A red flag hangs from the ceiling of Peeve's Public House, diffusing the morning light that streams through the front window of the coffee house and pub on Fulton Mall. The flag is emblazoned with a gold cannon and one word — Arsenal.
As in London's Arsenal Football Club.
The flag is a gift from Paul Grazulis to let people know this is a Gooners pub.
"It like a dog. You've got to mark your spot. And this will mark our spot," says Grazulis, who has been a Gooner — as Arsenal fans are known — for three years.
This morning he's joined by close to 60 other fans, members of the Fresno Gooners, a club that gathers regularly at Peeve's to watch matches and cheer on the team. They'll be back at 8 a.m. Sunday to watch Arsenal take on Crystal Palace.
To be an official Gooners club, you need just two things: A pub and a member willing to pay dues.
"I became that paying member," says Jordan Wiebe, who started the club six months ago with just a few friends. The group now fluctuates between 20 and 60 people, he says.
Peeve's Public House became the pub, opening its doors to the group despite the early start times of the matches. The Arsenal plays in the English Premier League — arguably the strongest league in the world — so adjusting for the time zones, live matches typically start at 7 a.m.
Wiebe has been known to get up in the middle of the night to catch a 4:45 a.m. game at home. "There's no DVR" for hardcore Gooners, Wiebe says.
The Fresno Gooners come to Peeves decked out in red Arsenal scarves and knit caps. They wear Arsenal jerseys that feature the team's sponsor that read: "Fly Emirates."
But this is no regular sports-bar gathering.
There's not a flat-screen television in sight. Games are projected on the side wall. Fans switch between drinking cups of locally roasted coffee and pints of craft beer.
Forty-five minutes in and the intensity of the crowd doesn't drop, despite only one goal scored. Even the close calls and replays get cheers.
A goal gets a chant or song, which Wiebe leads. He has printed out cheat sheets for those who don't know the words. It's a small bit of tradition and part of the charm of being a Gooner.
Arsenal was founded in southeast London in 1886, so the team is big on tradition. When Wiebe says Arsenal has a long-standing rivalry with Tottenham — this day's matchup — it's no joke.
It's that sense of history and legacy that drew Grazulis to the team — and soccer in general. For a fan of history, especially sports history, you won't find anything close even in the oldest NFL teams, he says.
"When you pick a team, you live and die by that team. You get into it," he says.
And while soccer has long-held traditions across the world, the surge of popularity among millennials in the United States is new.
The U.S. Men's National Team World Cup qualifiers had record viewership last year, leading ESPN to agree to televise all games leading to the World Cup in Brazil. NBC and FOX are now spending millions of dollars to broadcast English Premier League games. NBC has made English Premier games available via desktop, mobile devices and tablets on NBC Sports Live Extra.
That, coupled with social media and blogs, has made it easier for fans to communicate and organize, says Ed Stewart, an Arsenal fan and president of the American Outlaws, an unofficial group of fans who follow the American national soccer team.
"It still takes motivated individuals to round up friends and other people to watch the matches, though," he says. "When you find people and a place, you tell everyone you know because it's still rare."
Indeed, in three years of being an Arsenal fan, this is only the second time Grazulis has watched a match with other Gooners.
The popularity of the Gooner gatherings has been a bit of a perfect-storm scenario, Stewart says. "Everything came together at once — more TV coverage, a lot of people that like Arsenal and a great venue that is willing to open its doors for us."
If you go
Fresno Gooners cheer on London's Arsenal Football Club against Crystal Palace, 8 a.m. Sunday at Peeve's Public House, 1243 Fulton Mall. www.facebook.com/fresnogooners
This reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6479, email@example.com or @joshuatehee on Twitter and Instagram. Read his blog at Fresnobeehive.com