Lessons for Team Owners and Supporters Groups from Politics

Lessons for Team Owners and Supporters Groups from Politics

This site usually features lessons soccer has to teach, sometimes it will feature lessons soccer can learn. This is one such post - lessons team owners and supporters groups can learn from politics.

Graham Parker recently wrote about the tension between passionate fans on whom soccer teams rely, and the teams who sometimes object to how that passion gets expressed.

Teams in the top tier of US soccer showcase supporter group passion as a way to draw fans to games. Supporters groups buy blocks of tickets to both home and away games, buy jerseys (and a lot of beer), are evangelists for the sport, and otherwise make soccer a live event unlike any other. Without the passion and money of these groups, professional soccer in America would not be what it is today – and it might not be at all. Team owners also have other interests, of course. While the loudest fans are those in formal supporters groups, they are not the majority of the fans in the stands. Most fans come to a few games a year, maybe buy a beer or two, cheer when appropriate and sit politely the rest of the time, and then get on with their day. Unsurprisingly the two groups sometimes clash. Not all supporters groups are always polite or careful about not spilling (or throwing) their drinks, and sometimes teach kids new words. In response owners issue edicts, sever formal ties with groups, and even ban certain fans from attending games.

Supporters groups in return accuse owners of being overly cautious in an effort not to alienate upper-middle class, white, suburbanites who buy more expensive tickets and who would rather spend more time sitting quietly than standing and singing.

“But,” as Parker writes, “still the fans turn up.”

This dynamic will sound strikingly familiar to anyone who has ever worked in politics.

If you’ve been a political insider, you know those activists “just don’t get it.” They want to push too far too fast, they mistake passion for purpose and noise for success, they would rather be right than win, and they are all too willing to be heard making noise than to be seen to be making a difference. You politely listen, are privately frustrated, and think that, like fans, your voters will turn up anyway.

If you’ve been an activist, you know those insiders “just don’t get it.” They’re afraid of their own shadows, are too cozy to money to do what’s really right, and have lost touch with the passion that defines real civic engagement. But a passionless voice that bends the moral arc of the universe a bit is better than no voice that doesn’t bend it at all, so you turn up anyway.

I know this because I have been all of the above: Activist, insider, DC United season ticket holder, and a founder of KeepDCUnited. I have marched and been marched on, stood singing in the rain and sat quietly in the sun. No matter my role, I always turn up.

As a public service to the owners of the teams in Major League Soccer, I asked a few friends in politics for their best advice to soccer insiders on how to deal with their most passionate supporters. The complete input is at the bottom of this essay, and can be summed up as:

  • Listen with respect
  • Honor the passion and support
  • Cooperate where possible
  • Follow when you can

To these I would add:

  • Foster trust through transparency. Most supporters’ group leaders are smart and savvy, and all of them want to be treated as such.

Team owners, by and large, do these things. And supporters groups, by and large, know that. But “by and large” can quickly become “by the wayside” without proper care and attention. As Democrats learned in 2016, voters don’t always turn up if they feel as if they are being ignored, and sometimes passionate voters making a lot of noise change things for the better – even if all that noise makes campaign managers and message strategists uncomfortable.

Supporters groups and activists bring commitment and energy. Owners and insiders make sure it doesn’t cross the line from passion to anarchy. Owners bring operations and results, and supporters and activists ensure that the operations are open and fair and that caution does not become corporate control. Unchecked, the former would fall victim to entropy, and the latter would slide into irrelevance.  Together they make soccer, and politics, worth it.

Fans and activists – keep bringing the noise and energy and passion. And know that you will go too far and that’s OK if the owners and insiders do their job. Owners and insiders – Listen, honor, respect and only when necessary intervene; know that you will sometimes be a little uncomfortable, and that’s OK because it means the fans and activists are doing their jobs. If both sides are completely at odds or completely comfortable, someone isn’t doing their job.

The complete advice:

From a journalist-turned-activist and communications expert:

  1. “Be inclusive.
  2. Get out of the way.
  3. Let groups organize and police themselves, and treat everyone equally and with respect.”

From a fellow Arsenal sufferer/fan who has held insider leadership positions for Members of Congress and the Democratic Party. She knows from being accused of “just not getting it” – and also knows the frustration of being a fan of a team whose owners appear to have given up on soccer as long as they’re making money.

  1. “Keep your ear to the ground - You don't necessarily have to give credence to every supporter’s rumblings, but when you hear a recurring theme - there is a reason. Owners must be willing to address the more constant complaints, if possible - make course corrections, and regularly engage with your supporters and allow them the chance to be heard.
  2. Know where your bread is buttered - while it is easy to see that a club is "profitable" and "making money," the owners/board are not the supporters in the stands week to week, cheering on the team, singing the songs, buying the tickets and the jerseys. When you lose that base, you lose atmosphere, and nothing is more depressing than a quiet stadium, except for one filled with boos. And you start to lose revenue.” 

Finally from an old friend and colleague who has spent a lifetime as an activist about who I sometimes complained, and who sometimes complained about me as an insider.

“Fans are your meal ticket. Not only do they buy tickets, they also patronize your advertisers and add value to your side-gigs, like your social media platforms and the value added when your players attend charity events which then draw your fans to support those charities. It makes sense to have a good working relationship with them. 

Left them up - Make your fans feel valued. Interact with them as the owner(s). Walk among them, and find ways to help them feel ownership in the franchise too. What if you offered a suggestion box at the stadium, and when you take a fans' suggestion, invite them and a few friends or family to sit with you at a game. Profile that on your social media and the in-stadium video feed.

Let them lead - Find ways to let fan groups lead the cheers, inspire supporting events, offer new designs for fan-wear. But they already do that, because they are fans, right? Empower it, fund it, and show up. Hire a small team of college or even high school age fans each season to be your liaisons - and give them your time so they can do a good job. 

Expect more of them - On the rare occasion when fans get out of hand, ask fan group leadership to help create and disseminate a "FanCode" (I should trademark that, right?), set the right tone and spirit for what is appropriate and what is not, and not tolerate it by helping other fans stop when seen getting out of hand. Let that build a fan-base that then disciplines itself.

Give them something of real value. Turn in stubs for six(?) games with x-time frame (or 6 of 8 consecutive games) and get a free ticket for an upcoming game...”

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