BY JOE SIMS
Seattle native Joseph Sims, 21, is traveling around the country during the World Cup in search of the heart and soul of soccer in the United States. Read about his journey in the Take 2 blog.
Three years ago, the Chicago Fire gave Section 8 – the MLS team’s supporter group – the goal of doubling their season-ticket numbers. If Section 8 met that goal, the Fire would pay for a supporters bus to an away match in Columbus.
The leaders of Section 8 took up the call, effectively marketed ticket sales for the club, and in just one year, Section 8’s season-ticket membership almost tripled, from 400 to 1,180. As a result, the front office got more money from ticket sales, the Fire’s home games got a better atmosphere, and the supporters got to travel to their closest rival cheap.
Supporters make the league possible, to borrow a common line from Barclays Premier League. This is no less true in MLS. From Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters and Kansas City’s Cauldron to Houston’s Texian Army, the supporters sections are the heart that directs the lifeblood of MLS – the fans. Many variables can make a supporters section efficient and effective, or render it the opposite. One of the most important aspects is the relationship between the supporters club and the front office.
I spoke to Pattrick Stanton, vice-chair of Section 8, to gain a little insight into one of the league’s most successful such relationship. Stanton noted that the rapport with the club was once pretty bad. In fact, the front office viewed Section 8 as a bunch of hooligans. It took a lot of work by Section 8 to convince the front office that the supporters not only weren’t hooligans, but that they were an extremely important part of the atmosphere at Fire games.
So what changed all that? Part of it was a new board of directors for the club. The board invited the leaders of Section 8 to dinner to get to know them and help make the dialogue flow as smoothly as possible. Since then, ties and communication have only improved. Emails are exchanged constantly, and supporters put a lot of effort into showing the Fire they could be an invaluable asset to the club.
Ben Burton, former Section 8 chair and founding member, told me this communication is key. By discussing disagreements, they can help see each others views and make things run more smoothly in the future.
Having such a working, cordial relationship with the front office creates an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” situation. For example, since Section 8 is not allowed to have a profit at the end of the season, they take whatever money is left (after they pay for banners and road trips) and donate it to the Chicago Fire foundation, which makes “significant contributions to enhance the lives of disadvantaged youth throughout Chicagoland. Symbiotic benefits like these are only possible if the front office and the supporters section get along.
Good communication doesn’t begin and end with supporters and club management. Pattrick says that there is a lot of coordination between the supporter clubs of two teams when they play each other, to the point of having “supporters matches” between members of the supporters sections before the actual game.
While some clubs (like the Fire and D.C. United) have great relations with their supporters groups, others (like Philadelphia) don’t. The current policy is the first strike (instance of bad behavior by members of the section) is a warning to the supporters section, the second strike is a ban. Burton says that the supporters sections would prefer to police themselves and use their own methods to keep the “bad apples” out.
Clubs do their fair share of communicating, too. One thing they’ve started to do, according to Pattrick, is share “negativity lists” to keep disruptive individuals out of stadiums across the country. Pattrick likes this, but he wishes that they would share positive advice, too. For example, a club with weaker home support (like Colorado) could ask a team with fantastic home support (like Portland) for some advice on how to improve the atmosphere in their stadium.
It is, as Burton told me, a case of everyone striving toward the same goal. Clubs want to increase the bottom line, and supporters want to create a better atmosphere for the team. The two are obviously not mutually exclusive. And, as the folks in Chicago have found out, creating an open dialogue with people in the front office can work wonders for all involved, and greatly improve the MLS scene.
Joseph Sims, 21, graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla in May with a degree in politics. The graduate of Roosevelt High School in Seattle has an obsession with soccer that has taken him all over the globe, from the World Cup in South Africa, to the Emirates Stadium in London, to the Sounders-Timbers rivalry right here in Seattle. Follow his journey around the country during the World Cup to find the heart and soul of soccer in the U.S. in the Take 2 blog.
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