Are Supporters the New David Beckham?

Posted in Fan Culture, Other MLS, Portland, Seattle

Published on December 04, 2012 with 18 Comments

It’s a real headscratcher. Beckham was MLS 2.0. But what comes next?
Photo: Ali Gilmore

Are Supporters the New David Beckham?

A Blueprint for Taking MLS to the Next Level

by Steve Clare, Editor Prost Amerika

If those who began MLS last century represent MLS version 1.0, the David Beckham era was surely MLS 2.0.

A plethora of soccer pundits and fans have declared ‘the Beckham Experiment’ a success and Major League Soccer a more vibrant and globally recognised league for his presence.

We agree. His legacy speaks for itself but in case you didn’t hear it, MLS Commissioner Don Garber restated the numbers in his State of the League speech.

We have known for a while that Beckham is leaving. But now that the season is over, it is a good time to start speculating on who or what will embody MLS 3.0. What phenomenon, player or marketing device is poised to replace Beckham as the league’s main marketing tool or conduit for growing the sport?

Some will rightly take the line that it has to be a player. Brian Dunseth humorously opined that short of Cristiano Ronaldo marrying Lady Gaga, there is simply no-one that can replicate or come close to replicating the Beckham effect.

Dunseth is, as he usually is, correct.

Many saw analogies in Robbie Keane’s single minded decision to take the last minute penalty kick himself as a passing of the mantle. His “I am the Alpha Male” mentality present in that decision carried on into the tunnel, where he stood chest puffed out, staring down his interviewer with a pose once reserved for massive statues of Roman emperors, hoisted to declare and restate dominance of the Caesar in rebellious outposts of their empire.

Seconds later, he brushed past his highly attractive wife Claudine, giving her the briefest of attention before heading into the locker room to reassert his dominance as the new king.

While some were observing that Thierry Henry may be the next marquee and marketed player, at full time scribes were intimating that Keane had made the boldest of bold claims to the mantle. Arsenal 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1? Probably not.

A second opinion is that the front man for next stage may not be a player.

If the arrival of Beckham signified a giant leap for MLS globally; domestically the arrival of NBC was the biggest news not only of 2012, but perhaps in the last six years.

Alpha Male. Is Robbie Keane the new face (or even body) of MLS?
Photo: Ali Gilmore

The man they chose to be the ‘Voice of Football’ was none other than Arlo White who had been announcing for the Seattle Sounders.

I was the first person to interview White when he was ‘unveiled’ as the voice of the Sounders on a rainy day outside the George and Dragon pub in the Fremont district of Seattle.

White takes great comedic value out of saying that in America, commentators are ‘unveiled’. But in doing so, he makes a valid point. Unlike in countries where the sport is established, in the USA it needs a voice. If David Beckham was the face of MLS, Arlo White has become the voice.

I remember from that interview his statement that the Sounders told him to ‘do it like you do in England’.

At the North American Soccer Reporters (NASR) Annual Conference held in Los Angeles on the morning of MLS Cup Final day this year, White explained how he balances the need to grow the sport through educating new fans with the need not to appear condescending to the hardcore:

“It’s a good question. It’s a fine balancing act I think. When I first arrived in Seattle, you actually asked me ‘are you going to call it soccer or football?’ That’s the age old question for a Brit coming over. My implicit instruction (from the Sounders) was ‘do it here as you did it there’. That’s an ethos I’ve taken all the way. There might be the occasion where you want to explain something a little bit more.“

He went on to cite the regulations a referee may have drawn on to make a particular call. However White recognizes that he works in an environment where the sport is growing and evolving so quickly that today’s state of affairs can be tomorrow’s old news.

A former Prime Minister of his country Harold Macmillan was once asked by a cub reporter if anything ever threw him off his plans. He replied: “Events, My Dear Boy Events”. By meticulous research, White keeps ahead of the game but is well aware of being in the middle of new history being made almost daily:

“It’s a maturing market. There really are some things shifting and some things changing. It’s exciting to be a part of it because you feel like you’re at the cusp of something.“

In his characteristic modesty, White would refute any notion that he alone could be the driving force behind MLS 3.0. However, having had the privilege to witness him communicate in every conceivable setting; one on one interview (his first in Seattle), commentating on television, socializing with Seattle fans while a Sounders FC employee, and on Saturday public speaking, I can attest to the natural communication skills he possesses.

He exudes an empathy with those around him but rarely puts a foot wrong and strays from his mission whether it was to put forward a good face for the sport to NBC’s audience or for the Seattle Sounders to their fans.

Only once did I see him truly not quite at ease, and it was on a memorable night for Seattle. They had just secured an impressive come from behind win in Vancouver to reclaim the 2011 Cascadia Cup. As an illustration of his very point regarding the balancing act, here now is a perfect example incidentally of the dichotomy between communicating with the hard core and reaching out to converts. I choose the latter and re- explain the Cascadia Cup.

The Cascadia Cup is a tournament which is decided by adding points in the league from matches between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver only. The side with the most derby points wins. It is also a fan driven cup where it is awarded by the supporters groups, held by them between seasons and awarded to their leaders. 80% of you reading already knew that. Now all of you do.

But back to September 2011 in Vancouver. On that night, Sounders fans received the Cup and after the 800 or so traveling had all had the chance to raise it personally, someone noticed Arlo White still in his commentary booth 30 yards to the left of the away support. They swarmed to him Cup aloft.

White was temporarily unsure whether to lift it and join the party, smile at the Sounders fans and politely refuse, or withdraw tactfully inside to a more PR friendly place.

It was wonderful drama and I looked on unable to communicate with him which was just as well because I had no idea what to tell him if he looked for guidance and I was also laughing really really hard at the same time.

But as he said to the NASR, everything in our sport is evolving and sometimes there are no rules or precedents. Sounders FC had never had a star lead announcer in MLS. They had never won the Cascadia Cup in MLS.

Arlo White with the Cascadia Cup in 2011 as a Sounders employee and in 2012 as a neutral broadcaster. And a natural in both environments.
Photo: Melissa Brassard and Tim Rogers

Arlo used his instincts and opted to join in the party albeit with the sense to look a little disarmed, which was almost certainly no act. A year later he was working for NBC and the very same trophy sat a respectful distance on a broadcast table at Portland’s Jeld Wen Field as he broadcast the first MLS game on NBC proper for several years.

That story returns us to the theme of the likely candidates to drive MLS in the post Beckham era. The fervor of those Sounders fans was not a one-off moment reserved for a night where they might win a trophy.

That is replicated every home game, and with up to several hundred often at away games. That passion and fervour spreads to Portland where the home game atmosphere has been described as the best and noisiest in MLS by everyone (except Sounders FC’s own PR machine!)

In terms of the crowd participating in supporter culture the Timbers certainly have the highest uptake. In Vancouver, after a year of official attempts to repress supporter culture, they are making up for lost time and the atmosphere seems to improve better on every visit.

However, it is not just a Cascadian phenomenon. Sporting Kansas City built their own stadium and the crowd noise generated by their Cauldron is raucous and comes over fantastically on television. Houston also moved to a new stadium and that has improved the televisual aspects of a home game broadcast from ‘Deep in the Heart’ immensely.

Even at the much maligned LA Galaxy, where the crowd was often an uneasy and unbridgeable gap between a knot of hardcore and noisy organisations such as the Angel City Brigade and the LA Riot Squad on one hand, and teenage girls screaming at David Beckham on the other, there has been a sea change.

Their fans are now drawn from a more spread out demographic and seem to know the game rather than merely the personalities playing it, as the old stereotype alleges. It’s still easy to knock the LA Galaxy as a media and corporate created entity. Easy … but no longer true. It’s a football club.

San Jose has a vibrant support culture which is limited by the capacity of Buck Shaw stadium but is sure to flourish when they move to their own 20,000 plus capacity venue. Given their geographical location, set between the two LA sides and the three Cascadian cities, those increased numbers will surely add up to a healthy traveling supporter culture on several occasions throughout the year. They travel in fairly decent numbers as it is.

The west coast did not invent this. DC United’s Barra Brava and the excellent Toronto fanbase produce excellent atmospheres and have done since before the Cascadian arrival in MLS.

MLS however has only begun to see supporters as the colourful and marketable spectacle that it wishes to present on tv recently. They are right. It is the future. But there are challenges.

Almost certainly somewhere in response to this article, someone will post these words: “Don Garber doesn’t understand supporter culture.”

The commenter will then fold his arms smugly as if he has imparted a wise piece of knowledge and contributed to the debate. Certainly MLS has made some crass moves in its outreach to the Supporters Groups. The first and foremost is to expect them to be satisfied being used as visual fodder for MLS’ marketing campaigns and have no influence in return.

That may be the nub of the challenge in front of the soccer community. The Beckham phenomenon was created by MLS, driven by men in sharp suits and run wholly by, and for the benefit of, men on the payroll of corporations. MLS and Beckham’s handlers between them controlled almost every aspect of MLS 2.0.

MLS 3.0 will be different.

It could be equally argued that Supporters Groups don’t get corporate culture about as much as MLS does not get Supporter Culture. Possibly. But repeating those mantras and declaring ‘game over’ achieves nothing. The soccer community has to bridge it and seek to communicate from on that bridge not from either end.

This banner appeared in Salt Lake days after a Rapids fan was banned for life for ‘verbal assault’

MLS may have to accept, as the Vancouver Whitecaps eventually did, that Supporters Culture veers between the anarchistic and the family friendly and is not always Disneyland meets Little House on the Prairie. Even in Kansas.

Occasionally fans swear. So do players incidentally.

A motto on a banner might not always be complimentary to the powerful – even in Republican Utah.

Fans also hold an idealistic view of the sport. They are not the same people holding the same passive mentality as those who watch the traditional American sports. They see themselves as guardians of the sport not consumers.

Ask them to make the template banner with an acronym promoting the TV network broadcasting the game, and your answer might be “No Bloody Chance”, or “Easy Stupid People. No.” If there was a word beginning with X other than xylophone, their answer might be a great deal worse.

They can hold on to a principle for no reason other than they will stand accused of selling out by people who disagree, or a new idea crosses in the path of what has become a ‘tradition’. And just as treatment of away fans can vary from ground to ground, this can vary from city to city, even in Cascadia.

The leaders of the Timbers Army are a good ten years older on average than those in Seattle. They often have a different outlook, not, as the banter claims, because of the inherent differences between the DNA of the cities, but because they came into the arena at different times of football’s growth. That effect is magnified once you start to include supporter leaders from the stalwarts of the first sides to join MLS. This is also why the growth of a unified Independent Supporters Council is necessary, to allow supporters to speak with a single and clear voice where necessary as well as give MLS someone to consult and receive a quick answer.

Even where supporters do speak clearly, that is just a step forward in the process. Compromise is needed if Supporter Culture is to drive MLS 3.0. And that means on the fans’ side too.

Firstly, there has to be a general acceptance that while Supporters Groups may be ‘not for profit’ entities, football as an industry is not. There is nothing wrong in that. Financial stability is essential to the growth of our game. Turning a profit is not selling out or corporate or any of the other buzz words lazy fans like to throw out when they can’t actually construct an argument against a proposal.

An understanding might be implicitly reached that neither group, suit or scarf, alone is the true guardian of the game. It has to be a team effort.

The line walked by the media may be able to provide a guideline. The balance between holding those in authority accountable by feeling free to run negative stories walks a parallel line with not trashing the sport completely. It is something that every journalist of note in our sport considers before every critical article. If you are going to criticise, make sure you have an alternative and aim for the idea you dislike, not the entire edifice of the sport.

We all have an interest in growing the sport; fans, executives, media. We all have to recognize that each other is sincere in that wish.

That does not mean there will not be genuine and honourable disagreements down the line. After all, if decisions were easy they would have been taken already. But consultation with the fans has to be genuine, not merely for show or to pander as it has often been accused of. A good example would be away travel in 2011 where after many consultation exercises, the authorities did what they were going to do anyway. And they were wrong. Fans bought tickets on the black market and sat unsegregated and unregulated just as the authorities were told would happen.

In turn, fans have to accept that sometimes commercial reality trumps the need to be ‘authentic’, a word usually applied by people to that thing they believe anyway, as if adding the word to their own opinion somehow gives it more credence.

If supporters are to be the tool to drive Major League Soccer to the next level as I believe they should be, there has to be a desire to compromise so that the next challenge can be tackled; and the next on a stream of victories that takes the world’s game into the consciousness of every North American..

Most of all, the suits and the scarves have to talk each others language and understand each other.

If ever they need some help crossing cultural divides, they could always ask NBC for a loan of Arlo White.

Related:

Hype or no hype, diehards should respect Beckham





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18 Comments

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  1. Nice article. You only went wrong in one spot: the fervor most certainly did not spread from Seattle to Portland when we joined the Sounders in MLS. While they were drawing 3,000 a game in the NASL we were averaging five-figures.

    • Robert, the MLS fervor did, and it was vvery obvious that the article was about that. But I really feel that the inane tit-for-tat stuff between Portland and Seattle fans doesn’t assist in displaying why supporters deserve to be consulted.

      Sure there’s a place for it but it also has a negative effect on those trying to make a reasonable case that fans ought to be consulted. There’s enough of a feeling out there that writers have to walk on eggshells when covering both clubs, because of cyber warriors in the respective fanbases.

      Who was drawing what in the NASL is also mind bogglingly irrelevant to the next steps in growing soccer in 2013.

    • rth, inferiority complex much?

      editor, I totally agree with you, the bickering among the two groups of fans is not going to help further our sport and cause. We need level minded people to lead our supporters groups into a healthy relationship with the league and club administrations. All the football supporters need to have the “us against them” mentality. The “them” being the rest of the sports world in the USA. Together we can showcase our culture and sport in a positive light, thus drawing in ever increasing new fans.

      • “All the football supporters need to have the “us against them” mentality. The “them” being the rest of the sports world in the USA. Together we can showcase our culture and sport in a positive light, thus drawing in ever increasing new fans.”

        Perfectly put. There is obviously a time and place for the ‘youse are worssest than us’ banter between rivals. I enjoy it as much as anybody. However, these next twelve months present a unique challenge for soccer in the USA. We have lost our biggest marketing tool and somehow need to replace him. Outside the bubble of football fans I usually live in and outside of Cascadia, David Beckham was still the first hook to interest people in MLS.

        I believe that supporter culture is the next big thing for the MLS marketers BUT they have to realise it doesn’t belong to them. It’s not under contract as Beckham was. Fans too will have to realise that part of growing the game is making it profitable. It’s not a sell-out. It’s vital.

        I’d also recommend taking a look at this from the TA Board: http://timbersarmy.org/onward-and-upward

        The author develops the idea and tweaks it to apply specifically to the situation there.

    • This is false. Portland only drew around 4000 in the USL until 2007, which is exactly when MLS announced it was coming to Seattle. Only one year, the last year in USL, when you knew you were going to be like Seattle and join MLS, did the posers in Portland average 10k+. Learn your history noob.

      • Sigh – that’s all. Sigh

        • I second the editor… sigh. Totally missing the point.

          And anyone can go and look up attendance figures on wikipedia, if they wish. Yes, it’s true the Portland only averaged 10k fans one season (or two, if you round up). No, it’s not true that Portland averaged “around 4000,” as the team’s lowest average attendance in the USL over 10 seasons was a little over 5,500. Big deal.

          As someone who has attended matches in both cities (sitting with the “home fans” in each case), and who has had season ticket holders of the “other” team attend home matches of “my” team, I can speak first-hand that the support of both teams is great. Yes, there are differences. No, they don’t make one objectively better than the other. The point is that both teams have excellent support, and getting into an argument about who has better support and who has driven what is a waste of time and counterproductive to the goal of increasing support for ALL teams, and increasing the voice of Supporter Groups, as a whole.

  2. Great article. MLS 2.0 was more than just Beckham, and so will 3.0 be. It was also soccer-specific stadia, supporters culture, the promotion of teams from D2, the growth of club youth academies, the end of crisis management at league level, and the end of being beggars willing to accept corporately named (Red Bulls) and racist (Chivas) organisations.

    MLS 3.0 will see more of the good, and hopefully the elimination or renaming of the last two teams mentioned. It will see the gradual increase of salary caps, domestic stars, and fans. It may not have a defining “moment” like the Beckham signing.

    • Those are great points. I will admit that MLS v 2.0 and MLS 3.0 overlap. I could have delved into geekery and said that Toronto FC fans were MLS 2.1 and the Sounders marketing juggernaut 2.2. The Cascadian rivalries v 2.3 etc,

      So yes, they overlap. A side like Houston getting their own stadium. The rise of supporter culture in Kansas City. These are all great advances and we could debate whether they owe it all, or some, to the general rise of the league. To say, none of that affected Cascadia will be laughed at by those of us who remember 4000 people at derbies in the USL.

      Down the line, you and I will have a great argument about which is best for MLS in NY: a team owned and named after a foreign commercial sponsor or a team which is practically the love child of the league it plays in. Who ever ordered a vodka and cosmos?!

  3. Stability for the sport, financially and otherwise, is dependent upon as diverse a demographic as possible. In America, almost everyone is a fan of the NFL. Specific demographic groups aren’t specific to the NFL the way soccer moms have been to MLS; they are just a part of the fabric of America, and Americans watch football. I see MLS 3.0 not as the ‘supporter’ driven release, but as the ‘fan’ driven release. I see an MLS 3.0 as a league where soccer moms take their families to games, not because they are soccer moms, but because they are Americans.

  4. The problem with MLS 3.0 is that some if not most supporters groups are restricted in their growth usually to a few sections of the stadium…. ECS in Seattle has section 121-123 and is unable to get any bigger… In addition the MLS has built a multitude of 20k stadiums and has average attendance of 18,500 leaving available long term expansion capped at 7.5% with a current growth rate of 4%, so realistically we will be at full capacity in two years…. The only other expansion would be adding new teams and the only plans are for NY to come in to the league in 2016.. I think there are limits that will have to be addressed soon and Garber is not the man for the Job…What is Beckham’s next gig?

  5. For MLS 3.0 I would like to see a league where people get interested in the sport on the basis of the sport itself, not just because David Beckham happens to look FANTASTIC in underwear advertisements.

    The fans and FO’s learning to play nice with one another in the sandbox is part of that.

  6. And he DOES look fantastic in those advertisements

  7. I suspect that MLS 3.0 will be marked by changing expectations, for both the league and the fans. We’ve all just weathered contraction and a measured expansion. But now, many good teams are having to make a lot of changes due to the salary cap.
    I think the real thing that will determine the long-term success of the league is the next couple of CBA’s. MLS should be able to match (or surpass) the quality of play in the rest of CONCACAF, or at the very least be in a position to attract the very best talent in all of the western hemisphere. As long as the big money goes to aging Europeans looking looking to extend their earning years, the league will be seen as third-rate.

    MLS also needs to do a better job at finding, developing and PLAYING home-grown talent. We all know (or know of) local kids who play gridiron and go on to play professionally in the NFL, practically every high school in the US has produced at least one pro footballer. If the MLS can get their (relatively new) academies to produce players that not only get to play, but earn wages decent enough to keep them here in North America, then the league will taken more seriously.

    • I’m not one to knock elderly Europeans but that was a very good analysis of where we stand.

      Perhaps we might consider a minimum number of starts or minutes for USA and Canada qualified players under 23?

  8. My question still stands: what is the definition of “grow” and “success”? Does the MLS need to be the most watched sport in America? Does it even have to be #2 or #3? Does soccer need to really overtake other sports? I understand that the financial stakeholders in the league will say “yes”, but I don’t really understand what it means for us. I was just reading an article a few days ago that was lamenting how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are blacked out locally for most of the season because they’re not reaching 85% ticket sales. If that’s what happens with the #1 sport in America, is that what’s going to happen to the MLS? The Don is doing a good job overall with a league but I’m just afraid he’s trying to turn it into the NFL, especially with this Conference system. It’s a real question, it’s not rhetorical, what does all this growth do for the fans?

    • Matt,

      I don’t think MLS has to be as big as the NFL. But I do believe that large parts of the country don’t have professional soccer teams. The league needs to be everywhere a sustainable franchise can be. Garber has been focusing on larger markets, but he’s also laying out the terms for people wanting to buy in and to a large degree, owners (and would-be owners) are paying attention and getting their ducks in a row.
      There’s no reason there couldn’t be 20 – 26 teams in MLS by 2025. But it’s not just MLS. All parts of the soccer pyramid have roles to play. They need to continue to find, develop and utilize the talent this North America produces. And if they work together, they can continue to grow the sport to whatever size is sustainable…and profitable.

      • Editor, exactly, the football pyramid needs to grow at all levels in the US and Canada. I would love to see wide spread growth in the D2 and D3 levels. Those leagues and MLS forming a strong partnership could be great for the development of our young players in need of playing time. Plus, those leagues could spread the love of the sport to smaller markets that MLS is not showing much interest in.

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