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.
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 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.
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.