April 28, 2012 by Sam Elling
No other league in the world, in any sport, seems to trumpet its cliques of super fans as much as MLS. Why is this phenomenon such a part of MLS’ marketing, and is this relationship good for the league?
Almost all football clubs in the modern world have a somewhat tense relationship between their most ardent supporters and the front office. Whether you look at the Barras Brava of Argentina, the firms of England or the Ultras throughout Europe, there is a fine line between being the apex of support and… problems.
Problems that stem from their passions, their politics and more often than not, their binge drinking.
Stabbings, pitch invasions, off the field scuffles and murders are just a few of the troubles associated with die-hard soccer fans around the world. In America, we’ve taken a different tack, and the league has come to the intractable conclusion that we’re all in this together, ultra fans and front offices, families and casual supporters…
As a spectator in America, the overall sports landscape is incredibly tame by comparison to the histrionic cauldrons of the rest of the world. Outside of a few exceptions, you can go into any stadium in the USA as an away fan, regardless of the rivalry, and walk around with relative impunity. Redskins fans can go to Dallas and watch a game in any section of the stadium and not have too much of a problem, outside of maybe one or two drunken comments. Similarly, Yankees fans can go to Red Sox games with their families, and again, there’s really not too much of an issue.
This is not the case anywhere else in the world when it comes to sports rivalries, especially when it comes to soccer.
When US supporters wish to attend a game against Mexico in Azteca stadium, or even in Los Angeles, they need police protection to avoid getting violently attacked. In the same vein, soccer games in El Salvador frequently require rows of police in riot gear surrounding the field in addition to razor wire between the stands and the pitch.
Outside of North America, the situation isn’t much better. It would more than likely be unreasonable to bring your family to the derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray or the derby between Roma and Lazio and expect a situation similar to an NFL or Baseball game in the States.
Obviously, there are successful leagues that are safe places all over the world, where one can watch a game as an away fan and require little more than common sense in order to make it out unscathed. Yet for those of us whose passion transcends the neutral or passive fan, the element of danger would often be unavoidable.
Within this realm, where the most boisterous and passionate fans live and often collide, there has been a balance reached in MLS that is admirable in many ways.
Let’s take an average DC United game as an example. The heart of the die-hard supporter’s universe before the games is Parking Lot 8, where three or four different supporter’s groups set up camp before every game. For several hours, the supporters will wile away an afternoon drinking heavily and building excitement for the team. In the midst of this encampment, away supporters regularly pass through sporting the opponent’s jerseys without any problems. There may be some ribbing, but for the most part if they make the effort to communicate with the home fans the away supporters will more often than not be offered a beer or some food– or even be included in kicking the ball around if they hang out long enough. At no point is there anything close to a dangerous situation in the offering.
This would not occur in many leagues. If, say, a Corinthians supporter were to casually stroll into a Mancha Verde meeting outside of Palmeiras’ stadium, one could imagine things might not go so swimmingly.
It’s hard to see if this rare and beautiful thing MLS possesses at this early stage is because of the inherent decency of the American sports landscape, some commitment by the league to keeping things family friendly or that fans are still excited that other people are even showing up to games. Either way, they’ve achieved a remarkable balance where the most ardent supporters can show their passion without coming close to any tinge of criminality or aggression. Safe, good times and a consistently festive atmosphere is witnessed at every MLS game, regardless of weather or performance. Many foreign leagues ought to be envious of the Major League Soccer supporters.
But does the league care too much about its supporter’s groups?
Any given MLS advertisement, whether local or nationally broadcasted, will run in a pattern that is roughly 50% tifo and fan organization, 20% goals and saves, and 30% players standing and looking at the camera with a backdrop of the fans. In other words, 80% of the coverage on these advertisements is showcasing the fans; no other major professional sports league in the US has this weird co-dependency issue where they constantly need to demonstrate that there are fans that appreciate it.
This approach also promotes something of an in-crowd dynamic; if you ever go to an MLS game and sit near a supporter’s section– but not in one– you may sort of feel lost. If a major draw and contingent of the audience of an MLS game is the shouting and singing throngs, the rest of the attendees are left with a feeling sort of like not knowing what do with your hands in a crowded party.
MLS gives a message that there is a place where the heartbeat of the game is, and it’s not on the pitch. That being in the stands and jumping and singing for a few hours is the real game, that the reason to attend a game is that you get a giant orchestrated, yet barely contained show.
The golden demographic for sports franchises in America are the rich families from the suburbs who will show up at the stadium and buy a bunch of food, beverages and merchandise. Unfortunately, it would seem the commitment to these supporter’s groups and fanfare leaves families, who are the real cash-cow target demographic, in the lurch.
The league itself, by courting the rowdy 18-30 year-olds who traditionally will be devoted to sports– but not spend a lot of money–finds itself in this conflict occasionally.
In seasons past, a preferred chant in Columbus’ stadium was “Awwwwwwwwwwwww… YOU SUCK, ASSHOLE!” which would be chanted in unison as the opposing team’s goalkeeper when taking a goal-kick. It was a pretty good chant, as the majority of American sports don’t rely on multiple verses or songs and are generally just “Let’s Go *blank*” or “De-Fense (repeated).” Easily recognizable and simply repeatable as the “You Suck…” chant was (abbreviated amongst the supporter’s groups as YSA), it still contained profanity, which is why the team’s front office stepped in harshly and threatened to disband supporters groups and ban individuals. “YSA-gate” as it were, became a source of strife and was one of the more widely followed conflicts between supporter’s groups and a front office, as the implications concerning fan behavior were pretty far-reaching. One could regard the context of how this situation was settled as a sort of Supreme Court case. A case which would set a universal precedent for the league as something that could establish a precedent throughout the land. Eventually, any real action was stalled into a distrustful standoff.
For the record, nothing has been settled concretely, and the weight of supporter’s group chants are still stitched heavily with a thread of expletives in both English and Spanish. Nothing’s been done in this regard by a majority of the teams outside of boilerplate references to intolerance or easily pushed aside “codes of conduct.”
MLS is in sort of a bind as far as all this goes, for DC United’s home opener, more than half the ticket sales were through supporter’s groups, a trend that’s growing league-wide. MLS knows that alienating this sole thriving demographic would be bad business. The over-promotion by the league in general of these groups may signify a bet on their expansion, but the fact remains that a family who may not like swearing and drunk people acting crazily may not become lifelong affiliates of the teams.
This bet that they’ve made, may not only reduce the amount of money that the league makes per seat, but it also keeps an important element out of the stands, kids. A bunch of drunk college and post-college types aren’t really in their footballing prime, and if parents are worried about taking their kids to games because of rough language or other such shenanigans… then the idea that growing up to play for these teams isn’t being put into their minds.
Instead of accepting this idea, many MLS fans have fought tooth and nail against the attempted “disney-fication” of the game on behalf of families. Any proposal is met with a lot of backlash as an insult to tradition. This makes sense, in a way. Who would want their party to be stopped because some suburban mom complained to a front office type? Because she now has to explain a bunch of things to her kids that she hadn’t planned on when she innocently bought tickets to a game.
Whether the growth of soccer in America reels in the behavior of some of the members of supporter’s groups as it moves from the periphery to the center, or the fans who have been there all along get to keep their identity has yet to be seen. But some day soon, the other shoe will drop, and the stadium’s will either be a complete free-for-all with riot cops and the curb appeal of a super-max prison, or they will resemble the toned down pastoralism of a baseball game. For the sake of American soccer, one should hope for the latter.
Things will have to be pacified beyond the situation we have now, which again, by global standards, is extremely safe and non-confrontational, but by US standards, much of the fan behavior is on the frayed edge of acceptability. For some, the cost of dropping profanities and binge drinking may not be worth it even if the purchase at hand is a successful league.