Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Contract of Fanhood

“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

– Sir Bobby Robson

What do you give your team?

You might have season tickets, which almost serve as an investment vehicle for the franchise. They get a large sum of money upfront, you get dividends, presumably enjoyment of the games and generally some other perks like a scarf or experiences with players. You probably spend money at these games too, giving them more revenue. You may have given them time, to volunteer at a community event, paint a tifo, or drive to an away game. You’ve definitely sweated for your team, in the heat of the summer standing in the supporters’ section wishing for some shade. Maybe you’ve bled for your team, in a bar brawl or just running into something at the stadium.

But how much is enough?

At what point can fans throw up their hands and say, we’re done here? When can, and when have, fans decided that a team has crossed the line and that their fanhood must simply cease to exist? Is fanhood a contract which can be violated by either party?

#RedBullOut billboard design (from IndieGoGo campaign)
#RedBullOut billboard design (from IndieGoGo campaign)

Red Bulls fire Mike Petke

The early days of 2015 were not a bad time to be a Red Bulls fan. The team took the Supporters Shield in 2013 and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2014. Mike Petke, the coach, had been a MetroStars player in the late nineties and with the Red Bulls six years later before being hired as head coach in 2013. 2015 began as a bright year for NYRB fans.

That is, until Petke was fired on January 7th. The fan backlash was enormous. A group called Red Bull Out united with the goal of getting a new ownership group for their club. In a marketing campaign to launch a billboard in support of Petke and against the Red Bulls organization, the group said:

His unceremonious firing by a first-time sporting director with a two-week tenure, Ali Curtis, was disgraceful. The move typified the bumbling and tone-deaf mismanagement of the franchise by the Red Bull organization. The firing has led many fans to conclude that Red Bull simply cannot properly represent the fans and NY/NJ metropolitan area while their primary aim is selling energy drinks from Austria.

When two of the gentlemen in charge of the billboard campaign were interviewed by SBNation blog Once a Metro, they were asked if they would ever consider switching to NYCFC, or leaving the Red Bulls family altogether. The consensus was, “I’ll never stop supporting this team… I’m way too committed to being a supporter of this team to just turn my back on it.” Not too much later, the team held a town hall meeting and those who showed up were, shall we say, less than pleased with the situation. The supporters group, Empire Supporters Club, planned and executed a protest at the home opener against DC United on March 22nd, with, it appeared, Petke’s support.

As of right now, NYRB is still owned by Red Bull GmbH. The New York Red Bulls are second in the Eastern Conference with a 9-6-6 record, an average attendance this season of about 19,000 (more than actually fit in Dick’s Sporting Goods Park for a standard Colorado Rapids game). The team still stands strong, and the fans still stand with them, or at least many of them do.

“KSE and Hinchey Out”

The end of 2014 was rough for Colorado Rapids fans. The team hadn’t won since July 25th. Morale was low, both in the stadium and, it seemed, on the field. On October 18th, the Rapids took on FC Dallas, a rivalry born of the 2010 MLS Cup and strengthened when the Rapids’ coach departed suddenly for greener pastures in Frisco.

At one point during the game, anyone who looked up at the beautiful Colorado sky would have seen a plane towing a banner with blocky letters. Not elegant, but the words certainly made their point — YOU HAVE WRECKED OUR CLUB. KSE & HINCHEY OUT. KSE is is Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group for not only the Rapids (since 2004, when they were purchased from Anschutz) but the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Mammoth, St. Louis Rams, and majority owners of Arsenal. Tim Hinchey is the president of the Colorado Rapids and has been in that position since 2011. Not mentioned on the banner but working closely with Hinchey and often mentioned in the same breath is Paul Bravo, VP of Soccer Operations.

It didn’t really ever come to light who sent that banner up, but it sparked discussion among fans. Were the Rapids really an amazing club before 2014? They made it to the playoffs in 2013. KSE have owned the club since 2004 and while they made it to the quarterfinals of the playoffs more times than not before then (and the MLS Cup final in 1997), there’s a lot more conversation to be had about quality of play vs. quality of league in those seasons. So if the Rapids weren’t amazing before KSE, how exactly have KSE been the ones to do the wrecking, and is the blame being put on the right people? How much of the negative change was brought on by Kroenke’s management and Hinchey, versus the coach and players?

Have the fans stopped going to the games? Since the Rapids fall behind the Rockies and Broncos in popularity on the Denver sports scale and the stadium is already small (about 19,000 seats), that’s hard to count when MLS doesn’t provide numbers of season ticket holders. The supporters still show up in force, and the All-Star Game sold out last week. Will they keep going if the team continues going downhill? That remains to be seen.

The general feeling of discontent has not changed in the Rocky Mountains. With the Rapids sitting on a record of 5-7-9 at the bottom of the Western Conference, the grumblings are getting louder. There will be a fan forum (from NYRB’s experience this may be a bad decision) on Tuesday, August 11, and since one of the Rapids’ most popular young homegrown players was sold Friday after receiving hardly any playing time, it will be an interesting meeting. The Rapids’ Twitterverse has been in uproar the past few days and there’s no reason for it to get quieter.

Newcastle fans want

Banner displayed by Newcastle fans in protest (Getty Images)
Banner displayed by Newcastle fans in protest (Getty Images)

In 2007, Mike Ashley began the process of taking over Newcastle United. While he was initially fairly popular with fans, his popularity soon waned due to little fan interface, repeated strange moves in the front office and coaching staff, and a general feeling that Newcastle is a vehicle for him to promote his business interests. The past year has been a banner year for fans who do not support the ownership of the club or its decisions.

The number of protests this year has been staggering, from the sign pictured above (as well as the “red card” signs the fans are holding) to possibly the most impressive — the April 19th boycott of the Newcastle/Tottenham Hotspur game. Judging from the photos from that match, the stadium appears fairly empty for what should typically be a well-attended match. Those who did not enter the stadium were not absent from the limelight; they formed protest groups outside the stadium with signs and posters to remind the club exactly why they were there.

In addition to that game other games were boycotted, fans held up the “red cards” above at several matches, and upheld a general embargo against any of Ashley’s financial interests. Possibly the most extreme option provided by the team is the season ticket cancellation guide, showing season ticket holders exactly how to cancel their tickets to ensure that the club can receive no more money.

Currently, Ashley still owns Newcastle. The crew’s other campaign, Sack Pardew, succeeded somewhat when Alan Pardew departed Newcastle for Crystal Palace FC, leaving assistant manager John Carver in charge. Carver quickly lost eight games in a row thereafter and left Newcastle in June with a paltry winning percentage of only 15%. As of June, Steve McClaren is the new manager, and nobody knows what that means for Newcastle’s future, though fans will find out now that the English Premier League has begun. Surely those who want Ashley gone will not rest until they achieve their goal.

What does a league actually owe fans?

MLS club jerseys at the All-Star game (Kyle Rowland)
MLS club jerseys at the All-Star game (photo credit Kyle Rowland)

According to Major League Soccer’s “Pledge to Fans,” you have the right to:

  • Watch the game in a safe, clean and healthy environment.
  • Be treated in a courteous, consistent and professional manner.
  • Be treated with dignity and respect by other spectators attending the game and those organizing the event.
  • “Support” his or her team, provided that the support is in good taste and neither adversely impacts the event experience of fellow spectators nor negatively impacts the game.
  • Expect displays of good sportsmanship.
  • Expect timely and accurate information related to the game.

None of that has anything to do with winning, being good, having an owner who desires winning, or any of the above discussed topics. But should it?

When fans pay to go into a stadium, what should they expect? MLS thinks fans expect and deserve displays of good sportsmanship and timely and accurate information related to the game. That’s great, but that doesn’t get the heart pumping or lift trophies.

Fans also have a part of this contract to uphold with MLS:

  • Fans are encouraged to cheer, sing, and otherwise support their team while remaining respectful and courteous to their fellow patrons, referees, opposing team fans and players.
  • Fans enjoy the soccer experience free from fighting, *thrown objects, attempts to enter the playing field, political or inciting messages, and disorderly behavior, including foul, sexist, racial, obscene or abusive language or gestures.
  • Fans comply with requests from stadium staff regarding stadium policies and emergency response procedures.
  • Fans promptly and carefully return the ball to a stadium staff member or the ball kid on the sidelines in the event that a soccer ball enters the stands. Alcoholic beverages are consumed in a responsible manner and only by those of legal age.
  • Fans conduct themselves in a lawful manner to avoid incidents in the stadium and in the parking lots.

This is fortunate. Nowhere in here does it say “fans are expected to show up happy when their team is losing.” Or “fans better only post blog posts radiating rainbows even when bad things happen.” Or, what would truly be tragic, “fans may not post negative comments on social media during the transfer window.” Breathe a sigh of relief.

If fanhood is truly a contract, the way it is set up now is, “you don’t act like a jerk and we’ll do our best to give you soccer that follows the rules.” No more, no less. There are no promises of winning, not even promises of trying. No delusions of grandeur. On the other hand, the fans do not swear a promise to keep showing up when the club loses every game for a year, or purchase season tickets if their team is owned by an abhorrent person.

Maybe the allure of fanhood is in the freedom to come and go as we please. To be able to take a week or two off and say, I’m done for now, I need to go watch baseball for a bit, and to come back to it and know our favorite players will likely still be wearing our colors, kits, and crests, out there on the field and playing our game.

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