First Touch

MLS Faces Growing Issues With Supporters

On the very best of days, the relationship between a MLS team’s front office and that team’s supporters is delicately balanced. The fans often pledge – loudly, in unison – their undying love for their team and its players, and in turn the employees of the club try to use that and exploit that love as free labor and free advertisement.

Empire supporters club logo

Tim Hall’s View From 101

The supporters, in reply, can find a bit of ‘you need us more than we need you’ advantage to press to get some of the things they want. When the right balance is struck – and, also, when the team on the field is winning – the relationship is not exactly harmonious, but a smile through gritted teeth is a smile nonetheless. When the wrong balance is struck, things get disastrous pretty quickly.

For example, Atlanta United. One of the league’s two expansion teams this year, Atlanta have hit the ground running, both in terms of support, with a few home sellouts under their belt, and on the field with a team currently right in the thick of the playoff hunt, although it is still far too early to really look at the standings. Granted, the supporters have not yet found their footing as an independent, unique creative entity, but these things take time.

Atlanta Fans

But never fear, because the Atlanta fans got a crash course in front office relations recently that will give them some valuable, real world, live fire experience. During a recent home match, a fan who Atlanta had previously used in advertisements, received a lifetime ban for lighting off a smoke bomb on the march from the parking lot into the match.

There has since been discussion over whether this fan knew what he was doing was not allowed, and, because he’s black, some have run around trying to impugn his character with accusations of poor behavior along the “he was no angel” lines, while others have skipped the dog whistle and gone straight for the overt racism.

We have talked in the past about the duplicity Major League Soccer and the teams experience any time anyone uses a flare, or smoke bomb, or streamer, or confetti. On the one hand, it looks really cool in slow motion or in a still photograph, and those can be used to slap on billboards and websites, and that can in turn draw some eyeballs and maybe some ticket sales.

On the other hand, if you’re the naughty sort of degenerate hooligan criminal who would do this free advertisement, you run the risk of being banned and arrested and sent to a gulag. The logical would say that you can’t have it both ways, but MLS continues to try.

Meanwhile in New York… well, this is going to require some backstory.

Remember that airline passenger a while back that got dragged off a United flight because he did the unimaginable and got on the flight he paid for? Well, the airline in question was United, and if you’re a soccer fan of any caliber, you can, and probably did, make a joke about a team called United at the time. Manchester, Torquay, or even DC, which happened to be New York Red Bulls opponent in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

So somebody made a sign on 11.5” x 17” paper that said “F*** United” and had the United Airlines logo on it and brought it to the DC United game and people… well, maybe not laughed, maybe just smiled and said “hm, yes, topical.” Then security saw it and the people running the supporters group said “OK, fine, fun’s over” and the sign was handed in and everyone went on with their day.

And then ten days later, after another home game without incident, word comes down from on high that the front office was not pleased with the tiny sign, and would hand down sanctions because of it, removing the Empire Supporters Club’s privileges to in-stadium smoke bombs and tifo displays.

Heavy Handed

So, why the delay? If anything, this is the clear case – holding up a sign with profanity on it is pretty open and shut – to come wading in with security and toss the offenders on the spot, not to wait a week and a half and punish hundreds.

Could it be that it took that long for a picture to circulate the internet before it got all the way to United Airlines’ HQ? Possibly, especially since they had a whole bunch of digging out from underneath to do with their self-inflicted wounds. Would you be surprised to learn the Red Bulls fly United for their away matches?

If so, it would stand to reason that if you’re going to fly all those bodies and all that equipment, someone in the Red Bulls’ front office would have done some due diligence and worked out a deal with United to save a few bucks. It doesn’t require a leap in logic, then, to assume a few phone calls happened, some veiled threats disguised as suggestions happened, and then some sanctions happened.

Or, perhaps the delay was because nobody in the front office or the supporters end cares one way or the other about a ban on smoke and tifo for an April home game against Columbus (the ‘cold night in Stoke’ of the MLS schedule). But if the team delays the punishment a week, then it would mean no banners for the Chicago home game.

Chicago Fans

Chicago, where beloved former RBNY captain Dax McCarty ended up after a still inexplicable offseason trade, who would certainly deserve and receive an artistic hero’s welcome from the supporters. But if that happened, it would mean that the front office did something wrong in trading Dax away in the first place, and an admittance of guilt cannot happen.

Whatever the front office’s reason, the relationship between Red Bulls’ supporters and employees has, for about the 900th time in recent memory, instantly switched back to adversarial, and once again the fans are left feeling less like appreciated paying customers and more like an imposition, a nuisance. “If only we could have these games without the most passionate people coming and screwing it up!”

That may be a wish they get, eventually, because for all of the times that we declare our love for our team in a loud and unified voice, that also comes with an implicit message: a declaration of love and support for one another.

There is a line, for each person it is different, across which we can be pushed, by abuse and neglect suffered ourselves or others, where we just don’t understand why we put up with this anymore. It may seem like dereliction, like treason, after all the times that you yourself have said that you would love this team until your dying day, but if it’s the team that’s robbing you of joy and pushing you towards that dying day?

You vote with your dollar, and in the words of Stephen Duffy and Steven Page, “only cowards stay, while traitors run.”

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