Major League Soccer survives today primarily because of fan attendance. The reported $10 million per year TV deal is pennies compared to other professional and college domestic sports. This gives the fans a great stake and voice with the league and clubs, especially during the lean years between World Cups.
The MLS fans have become the strongest and best advocates for the league and their respective clubs. Some of the most earnest, impassioned, and thoughtful writing and podcasting comes from the fans, not the professional media.
That passion was on full display this week after the Chicago Fire’s website posted a biting, misguided, and poorly articulated editorial by their Communication Director Dan Lobring against its own fans and their actions during the US Open Cup match earlier this month. Chicago Fire fan blogs Hot Time in Old Town and Chicago Fire Confidential expressed their disbelief and disgust with the author, the Front Office executives, and ownership that supported the editorial. This epitomizes the difficulties MLS and it’s clubs face in merging soccer culture and American sports fandom.
While some franchises market themselves as major players in their regional sport scene and others push to be more like minor league baseball teams promoting discounted hot dogs and kiddie bouncy castles. The truth is, today, MLS is not in between the two, but independent of them. MLS is more NCAA than MLB. Club supporters and season ticket holders are the alumni that cultivate the culture of the team. What Lobring failed to understand, perhaps because he had “zero soccer experience,” is those fan attending the US Open Cup match are the Ultras, the diehard supporters. Rather than penning a 1300-word editorial defending his boss’ feelings and whining about message board comments concerning his hiring, he could have reached out to the supporter groups and listened to their grievances. Another option would have been to let the manager, Frank Klopas, discuss why the squad “laid a giant egg against D.C,” . Better yet, he could have tried to figure out how to get Mike Magee and the club’s new Designated Player,Arévalo Ríos, a tenth of the press Seattle got with Dempsey.
Lobring speaks of “family” regarding the Fire. A good family has communication between all parties, an understanding, a history, and a respect for feelings. Lobring wants to inject himself into the Fire family, believing he has a place at the table because Andrew Hauptman signed his check (I know it’s likely the COO or VP of Finance that signs the employees’ checks but allow for some license). The overarching response from fan via twitter, blogs, and call in shows such as Soccer Morning is the questioning of Hauptman’s commitment to the Fire family and his six years of no trophies. It all culminated on Friday night’s game against Sporting Kansas City with a banner reading “BUSINESS AS USUAL WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED BY THE PEOPLE OF CHICAGO” covering Section 8.
The supporter groups are the lifeblood of the league. They are the student government of MLS, representing both the club and the fans. When they act against the club, it speaks volumes. The South Ward at Red Bull Arena declared to MLS and the club they were not for sale, after the Red Bulls offer of financial incentives to stop the ‘YSA’ chant. Rather than allow the chant to die slowly on its own, the club (backed by the league) played the role of parent to the fans. Those fans are mostly adults, most with jobs, some with kids, but most importantly possessing the economic security to purchase season ticket plans. It was an insult. An example of taking the “family” analogy with too far perhaps.
What the clubs have with their fan base is a critical bond; one that needs to be shifted from a customer/retailer relationship to a local community partnership. While the Utopian view of turning every club into the Green Bay Packers is a fallacy, there are successful sports entertainment models that can tote this delicate line.
Major college sports, for all their ills, lives and dies on maintaining connections with their alumnus and fans. When the alumni speak (with attendance and donations) the athletic departments have no choice but to listen. A lesson for MLS to learn? Due to its limited TV revenue, clubs have become reliant on ticket sales for a important partition of their revenue. The MLS fan, that attends games on a regular basis, has more influence than fans of any other professional American sports league.
The modern sports fans has more awareness of the business than any past generation. Fans will not accept owners treating teams like toys. Hopefully these simple acts of defiance are clear to both established and new ownership groups.
In Columbus, the new ownership has a unique opportunity to follow a college sports model. Instead of hiring marketing and communication staff from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, they can embrace the Ohio State University and follow their methods in engaging community and fans. The Precourt Sports Ventures group might have to trade national and global appreciation for the club but packed stadiums, ruckus crowds, and a competitive team should do plenty towards keeping the team in the black. The Crew can be a pilot for a new model of the fan/team relationship.
Replicated European and South American models with community ownership is not coming to MLS or any USA professional league in the near future. Clubs need to retain their current base, while welcoming new fans. The common mistake for clubs is trying to focus solely on gathering new customers and alienating the current diehards. Shunning the current fans rather than utilizing their passion will continue to end in embarrassment and resentment.
This week’s Throw-Ins:
Heavy is the head the wears the crown in the East. Montreal jumps the NY Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City to hold the top spot. Over the last two months, Montreal has been one step forward then two steps back. Not sure if they’ll remain on top with back-to-back road game to at Philly and NE (old knees don’t travel well in NE).
Since hosting the All-Star Game, Sporting KC has one win and three losses. They have struggled offensively without Kei Kamara, who missed their previous two (0 goals). Prior to this skid they were the most consistent team in the league.
Not sure if I missed it, but I don’t believe the announcers in the NBC game of the week in Chicago talked once about the editorial. Did the producers do any pregame research? I don’t remember seeing a clear shot of the Section 8 banner. Tayler Twellman and Alexi Lalas talked about it briefly during the ESPN halftime show for Portland at Seattle, two nights later. Come on NBC at least pretend as if you care…
About the author:
Jay’s first memory of professional soccer was watching a flaming haired pirate in a blue shirt with white stars menace a golden shirt lion on the field of roses. Since then, he has followed the game from the cradle of US soccer, Northern Jersey. Tracking the progress of the sport in the states through the international team and Major League Soccer he has become a student of tactical football, the business of sports and the cultural impact of the game. Jay enjoys the view from the ivory tower but is not afraid to be in arm’s length of the ultras in the South Ward. You can follow Jay on Twitter@rescindedred.