By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (May 9, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Imagine things get rough for the club you support. The team isn't winning and the management seems to be stuck for solutions. The ownership isn't helping, either unable or incapable of changing the situation. Week after week, your club squanders whatever chances it has of getting points from games. What do you do? More to the point, what can you do?
In North American pro sports, normally we'd see some fans showing up with paper bags over their heads and see some signs asking why the coach, general manager, owner, or some combination of the above is still in charge. It's almost part of the show, the public response to an organization going in the wrong direction. There's the feeling that a stadium full of those fans wouldn't make much difference, leading to an uncomfortable feeling as we chart the decline of our imaginary club. Really, you just have one choice: care, or don’t care.
It would be nice to think a North American version of what we saw earlier this week in Blackburn could work. The Rovers are owned by an Indian poultry processor, so some clever fan released a chicken onto the field with a club flag tied around its neck, like an irony-laden avian superhero. Setting aside how someone got a live chicken into a Premier League game, the point was simple: Shame the owners. Blackburn will still be playing Championship soccer rather than Premier League next season, but the message was clear to all who saw it, including the media. But what if things don't change? There are countless examples of clubs disappointing their fans in leagues across the world. Once vibrant institutions pushing for glory down a league or two, with the requisite dwindling of fan support.
It's that last bit that is a hallmark of the North American pro sports landscape. A team that can't win is a team that can't draw fans. We see it in Major League Soccer, where the bottom clubs have the most problems at the gate. Well, most of the bottom clubs. Expansion enthusiasm can carry a club through a rough patch, and there's one example of that support sticking around long after most fans would've decided there were better ways to spend a Saturday.
That one club in Major League Soccer with real experience in this area is Toronto FC. The Reds fan base has alternately adored and reviled their own organization over the course of the last seven years. They've been on a maddening ride with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment that has yet to deliver a playoff season. Toronto has burned through managers, directors of soccer, and consultants, turned over the roster at a dizzying rate, and revamped their approach more times than seems possible. Nothing done to this point has yielded a winner, and this year’s TFC is setting records for abject futility. Naturally, fans are upset.
At various times in the clubs seven year history, fan angst has turned into protest. Supporters groups have remained silent. They’ve walked out just before kickoff. They’ve worn colors other than TFC’s red, in an obvious show of dissatisfaction with the club’s management. Always careful to make clear that they were protesting against those running the team and not the players themselves, TFC fans have done what most fans in their place would. They spoke up.
Did it make a difference? Or did it just make TFC’s supporters feel slightly less abused by a club that seems to go out of its way to complicate winning soccer games? Though it doesn't necessarily have to be one or the other, Toronto FC's responses over the years don't exactly support the protest model. As inconvenient and unflattering as that can be, it's tough to argue that the protests led directly to change. And even if they did, the changes didn't work.
Credit the support for showing they care, but it might not mean much to management. Their vision for the club, even when it's going obviously wrong, might have no place for the customer telling them what to do. The club doesn't likely see the organized supporter groups as their key demographic, showing more concern with the rest of the crowd especially those willing to pay for the sponsorships and premium seating. With that in mind, supporter anger can become part of the show rather than a call to the rest of the fan base to be heard. The way a regular fan shows their displeasure is by not showing up, not renewing ticket plans, and moving on. Yet most clubs are secure in the knowledge that winning will bring them or someone like them into the fold.
Before dismissing that as unsupportive of supporter efforts, let's make something clear. Supporters should complain openly and loudly when their club isn't moving in the right direction. That's part of the job of being a fan. It's the expectation that any club will significantly alter what they're doing in response that's the problem. That's especially true when those problems aren't likely to respond to a quick fix.
MLS isn't supposed to be a league where teams take years to rebuild. That's the hallmark of pro baseball and basketball teams who will point to young players or future draft picks as what will eventually change things for the better. Transfer windows, the high number of professional players all over the world, and quick turnarounds at other clubs show what's possible in Major League Soccer. Yet we still have clubs that stumble along.
With that in mind, fans can easily overlook the most basic premise in sports, that someone has to lose. No one wants that someone to be them, of course. With so much time, money, and emotion invested, it would be ridiculous to ask the supporter to stand by and cheer politely when things are terrible. At the same time, the pressure from an angry fan base rarely alters the short or long-term vision of those running North American clubs.
That's the problem for the North American soccer fan. They see how it works overseas, especially with English clubs where supporter angst is part of the culture of the game. So why not here as well? After all, soccer is supposed to be different, unique in North American sports for responding to the fan base. Then again, this is the same league that has brought us a schedule nobody wants, builds up artificial rivalries, and supports its investor-operators when they chose not to spend to improve their product.
It's into this specific set of circumstances that the North American soccer fan protest exists, and it's what limits the effectiveness. Should this be a reason for fans to reconsider protesting their club? Of course not, but it is a reality check on what can reasonably be accomplished.
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