pleasure out of research, lol, so I started researching! And key to this is I didn’t want to just pick a random “I like their kit” or “Hey, they’re really good” or “What’s the easiest team to follow because they’re on TV all the time?” club. No, I wanted a club that I could somehow connect with, that meant something to me. So I decided to narrow my research to the clubs that were near what I like to call “Haselswerdt Ground Zero” — that is, where my family originated from.
Which wasn’t too difficult, actually. Like a lot of Americans, at some point we get involved in trying to find out our genealogy, and thanks to my last name, it was pretty easy to find out where the Haselswerdt side of my family hailed from — a number of small villages pretty much right in the middle of Stuttgart and Karlsruhe. So that meant it was immediately down to four clubs — Stuttgart, Freiburg, Karlsruhe, and Hoffenheim.
I decided to watch all of their matches, or at least all of the matches I could during the second half of the 2015 season, to see if there was a club that passed the “eye test.” Because of that, Karlsruhe was immediately out, but not because of the reasons that may seem obvious to any Stuttgart supporter! Remember, back then, the 2.Bundesliga wasn’t available to watch in any way shape or form, and because KSC was in the 2.Bundesliga, they may as well have not existed. Which I’m sure some VfB fans might say should happen anyway!
Hoffenheim was out because even then, even with my lack of knowledge of the Bundesliga, I knew they just weren’t a fit. Call them plastic or call them boring, whatever, but honestly, the biggest reason I didn’t support them was probably because they were really good back then — and again, who wants to be a frontrunner?
Which left Freiburg and Stuttgart. Freiburg had the initial lead, as it turned out. Not for anything they did on the pitch but because in 2012 Jeff and I had visited the town and absolutely fell in love with it. In hindsight, I don’t know why I ended up turning my back on them (although Austin has since fallen in love with them!). I think it wasn’t anything they lacked as much as what VfB had.
One of those things is that VfB survived the 2015 season while Freiburg were relegated which meant there would be no way to actually follow Freiburg, so that definitely hurt their chances to win over my fandom. The bigger reason, though, was that towards the end of that 2015 season, as VfB was rallying to try to survive with Huub at the helm, I was just really finding myself drawn to VfB. Some of it was probably the simple fact they were winning matches. And some of it was the simple fact that their iconic kit and emblem are just so, so sharp. Definitely not the reasons you should be a fan, but hey, anything helps! But the more I watched the club and the more I read about the club and the more I discovered the rich history of the club … I don’t know, there was just something about the club, it’s background, it’s crest, it’s ups and downs. I couldn’t put my finger on it but I was getting more and more attached with each match I watched.
And then the last match of the season, well, that sealed the deal for me. Every VfB supporter remembers the match. Season on the line, giving up an early goal, the constant movement of the table. Away at Paderborn. I was able to watch the second half of the game and when Ginczek scored the goal (sidebar — he also scored the goal in the only VfB game I’ve been lucky enough to attend, the 1:1 draw against HSV in 2018!) that would not only win the match but also save the season, the celebrations by the players and travelling supporters was just … insane. It was nuts. Yes, I knew the club was safe, but I couldn’t figure out why the fans, the players, the coaches, just everyone, was going bananas, why everyone was so, so, so happy. They ended up 14th! Just two points above direct relegation and people were acting like they had won the Champions League! In the States, that kind of finish gets everyone fired! But here, on that day, the players and supporters were deliriously happy. I couldn’t figure it out (sadly, I now know why everyone was so happy, lol) but that was it, I was hooked.
So I dived in, became a member, bought kits and scarves and baby kits for my one year old and spent every weekend morning watching Zorniger lead the team to … well … yeah. We all know that story, too! 2017–2018 tested my support as I had to purchase VfBtv and wait on a two or three hour delay for them to post the video, but I stuck with it, and through the ups and downs (and downs), it’s been a blast.
Long story, but since 2015, I’ve been a member of the club, I catch every match I can, and I own way, way, way too many jerseys!
Obviously when VfB games kick off at 3.30 pm on a saturday, it is still early morning in the States. How hard is it to follow the Bundesliga in the US? How’s the TV coverage?
Yeah, the early morning coverage is brutal. But I have it easier than most. Where I live, we are six hours behind Germany. But I have some friends who support VfB who are seven hours behind. Jeff and Austin, the co-hosts on the podcast, live in California, so if they want to watch their clubs they are nine hours behind! So for me, I can’t complain too much, but yeah, a 9:30am start does make it difficult to have a Weihenstephaner or Kolsh while watching the match!
As to TV coverage, though, it’s gotten a lot better. Like I said, 10 years ago, you couldn’t watch anything. Then around 2015, FOX Sports started showing and streaming matches, so we could catch all the Bundesliga action, and since it was on Demand, you could catch the matches on our schedule. Then they started streaming all the 2.Bundesliga matches, as well, which was obviously great during the 2018 season. However, FOX Sports is no longer hosting the Bundesliga as ESPN bought the rights to the league last season. While they stream all the matches, and the quality is fine, they don’t stream hardly any 2.Bundesliga matches, which to me is a shame, because that league is going to be fantastic to watch this season!
What’s the Bundesliga’s standing with soccer fans in the States and how well known is Stuttgart?
That’s actually a hard question because I think there are two answers, the general answer and the specific answer. By that I mean the general sports fan and the soccer fan.
If you’re talking about the general sports fan, everyone knows Bayern and Dortmund, but aside from those two clubs, I’d say the league is not too well known. I mean, everyone knows there’s a German league, but most Americans don’t know the clubs or the players. Over here, in terms of soccer, the Premier League is definitely number one, and I don’t think there’s really a close number two. And while it’s a lot easier to watch Bundesliga matches than any of the other leagues like Serie A or La Liga (although ESPN is going to start broadcasting La Liga matches this season), it’s just not that well known on a general basis.
And generally speaking, no one knows Stuttgart at all.
The “soccer fan” knows about the Bundesliga, though. So, someone who follows Premier League or even MLS, yes, they’ll know about the Bundesliga. And in some areas of the U.S. soccer is HUGE. Seattle. Cincinnati. Chicago. Milwaukee. Where I live, in Cleveland, we have two — two! — official Arsenal supporters groups! I bring them up because while they’re Arsenal fans, they’re also soccer fans, so they know about the Bundesliga. Whether it’s because of Champions League play or Premier League teams buying up Bundesliga players, there’s a lot of knowledge of the Bundesliga as a whole to soccer fans.
But in terms of VfB, even these fans don’t know much about the club. They know there is a club called “VfB Stuttgart” with the “red stripe,” but they don’t really know any details about the club. What they know are mostly two things — one, the number of high quality players that have come through the club that have gone on to success for other clubs and two, the iconic brustring and emblem. Sounds silly, but VfB’s “branding” is pretty spot on in terms of recognition. So if I walk into one of the Arsenal pubs or the Spurs pub and I’m wearing my VfB kit, they’ll know who VfB is. But they won’t know much, if any detail, about the club.
That gets to another point, it’s a dream of mine and some of my friends to start an OFC, but trying to find the requisite 10 members, well, unless my wife and three children can count, it’s probably not going to happen, lol. And as far as I know, VfB supporters groups in the States are rare and, to my knowledge, non-existent. You have pockets of VfB fans but we are always in groups of one or two … the amount of times I’ve had the whole pub to myself to watch a game by myself is too many and too sad to count! But … I’ve heard rumors of a large number of VfB fans in Milwaukee and Chicago … hopefully someday I can meet them!
Does it help notoriety that VfB has an Italian-American manager from New Jersey on the sideline?
No, not really. I doubt that Leipzig’s new coach, who is an American, will make anyone in the U.S. pay attention. So, no.
Now, when Christian Pulisic was playing for Dortmund, that got people’s attention. Even John Brooks has earned some attention. Put it this way, when Julian Green played for VfB for those 10 games in 2016–2017, he got way more publicity than Pellegrino Matarazzo has ever received! But for all three of the players I just mentioned, the reason why they got attention and why that helped the Bundesliga get attention is that they were tied to the U.S.A. national team. In the U.S., for people to pay attention, you have to be associated with the national team. So unless Mata becomes the U.S.A. national team manager, I don’t think his coaching VfB will get much attention from Americans at all.
You produce a podcast with other Bundesliga fans who follow Freiburg, Köln and St. Pauli called VfB Stuttgart Americana. How did that come about and what do you guys talk about in your episodes?
I have to give credit to Austin, the Freiburg fan, on this one. He listens to a lot of podcasts and started listening to some American-based Bundesliga ones. He turned me on to some and I started listening, and there are some really good ones (SchalkeMerica is the class of the group, in my opinion; Hey Eintracht is incredibly informed; Neverkusen has a fantastic name and has the most impressive group of hosts from all over the world; It’s Not Easy Being Green is by far the most fun; and Talking Fussball is so smooth and so knowledgeable). So after listening to a few of them we started thinking, “hey, why not us?” Other than having no experience, no knowledge, and no technical ability, what is there to stop us?!
Oddly, the key for us was, well, the pandemic. There. Was. Nothing. To. Do. We were all bored. We were Zoom’ing together anyway (Austin, Jeff, and Ian all live in California, I live in Ohio, and we’ve all been best friends for the last 30 years). So we thought, “Ok, why not?” If nothing else, this would be a fun excuse for the four of us to get together and talk and just hang out. So that’s where the idea kind of started.
The hardest part turned out trying to figure out our format. We are all Bundesliga fans, so that part was easy. We’d talk about that. But Jeff is a die-hard Koln member. Austin is a Freiburg fan. I’m obviously the Stuttgart supporter. Ian prefers the perennial 2.Bundesliga FCSP. We didn’t know what we should focus on … all the clubs? Just the Bundesliga clubs? Just the Baden-Württemberg clubs? One club? I finally took charge and said we’d focus on VfB, but we’d have segments where we would talk about other clubs.
Once we nailed that down, the hardest part is just scheduling time to actually do it (being on opposite ends of the country doesn’t help!). Well, that and figuring out our sound. Yeesh, it’s so awful.
But the easy part was talking about VfB! Our podcast is pretty basic and we start every episode with part one, a review of the previous matchday’s result and then a preview of the upcoming match. This part is important to point out though — we have zero expertise! As we warn people at the beginning of each episode, we are unofficial, uninformed, and unprepared! Quite literally we are just a bunch of fans sitting around talking about the match. I mean, I read up on the club as much as I can on the internet and I think I’m somewhat well-informed, and Austin and Jeff watch all the matches, but if you’re coming to VfB Stuttgart Americana for breaking news, well, you’re going to be disappointed. I’m not selling the podcast very well, but I can honestly say that we add absolutely nothing to the conversation, lol.
Part two is where we give our predictions for the next week for VfB and the entire Bundesliga. We use the most recent betting odds and try our best to predict results. I’m proud to say we were all over .500 last season, so maybe we do know a little bit! It’s usually during this part where Jeff and Austin get a few minutes to talk about their clubs, and considering how bad 1.FC Koln was last season, this was a good chance for Jeff to exercise some mental therapy!
We usually add in a “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” segment in homage to my favorite movie and then a “What We Learned” segment where we talk about something completely random we learned during the broadcast, but for the most part, we try to NOT take ourselves too seriously, we try to remain positive and upbeat (thanks to @MartinPanik1893, @SailRacer, @robg485, and Brendo for being founding members of the Great Lakes Brustring Brüder … it’s our unofficial VfB support group and they often talk me off the ledge and remind me not to post anything until the “24 Hour Rule” has expired and I’ve calmed down so I can remain positive and upbeat!), and we just try to act like the three or four of us are sitting around the pub talking about the club — and the league — over a few beverages.
How is the feedback from other Bundesliga fans in the States or English speaking Stuttgart fans in general?
Shockingly positive! We decided to do the podcast just as a way to have fun and figured if we had more than five listeners it was because someone accidentally tuned in. So it’s been awesome to hear so many kind comments from people about how the podcast isn’t terrible. It’s definitely “raw” and of low-production quality, but it’s not horrible. That’s a low goal to try to achieve, but hey, we’ll take it.
The most fun part is that we’ve found out that there’s a small community of like-minded Bundesliga fans in the States, and even though our clubs face-off twice a season, they’ve all been incredibly supportive. We’ve even done a few interviews and talked to a few fans of other clubs, and those are always a blast, just to get a different perspective. At the end of the day, it’s pretty clear that what comes across is that we are just a bunch of fans, that we try to stay positive, and that we are trying to have fun.
Regarding this season, what do you think of the new signings and what is your prediction for the campaign?
Anything you want to tell our readers on either side of the pond?
There’s so much more we could dive into, but this interview is already way, way too long and I’ve already wasted way too much of your space, so just thanks in general to the VfB community because I don’t think you all realize how vital you are for those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, we can try and translate BILD or Kicker or the local Stuttgart newspapers, but it’s just not the same as following some of you on Twitter or Reddit. Especially Reddit as it’s an amazing resource for English speaking fans who follow the club, and believe me, it’s one of the best and most well-run forums for any Bundesliga club for those of us who struggle with speaking or reading German. So thanks to all of you in Europe for keeping the information flowing.
Finally, to any readers on the American side of the pond, reach out to us! One of our favorite parts of the podcast is talking to other American-based VfB fans, so if that’s you, get in touch. And who knows, if you happen to live near Cleveland, let’s start working on that Official Fan Club, eh?!
Thank you for the interview
Thanks so much for giving us the opportunity to ramble on, it’s been a lot of fun!
Photo: © imago (Title: Mr Mayer-Vorfelder, you have a friend in Pennsylvania)