Fan Forum: The Artist of Being a Supporter

Posted in Fan Culture, Seattle

Published on August 24, 2012 with 20 Comments

Art. It’s an art form not a science!

Sounders fan and ECS artist Steve Collins was thinking about what it means to be part of the growing soccer culture in North America. As opposed to his usual means of expressing his support for soccer through art, he put his thoughts down in word on his own Facebook page.

We thought they were worthy of further circulation. He agreed to let us bring his thoughts to our readers to widen the debate on what is means to be a supporter, and many other things, in Cascadia circa 2012.

Breaking down soccer culture from a fan’s point of view

by Steve Collins 

What does it mean to be a supporter?  Are there guidelines you have to follow to be able to call yourself a supporter of your club?  What does it all mean?  Being a member of a supporter group myself, I’ve been surprised to listen to other supporters and hear their own answers to these questions.  I decided to put my own opinion of the classifications within the culture down on paper.  Please keep in mind, these are only one person’s subjective view of the culture and it’s groups, you are welcome to feel differently, and many of you probably will.

Before I get started I do think it’s necessary to identify myself, and where I personally place myself within these classes.  I am a fan of the sport of soccer.  I enjoy watching soccer whether at a MLS, European, International, or Amateur level.  My club is the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer.  I am a member of a supporters group, Emerald City Supporters, and would consider myself a passionate supporter of the team.

I was given the chance to work as an artist for ECS, and now spend at least 2-4 hours a day working on tifo (displays), badges, two poles, and other art related to the group and club.  I love my club, my group, and my city.  I would consider myself a fan, a supporter, and a member of a supporters group.

As being an ultra in Seattle is based on invitation to a private group, I am NOT an Ultra.  As I do not believe in looking for a fight with rival supporter groups, I am NOT a hooligan.

Now to break this down….

Steve divides fans into five main categories

In my opinion there are 5 main types of people that enjoy the game of soccer.  It is important to remember that you can fall into multiple categories, and in fact most people do.  Here they are:

  • Fans
  • Spectators
  • Supporters
  • Ultras
  • Hooligans

I’ll attempt to break each one of these down individually.  This seems like another good point to remind you, these are just one person’s views.  You are welcome to disagree. 

FANS

This is the broadest group by far.  Everyone that enjoys watching the Sounders is a fan.  Ask yourself this question “Do I like the Sounders?”  If you answered yes, then you are a fan of the team.  I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the remaining groups are fans.  A lot of times within social media and soccer culture this word (“fan”) has meant that you aren’t passionate enough, or are simply there to be entertained.  But in reality, we are all fans.

SPECTATORS

Spectators make up the vast majority of a Sounders (or any other club) match.  A Spectator is someone who is there to be entertained.  They aren’t there to support their team in any way that distracts from simply enjoying the match.  They are the main target group of most front offices, and they pay the bills.  They are the families, the first timers, and to a certain extent ANYONE (supporters included) that simply wants to sit and watch a match for entertainment value that day.  They are the masses. 

SUPPORTERS

Here’s where it gets confusing.  Some people would say that if you are a member of Emerald City Supporters, or Gorilla FC, North End Faithful, Eastside Supporters, or any other group under the Sounders supporter group umbrella, that you are a supporter.  I think this is wrong.

A supporter is nothing more than someone who, in some way, is showing support of the team.  I know this is vague, but if you break it down, that’s all it means.  There are no rules to “how to” support your team.  There are no real guidelines to what is right and what is wrong.  You don’t even need to be there on match day (although it makes it much harder to SHOW your support if you aren’t).  A supporter simply takes a bit of effort to show their support of their club.

Given my definition some might argue that purchasing merchandise is a way of supporting.  I would agree at the most basic level.  When you buy gear, you put money in the teams pocket, which enables them to spend more money.  So yes, in a way, buying merchandise is supporting.

Supporting can also be things like talking to people about the team, bringing new people to the matches, participating in stadium wide chants, holding up a scarf, or even (this bugs me to say this) showing your support by supporting the teams sponsors.

Supporting is an act.  If what you are doing is in some way supporting the team, you are supporting.  If you are supporting, you are a supporter. 

Members of ECS get animated
Photo: Brandon Bleek

SUPPORTERS GROUPS

Within my own club there are a number of different groups that call themselves supporter groups.  When it came time for me to personally decide to make a commitment to one, there was only one option for me, Emerald City Supporters.

For me, a supporter group can be broken down to a group of people that support their team.  Every group has a way they see fit to accomplish this.  Some belief in community outreach, others simply is cheering with their likeminded “supporters” at matches.  Emerald City Supporters, for me, was the group that fit my style of supporting.

This is a choice that everyone makes on their own, or by choice, never makes at all.  What should be clear is that being in a supporter group only “makes you a supporter” by giving the group a larger size if you choose to do nothing else.  Or, with Emerald City Supporter who require a membership fee, by giving them a donation, through your membership fee, to allow them to have the funds to continue to support the club in their manner.

For me this is where the first real divider comes in though.  I might be a supporter by simply supporting my club in any of the ways previously mentioned.  But it should be clear that I personally feel you aren’t a ECS member if you aren’t actively supporting the club in the manner the group has determined through it’s mission statement.  Each group has identified what their concept of supporting is, and by joining a supporter group, you are agreeing to support in line with their overall belief.

ECS believes in creating an atmosphere that inspires the club to victory, uplifts the club when they fall behind, and encouraging the club to continue when they are dominating.  They sing, wave flags, hold up two poles, and create large inspiring displays to accomplish this.  For me, it was an easy choice.  But simply making the choice does not make me a ECS member (in my opinion).  What makes me a ECS member is how I support when I am at a match, away viewing, or anything related to the Sounders.  Does the way I am supporting fit in line with the group mission?  Am I doing my part?  If I can answer yes, then I am being a member.  If not, then that day I am not doing my part as a supporter within that group.

This is just one case, and one person’s opinion.  There are groups out there that are much more “casual” than ECS, and it’s important that everyone finds the group that best fits their own style of supporting.

Most groups though, accept donations.  This is a nice way of saying “I like what you do, but I can’t commit to doing the same”.  Groups like ECS rely on this money to do the large displays and support in such a large scale manner.  I would suggest that if you like what they do, but don’t want to commit to that level of supporting, that you donate to the group.

Basically, a supporter group is a group of people that have come together to support their club with a common style of supporting in mind.  If you join a supporters group, you are usually agreeing to abide by their style of supporting.  This should be considered before joining any group. 

 

ULTRAS

Within the supporter community this is a group of supporters that always seem to be defined as different things.  Personally I find the simplest way to define an ultra is this.

Take the passion level of a normal supporter with a group like ECS, now take that level and turn it up as high as it can go.  This is an ultra.  An ultra is the “top level” of supporters.  They are the most passionate group, and to an extent, direct their personal lifestyle towards supporting the team.  If a stadium was the army, the supporters groups would be the Airborne or Rangers, the Ultras would be the special forces.

We don’t know who this guy is but we bet he’s really embarassed round about … now

 

Some people seem to confuse ultras with hooligans (which we’ll get into later), please don’t.  They are two different groups.  While in some places people may support in ways that agree with both types, the definition of the two shouldn’t be confused.

Something that a lot of people get wrong (in my opinion) is that during a match the ultras should be the most vocal.  This is not the case.  Having a level of passion is having a level of passion.  How you show it outwardly is up to you as an individual.  How loud your voice is has a lot more to do with genetics than how passionate you are for your club.

Being an ultra is, I think, never something you should try to attain.  You either are, or you aren’t.  Some people think of it as a badge of recognition of your level of support, but in reality, it’s simply another level of the same concept of a supporter group.  It’s a group of people that are like minded in their level of support they wish to do for their club, which is typically to a much higher level than your average supporter. 

HOOLIGANS

I’ve saved this one for last as it’s something that should really sink in.  A hooligan, and hooligan culture, has been recently glorified by Hollywood.  Unfortunately, there is nothing here to glorify.  It should be looked at in the same light as “gangsters”.

There’s another time and place to explain the details of the culture, it’s history, and it’s place in soccer.  Let’s just say that it’s something that, in the United States with its laws and punishments, could never truly work (if “work” is what you’d call it successfully occurring).

The basic concept is that you fight for your club, and more specifically that you fight rival groups in the name of your club.

The only real reason I included this group is to clarify things for people.  Supporters are not hooligans.  Fans are not hooligans.  Ultras are not hooligans.  As much as you would be offended if I called you a gang member, they are offended if you call them a hooligan.  Understand the difference, and see the movies for what they are, a glamorized version of reality.

There are places in the world where the culture exists, and in some places is considered the regular form of supporting.  America is not one of those places.  Are there hooligans here, sure, by definition there are hooligans in America and within the supporter culture in the US.  But they walk a fine line that can easily land them in jail for 5-10 years, so for the most part, they do not exist.

Are ultras hooligans?  No, the easiest way (in my opinion) to differentiate between the two is this:

  • A hooligan would see a rival and try to fight them
  • An ultra would usually only be seen in a fight defending something or someone

It may be a subtle difference to some, but it’s a difference.  In fact, in the eyes of our government the difference between self defense and assault is a rather large difference. 

American soccer fans have given violence the red card

SUPPORTING A 2ND CLUB

I know this doesn’t fit into the classes theme, but I wanted to throw this in here.

Some people think that supporting multiple clubs is alright.  I am not one to tell you it isn’t.  But what I will say is that supporting your club, and another inside the same league is in direct conflict.  If you want your club to win, it means the other club must lose.  If you want your club to be champions, the other club must fail.  If you consider yourself a supporter of a club, then the failure of every other club they compete with, whether directly or indirectly, is your ultimate goal.

This doesn’t mean you can’t respect the play of another club, or even enjoy their style of play.  What it means is that you shouldn’t support another club.

Want to go see a match in another town? Fine.  Watch the match as a fan of the sport, or as a casual.  But if you do anything to support that team, which goes as far as wearing their kit and creating a more inspiring visual atmosphere for that club to play for, you are conflicting with your support of the original club.  It’s simple.  Their supporters don’t want your team to win, they want your team to fail, as they should.  By supporting their club in any way, you are hurting your own.

I think it’s important that you understand the words there.  Being a spectator at another teams match is fine.  You aren’t inspiring or supporting their team in any way, which in turn isn’t hurting your own team.  It’s when you take place in something that might encourage their team that you hurt your club.  Watch the match, enjoy the sport, but in the end, understand that their success means your teams failure, and vice versa.

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20 Comments

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  1. Glad you spent the time to set hooligans apart from any sort of supporter role. For a good look at what the hooligan culture was about in it’s heyday, read “Among the Thugs” by Bill Buford.

    Good article, Steve.

    • I should have specified, English Hooligan culture

    • Among the thugs TERRIFIED me, and I wish I force any person that wants the hooligan culture to come to the US to read that book.

      • Or, more likely, have it read to them.

  2. Well written, thank you. I especially like the piece on the end about supporting other clubs. I myself sometimes am conflicted with this due to the proximity of the other clubs in our region and the nature of the friends I have made in those other towns. I consider myself a Cascadian through and through. So for me, I would like to see all of the Cascadian teams do well (yes, even Portland). But at the end of the day, I am a Sounders supporter (by your clasification above) and want nothing more than for the Sounders to dominate every competition they are in. If we beat the other Cascadian teams along the way, so be it. I just think that it is better to beat another great Cascadian side along the way. I plan to go to the Sounders away match in Vancouver next month. I won’t be sitting with the ECS or any other SG, just myself and my friend. But we will be in the front row, wearing Sounders gear with a Sounders flag draped over the rail. All the while, we hope to get to know and inspire some fun dialouge with our neighbors, hopefully none of which will be hooligans =P

    • Clayton,

      Thanks for your comment. I also liked that last observation.

      How do you feel though about supporting clubs in other leagues? Does it dilute the passion at all?

      • For me it doesn’t. My Euorpean team is FC Bayern. By the standards above, I would be a supporter of Bayern as well. I also ejoy following the Bundesliga in general as well as the ongoing Real Madrid vs. Barca saga. I think by following other leagues and specific teams within them, it gives the US a barometer of where the MLS really stands in relation to some of the other major leagues around the world. Not that we should try to emulate them, but simply to better understand the sport on the world stage. That, after all (in my opinion), is the true beauty of this sport… the fact that it is the ‘world’s game’.

        • I think your response nailed it, by which I of course mean it’s my view too!

          MLS is now the main league I follow as a fan, but I think I’d be a worser fan if I stopped following the EPL, Bundesliga and La Liga, and especially international football.

          I love your use of the word barometer because that’s what we try and chronicle on here; the rate of the growth of the sport on this continent.

          • and that sir is why I love ProstAmerika, because I think you guys have nailed it as well. Thanks for staying true to what you do!

          • I honestly appreciate you saying that very much Clayton because there are some who prefer a gush of positive PR for this league or more often their own club rather than something more objective.

    • By Steve’s definition I’ve got much of the credentials to call myself a Sounders supporter. Thanks, Steve, for inviting me in and warning me that others might disagree.

      I wonder, though, as a Sounders supporter and Cascadian fan, is the (bio) regional support for Cascadia that Clayton identifies unique to MLS? I can see folks supporting their league’s team in international play when their team is out. How about a desire to see a regional powerhouse?

      Now for a gripe. I seems to me that the Timbers Army has taken to use the Doug flag often to support the Timbers. This irks me. Sure the Cascadian Betsy Ross is an Oregonian and it displays a marketable fir, but the image is emphatically regional with political overtones that are broader than soccer. I would love to fly the Doug at my home, but would certainly not want to give any impression that I support the timbers on any more than a regional basis.

  3. Nice think piece.

    Something that gets left out of these types of conversations is the idea of “fun.”

    It’s supposed to be fun to watch sports, be a fan, a supporter, or whatever. It’s not serious. It doesn’t matter how you parse it down. It’s only importance is the amount of joy it brings you.

    A correlation: One might enjoy music by a band. A few might then be a member of that band’s fan club. Being in the fan club doesn’t confer you with insight into the band’s music. It doesn’t make you a lynchpin to the band’s success. It’s just fun for you. What might make you seem a little bit odd in mixed company can create connections among others that identify with band ‘s music/persona a great deal. The band would play music with or without you. When they are forced to rely on just you and your little group of kind-of-creepy super supporters to make a living, that’s when the career is on the wane and becomes a little sad. Or it never really go going to begin with.

    The difference between sports and music is that there are winners and losers. For some there is no grey area. The team that wins is always better. Others appreciate artistry and the fickle nature of competition.

    The term “customer” is sometimes levied on Sounders fans, as if it were some kind of insult. A naive one, to be sure, as when the players and management, or any professional team from any sport, use the term “fan” they mean “the person that pays my salary.” I think it’s good to keep that in perspective.

    • So maybe I’m an ultra and never realized it…

      1) To the main article, why should the guy in purple be embarrassed? Based on the reaction of the tourists behind him we just stuck it too someone. Good for him and embarrassment to those at his back who will probably never have his back when the paid help comes to toss him.

      2) Exactly what should make soccer different here in the NW from the east coast driven MLS is that we have developed a culture which goes far deeper than the accountants. Adriane shares in that history and hopefully is not forgetting it in this era of new found “success”. Supporter does not and should not equate to “$$$ bag loser who shells out cash for something they have no part in” (as it does in so many other leagues). Here in Cascadia it hopefully continues to resonate a clear cry of unified delight in seeing our culture expressed loudly and proudly as equals in the worlds sport. If not (yet) in quality; at least in passion.

  4. Dude should only be embarrassed about the ugly purple shirt.

    • It’s not purple. It’s Fabulous Sapphire. ;-)

  5. Yeah, “the guy” in the purple shirt…..saw him last night, he had a laugh at himself for it. He had worn it to work and had to come straight to the match from work….hence the purple shirt instead of more “normal” matchday attire lol

    • As long as the passion is on the inside, it doesn’t matter what the gift wrapping is. Kudos to him for his passion and the cameraman for being in the right place to capture it.

  6. Interesting read. One quibble on the final section; life isn’t that simple. People have split allegiances. Christians marry Jews, Germans marry Americans, and they all have children. I for one enjoy the rare conflict when the Pumas play the Sounders or when international allegiances are tested.

  7. You do realize that the word I used is not a slur, right???

    • FF,

      the software does that automatically. No idea why.

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