Monday, July 6, 2009

7/6/09: A New Age- Rough & Rowdy vs. Family & Friendly Coming To A Head

Supporters and their heart for their teams is overtaking the family friendly atmosphere as the main marketing focus of MLS.

A very interesting article from last week by Rachel Bachman at The Oregonian is catching some steam in the press. The article called "Pitched battle to marketing MLS in Portland and Beyond: Rough & Rowdy vs. Family & Friendly" has, with the comments of former MLS commissioner Doug Logan about abandoning family marketing, peaked the interest of other writers and has led to some extended thoughts by Ray Ratto at CBS and a nice follow up from Bill Archer over at Bigsoccer.

The main bru-ha-ha is over former MLS comissoner Doug Logan's comments:
"Soccer audiences at their best have got to be a little dangerous," said Logan, now CEO of USA Track and Field. "It's three guys with a beer cursing at the guy on the field. It's not a family activity.

"If you want a family activity, go to the circus."
I disagree slightly in a way. I have seen little kids and even this week a baby in the Nordecke(pic below). It's just a new type of family and community, a more raucous one. As some families just want to instill in their kids that passion is a good thing. But, I get what Logan is trying to say and have to tip my hat at him for making a valid point. The problem isn't families who find the Nordecke not a bad place to take a kid (many of it's members are great people who only seem bad, in some eyes, on a Blanco dive); the problem is focusing marketing on families who hate that atmosphere, are not much into soccer, and will only take their kids to one game a year because they have "other things" to worry about. This battle isn't against families. It's a battle between a rough & rowdy atmosphere that has more entertainment value or a sit on your hands and clap for a goal and eat overpriced hot dogs type atmosphere. The choice seems overtly obvious to most of us, but surprisingly it took MLS years to catch on. And, what's most unique about this comment is that Mr. Logan, during his time as MLS commissoner was pro-family friendly atmosphere's. But, if one was to peer deeper into these words, Logan has stated that basically the problem MLS has had since it's inception until recent years is because MLS exclusively marketed to families who just won't live and die black & gold or other club's colors.

Baby Nordeckian

However, recently MLS (or at least some owners who have bought into MLS) have got a clue and shifted towards attracting a more diehard type via a supporters culture. Team's like Toronto and Seattle who have encouraged the idea of raucous supporters sections from the beginning have catapulted in their support and success averaging 20,000 and 30,000 respectively (Toronto, with their season ticket waiting list, could probably average 30,000 a year as well if they were not in a 20,000 seat stadium). While some clubs like my own beloved Columbus have taken a more open stand on the supporters culture since the Jim Smith days and have started to turn a new leaf with the possibly "iconic", in the words of GM Mark McCullers, Nordecke. If you turn on the tube or visit Crew Stadium you can see where everyone wants to be at, the Nordecke, the raucous supporters area. On some nights the Nordecke looks as if the area will tip over the stadium, especially on poorly attended nights where the section is the only area densely packed with supporters throughout the stadium.

However, since the Nordecke became a little too naughty this year for the front office's liking with families complaining about swearing, ticket sales in the section have went from general admission to a strictly enforced ticket policy this year. As the section that could hold 2,000 to 2,500 supporters packed in as if they were sardines, has gone from 100% percent full to about 80% percent full. Columbus is a perfect example of the battle being waged in Bachman's article, the supporters have become too rowdy, rambunctous, and cuss laden that families who are not used to that type of behavior at a soccer game are starting to risk not even giving the Crew their one game a year. In Bachman's article, Portland's owner Merritt Paulson takes an even line similiar to our own manager Mark McCullers, a kind of thought process of "this is a place for everyone, the soccer family and the ultras and even the pretend tough guys. Kumbaya, everyone can co-exist." And, the supporters who follow the team no matter what have, at least in Columbus, been forced somewhat into a corner of complying with the front office to keep the soccer families happy. It's a small price to pay compared to the front office's threatening steps if the Nordecke did not comply. And, because the Nordecke has toned it down for now, a sort of peace has been made until probably the next time Toronto or Chicago are in town.

In other places like Toronto and Seattle, the supporters have already won a sort of complete control because their owners said from the beginning that "we want to build a supporters culture." When our group of fans went to Toronto this year, we sang the full 90 minutes through with curses after curses, swear chants galore. It was kind of liberating in a way, because you could just act like a total jerkface, tell all of Toronto that "I can't hear you bleeping sing", without having to worry about whether your supporters are bothering the average fan. The Toronto families didn't even seem phased and only a few drunken idiots turned around to rebut us. And, most of our section in Toronto was surrounded by families, but they didn't get mad and say "how dare you", because they know who is in charge at that stadium, it's the supporters and they have learned that if they want to come to games, they are going to have to deal with that, and follow their lead. The families don't even seem bothered by that, instead they usually seem like cheerful followers from my vantage point. When Toronto FC scored the tying goal in our May game the whole crowd turned around to mock us. I think I even saw one or two soccer mom's flick us off.

Now where some people would get tripped up on this behavior causing success is if they have a little soccer history knowledge. And, say, well look at Italian soccer now or England in the 80's or Red Star Belgrade where regular fans are terrified of coming to games and attendance has plummeted because of this dangerous-ness that Logan asks for. Well, in America, at clubs like Toronto, Seattle, Columbus, Chicago, Houston, and etc. this dangerous-ness is just a front and just about everyone knows it. Sure, there might be swearing and a few spurious and miss their mark punches thrown against rivals but in places like Toronto and Seattle, it's all a part of the spectacle. Mental fans attract regular fans that are there to watch the players and there to watch people watching the players. As Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby said, "who would buy an executive box if the stadium were filled with executives? The club sold the boxes on the understanding that the atmosphere came free, and so the North Bank generated as much income as any of the players ever did." The point is without a little atmosphere, a little swearing, a little pretend danger, and mental fans there is just no damn reason to go see a pathetically average team like FC Dallas languish at the bottom of MLS's standings.

Therefore, FC Dallas with their over-patronization of families are stuck with 8,000 fans on average this year(who by the way look as if they were brought to the stadium kicking and screaming from their seven year old). I also wonder what Jeff Cunningham or Kenny Cooper think when they score a goal? I bet they are a little sad that they can't run to a corner and get f'in mobbed by some fans going fricken nuts. And, because teams like FC Dallas can't build a decent supporters culture, there is no atmosphere, no swearing, no pretend danger, no excitement that comes from those things, and no fans there daily looking to make noise. Therefore, without none of that, it's a hard sell to go see some guy named Drew Moor. On the other hand, when Toronto was absolutely terrible, it was still hard to find an empty seat and 20,000 was the norm. Not only that but people were clammoring to get their hands on the next seat that became unoccupied. Why? Because they started with a supporters culture, and the supporters enamanted this type of thought that you have to be there win or lose weekly or your not a real fan for your city's team. They brought some atmosphere, some toughness, a little absolutely pretend danger, and the regular fans there bought into it. They said, "hell, our team might suck, but I know that every week I'm going to get a show and some entertainment."

And, it doesn't take a marketing genius to see what is going on (and I think some are total baffoons and don't understand soccer fans at all, and MLS could have been in a startosphere totally different today if they just hired soccer fans to do their bidding from the beginning). Anyways, you have your teams that have started from the beginning with a supporters culture:

1)Seattle 29,000
2)Toronto 20,000

Then you have your teams who have been open to a supporters culture from the beginning (minus RSL who I just think are an anamoly of having nothing else to do in Salt Lake, although they are growing there too):
3) Los Angeles Galaxy 19,050
4) Real Salt Lake 16,045
5) Houston Dynamo 15,689
6) Chivas USA 15,312
7) DC United 14,811

The best out of this group are DC United and the Houston Dynamo. Both clubs have been great with supporters and have been up a couple of thousand more than they are this season the previous years. I would expect their numbers to rise by the end of the year. Especially around playoff hunt time and the playoffs, either club can get 30,000 on a good day.

Markedly improved since 2006, holds a supporters section of around 2,000:
8) Columbus Crew 12,868

Columbus hasn't been below 13,000 in their last five home games. With a crowd of 16,000, 13,000, 15,000, 16,000, and 14,000. I can attest that the stadium looks much fuller at this part of the season this year than it did last year. That comes with the winning but I also think it comes with the atmosphere. And, in this economy, the Crew is one of only three MLS teams with an attendance rise so far this season. I strongly believe that the "we are coming win or lose" mentality that seems present in Toronto and Seattle fans, is now being extended by the Nordecke supporters to the rest of the stadium just like the "Schelotto" wave. There is now an atmosphere, an electricity, cussing, a little pretend danger on rivalry days, and another couple of reasons to watch in person then at home. FC Dallas or Colorado usually doesn't have any of that.

Everyone else just doesn't get supporters(except for Chicago-Section 8 is a solid group and Kansas City is decent as well but only have a 10,000 seat stadium at the moment.) The key overall to success though seems the route of the supporters culture. New York is going that way in their new stadium, the Wizards plan to do the same. Philadelphia Union which enters MLS next year already has a sold out supporters section of 2,000.:
9) Colorado Rapids 11,940
10) San Jose Earthquakes 11,774
11) Chicago Fire 11,726
12) New England Revolution 11,511
13) New York Red Bulls 11,385
14) Kansas City Wizards 9,703
15) FC Dallas 8,679

Overall, I'm a big proponent of not abandoning any group in the marketing schemata, I just think MLS should refocus it's small ammount of marketing money on more people like myself. I think this way because I just know that families are not doing what I'm doing because THEY HAVE LIVES. They have bills, child soccer games and plays to go to, demanding jobs, demanding wives, mortgages.

I and others like me have much less commitments, are not deeply in love with anything else(like picking a career or holding onto a girlfriend for more than a few weeks) so why not attach yourself to a club, we also want a sense of belonging since most of us are still confused about where we are headed in life (and probably secretly hate most of the everyday social groups), we also want excitement, we are broke so MLS fits into our plans of doing something fun and getting drunk for cheap, we don't have many commitments, and we get a thrill about the whole atmosphere, out of loving something other than just our parents and siblings, and being around people like us that are not always chipper(unless it's game day) and because of this we will keep coming back again and again.

For most supporters nothing comes before being at a Crew game in the Nordecke (same goes, I imagine, for other supporters groups). Even before the Nordecke, I skipped my sister's high school graduation to drive three hours from Pennsylvania for a game. My rationale for my sister, "everyone graduates high school, I'll be at your college graduation." This was sort of selfish and if I was 23 instead of 19 I probably would of said, "okay I'll miss one" but it was DC United. And, somehow my parents were okay with this.

Also, the night after my dad died unexpectantly last year. I was obviously torn up and distraught as the guy was a total saint and was the coolest guy ever in my eyes. But, even with all this trauma I watched the Crew beat the Rapids on July 28th, 2008 online in a 2-0 road win. My sister looked at me incrediously, "like how the hell could I be watching that now." But, I lost myself in a Crew game for two hours as if it were my therapy (it probably often is). I even said dad must have guided the 2-0 surprise win on the road (especially with the Crew playing with 10 men for most of the game after an early Lenhart red card) and I also thought my dad guided the rest of the Crew's Championship season like a guardian angel.

I even did a Crew podcast for my website before once on the way to the hospital with my family to see my grandma. She was okay then. But, I'm probably going to hell for multi-tasking, but I'm addicted and can't help it.

So, what I'm trying to say is MLS needs more diehards like myself and the 2,000 in the corner (and others elsewhere). I don't get why they don't do some consulting of MLS diehards (maybe they have)? But, I doubt it and I never really got this. You have 2,000 people there who won't miss a game unless they basically are dying on the side of the road. So, maybe, just maybe they have some ideas on how you can shape and go after more people like them. It couldn't hurt.

Supporters get it and business people sometimes don't. To get it one has to get that the Columbus Crew is a part of our hearts, our lives, our thoughts. Right now, 150 Crew fans are sitting at their jobs pining over the Chicago supporters road trip on Saturday. It's just like this for supporters in other MLS clubs. Mise well get a season ticket for our hearts as well out there. But, for families it's just not going to happen, because they have three other people they are responsible for and can't get wrapped up in going weekly. So, I agree with the three opinions of the writers above and I'm sort of baffled where MLS thought that families would come and stay in masses in the first place. Sure, you have to still market to them, but families shouldn't be MLS's focus for more then a quick "hit them up for a 3 game pack and settle for one" type deal. All anyone has to do is point to Seattle or Toronto and say "dur, dur" to anyone who wants to argue with any of this reason.

A supporters culture focus is the way of the future.


  1. The biggest argument I hear from people on the other side of the pond is "our fans have no passion". Supporters brought the passion. If we bring the passion, then people will bring there families to witness it. Just look at TFC,Seattle, and Portland even. Last year people came to watch the Nordecke as well as The Crew. You cant make me believe that the Nordecke did'nt help increase ticket sales.
    One more thing I wouldnt miss a game if I was on the side of the road dying. I would tell the ambulance driver to drop me off at Crew Stadium. Sure I would drag my blood soaked body to the Nordecke. I mean if your going to die...then die happy. AM I RIGHT?

  2. Lol, I couldn't argue with that fine reasoning. :-) I'll probably write in my will for my family to take my urn to Crew Stadium for at least the rivalry games.

  3. will smith had it right when he said "take it from me, parents just dont understand"

  4. Having a family changes a lot of things. I don't care what the weather is like--as long as I don't bring my children (and/or wife). Family complicates things as you're responsible for others (and this also includes making sure the wife is happy). Bringing my children also means carrying backpacks full of snacks, drinks, toys, blankets, diapers, etc. Without them, all I need is a 6-pack. I enjoy the atmosphere provided by the Nordecke, but I also know not to go there with my kids. They are too young: They might get scared by the noise and would simply ruin my Crew experience altogether. Thus, I choose to sit in another section where they can be more "comfortable".

    Having gone to soccer games in Germany since I was 11 (parents weren't interested, so I went with friends even though it wasn't exactly a kid friendly environment), I know what a dangerous situation can be like. I hope it won't be like that here and that "pretend" danger will remain just pretend.

  5. This definitely hits the nail on the head! Last game we could not exchange tickets and had to sit in the general section where glares and shaking heads were thrown our way in response to the Guillermo and Let's Go Crew cheers. Yes, we were loud, but why would you not want to cheer on your team and with family-friendly cheers? Plus, I heard more negative comments in a 30-span directed AT THE CREW than in all of my time spent in the Nordecke. It amazes me that those are the people they are catering to instead of those of us who game after game put all we have into cheering and supporting our team. Cbus til I die!

  6. It really isn't either or. As long as the FO allows Nordecke to look like it did vs. Fire in the playoffs in 2008 Columbus attendance will grow. Likewise, while GTFO is rarely if ever appropriate, the occasional fbomb or other blue language should be allowed and not be used as an excuse to run folks out of the stadium.
    My sense from Saturday's game wis that Nordecke is very sick. Extra security, cameras, no general admission, people thrown out for yelling at each other over a blanket? and the usual patter (i mean cheers)with no emotion behind them made me sad. Hell the atmosphere outside the stadium was better than the one in the stadium. My two oldest are old enough to hold their own in the corner and the youngest (12) knows that language thrown Blanco's direction is not to be used at school. I love going to Ruby's and the walk over; but I also like hanging with La Turbina after the game so my kids can hang out as well. In my opinion we need to find our energy/mojo/swerve or Nordecke will look like Muirfield (golf applause). I would rather my kids understand that passion is okay, being different should be the norm and in certain circumstances blue language is acceptable and in fact, sometimes necessary to express the passion you feel and that "normal" behavior is nothing more than popular culture fitting an individuals for a casket.