I’ve been invited to attend the inaugural congress of the Independent Supporters Council in Portland, Oregon, next week. In my four day trip to the Pacific coast and back, I’ll also be hosted by Section 8, the Chicago Fire’s fan group, at a roundtable to talk about fan culture and fan engagement.
I’ll also be meeting officials from Chicago Fire, and I’ll be looking forward to learning about their approach. One of thing that has always struck me about the European fan experience is that in most countries, football takes its position as the leading sport very much to heart. In most cities and town, the football club will be the largest spectator sports club. This isn’t a position soccer enjoys in the US and won’t for some time, and so it’ll be fascinating to see whether their keenness to grow has led to more innovation than we’ve hitherto seen here in Europe.
Time and time again, when talking to administrators at clubs and leagues here about the benefits of greater engagement and involvement from fans, I got a sense that as much as clubs might have been theoretically interested, in practice, their position was driven by a sense that the stadium would be as full next week regardless. Even in places where the club had places to fill, there was a weariness to the idea that it could really be changed in any meaningful way, mixed with a local sense of pride; we might have empty spaces, but we have fewer empty spaces than anyone else around here, as it were.
No soccer administrator in the MLS can afford such a position, so I’m excited to see how that understanding translates into policy. I’ll be able to explore it further at the Congress, featuring fans groups from most MLS clubs, coming together to create (as far as I can tell) North American sport’s first ever all-league representative fan group. After just 15 years of soccer, they’re making fantastic progress, comparatively speaking, given most European Leagues only really saw such groups develop relatively recently.
There’s an interesting policy issue for the sport too, in terms of how much does it use dialogue with its core fans as a key differential in the crowded US sport space, both as testament to different values, and as a way of ‘co-producing’ the spectacle that lies at the heart of the marketing of the sport.
This notion – that there’s a more useful way to conceive of club-fan relations than core-periphery, with the former so different from the latter as to mean its better to ignore them, and stay close to the floating fan – seems to me to be the central realisation that smart clubs are starting to grasp.