When Tom Dunmore and 300 fellow Chicago Fire fans travelled to see their team play Toronto FC in 2007, they were met with incredulity: “When we got there, the stadium security just didn’t know what to do. They had no concept of how to handle people travelling together in a large group to cheer their team on away from home.”
Their hosts’ consternation was perhaps understandable at the time, not least because it was their grand opening home game. But what the Chicago fans found then is still common for many seasoned away supporters, though these negative experiences are as underappreciated as is the phenomenon of away travel in MLS itself.
It’s often ignored outside the United States, but there is a strong tradition of large groups travelling to support their teams, but this is at the amateur collegiate level. In professional sport, MLS is out on its own. Given the distances, the commitment of its away fans is without doubt world class; literally, few go further.
The average journey for North American fans is still one of the longest you would undertake in most other leagues; the bigger journeys are more expeditions than road trips; Portland Timbers fans going to New York is the same as going from London to Baghdad. LA Galaxy at Boston is longer than Tokyo to Manila.
The journey those Fire fans made to Toronto clocked in at 1,000 miles round trip, and that’s their second closest game; in England, no-one can travel that far at all, and it’s pushing the longest trip most European fans would have to make. Only fans in Russia can hold a candle in terms of the distances travelled to see a team play, and even there, the average distances tend to be exaggerated by a small number of teams in Siberia and the far-east.
Dunmore, who as well as being the former Chairman of the Chicago Fire’s Independent Supporters’ Association, Section 8 Chicago, also blogs at the influential pitchinvasion.net, explained that “some clubs in MLS have historically had a hard time understanding the nature of supporter culture, where a group of boisterous fans want to travel across the country to support their team vocally and visually. A typical issue is that every team and stadium has different rules on what away fans are allowed to do. One stadium might allow flags and banners, another might not. We laboriously go through liaison with the home team about what we can bring with us, only at times to find the stadium authorities unexpectedly take a different view when we turn up at the game.”
Then there’s the security, something familiar to fans around the world: “Some stadiums employ security personnel who sometimes are unfamiliar with vocal, organized travelling support and this can create problems in making sure fan group visits are smoothly and consistently handled.”
Aiming to improve the experience for away travelers was one key reason that fans from 16 of the 19 MLS teams gathered in Portland to formally adopt the charter of the Independent Supporters’ Council and so create the first all-league lobby group for sports fans in North America.
A smaller group of fans had been meeting annually under this banner for three years, but this year, Portland’s Timbers Army got behind a big push to take things to a new level, something they were well-placed to do as one of the biggest and most organised fans’ groups in world soccer, never mind MLS.
Having spent 12 years working with similar groups in the UK and Europe, I was invited to add a little perspective and assistance, but I learnt far more than I shared. Most impressive was the strong spirit of consensus that speedily got through potential hurdles like revising the existing ISC Charter and laid down some ground rules about how the organisation will make decisions in the future; I’ve seen such decisions take months to resolve, not be nailed before lunch on the first day.
Like all such collective groups, the spirit of unity meshes with a self-interest; some problems can’t be solved on your own. One of the key aims of the ISC will be to lobby MLS to take a lead in helping create some common standards across teams for away fans across the league.
Listening to their stories, you got a strong sense of how variable things are, with different teams’ fans getting different treatment at the same place, of the same team’s fans getting different treatment in different cities, or sometimes the same group getting different treatment at different times at the same stadium.
These problems are crying out for some standardization based on best practice, much of it happening on an ad hoc basis already. Says Dunmore: “The next year when we went to Toronto, the club realized that problems could easily be solved with better communication ahead of the game with visiting supporters. MLS has started to create standard practices and these can be improved further if the league communicates with supporter representatives from the ISC who can provide advice based on a wealth of shared travelling experience.”
More challenging for MLS will be the issue of scheduling. With distances being so far, the idea of going to every match is a non-starter, and so fans have to pick and choose. What irks many though is that often the nearest matches are scheduled close to each other rather than spread over the season, so what were geographically accessible games become financially impossible to attend, coming hot on the heels of a trip in recent weeks. Then there’s scheduling those kind of games in midweek, meaning a smaller number of fans travelling, all of whom will probably have to take two days off work to be there.
ISC members recognised that programming a league schedule to the satisfaction of all is impossible, but they believe MLS could go a long way to increasing happiness by listening to fans.
Dunmore is lucky at the Chicago Fire to have a responsive Front Office; buoyed by the fact that the Fire took 500 on a Sunday to Columbus last season, team executives worked with their counterparts at the Crew to ensure the game will be played on a Saturday this season with the Fire looking to take even more this time.
“The large trip to Columbus in 2011 was well-organized by both the Fire and Crew front offices,” Dunmore says, “we took 500 fans to a rival stadium and had barely an issue to worry about. It was a great day out thanks to careful, collaborative planning by fans and club staff in advance.”
The spectacle of such a turnout means a win-win-win. The Fire will get a bigger support on the road, the Crew get a bigger attendance and higher revenues and MLS get an exciting atmosphere between regional rivals. That plays to their more recent strategy which champions soccer not as the sport of the soccer mom and her family (though they’re still a big part of the crowd) but one of passionate noise and intensity, with singing and organized ‘tifo’ displays inspired by European and South American ultras quite unlike anything else in US pro-sports.
The founders of the ISC have done well to be forming a group uniting fans from different clubs after just 16 years; England’s took 38 years. The ISC could make even swifter progress to the decision-making table too.
The popularity of the sport in Europe has meant that ISC-style groups have often been seen as unrepresentative of the wider fanbase, and with stadiums often full, articulators of problems that executives simply don’t recognize as issues; what’s the problem with the Glazer takeover of Manchester United, they say, when Old Trafford is mostly sold out every week?
Regularly sold-out stadia and bountiful TV contracts are still a far-off dream for most MLS teams but to get there, there’s a potential for an alignment of interests. The sport’s most loyal fans can feel their loyalty respected and honored, and fascinatingly, as the dialogue grows between them and their clubs and between the ISC and MLS grows, all kinds of fan-led growth could be created.
At the ISC meeting, discussions were peppered with references to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, but if a niche for MLS can be carved out as the sport that is built on the passion of its fans and which gives them a real voice way beyond the money they put down for a ticket, that would be a revolution, and one welcomed far beyond North America.