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The greatest bad idea in American sports

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The Supporters Shield is the greatest bad idea in American sports.

When the Supporters Shield was created in 1998, it was made to acknowledge the MLS team with the most points at the end of the regular season. It was a trophy made by supporters, representing the dedication to their clubs and the newly formed league. With the MLS Cup Playoffs serving to determine a league champion, the Shield was an ingenious, meaningful way to honor the regular season champions. The Shield was awarded retroactively to Tampa Bay and D.C. for their wins in 96’ and 97’ and has been awarded every year since.  

When first created, the Shield was the brainchild of an American soccer fan mailing list way back in 1997. There were “thousands” of people on the mailing list, and after Nick Lawrus pitched the idea, a council comprised of a member from each supporters group went on to create the Shield. At the time, this was fantastic; the Shield was genuinely for the supporters, and by the supporters. While MLB had the Commissioner’s Trophy, and the NFL had the Lombardi, MLS had the Supporters Shield, a trophy that symbolized fans’ commitment to the sport, and held reverence past being a trophy, it meant more. Emphasis on the past tense. 

Last Saturday, October 17th, the Supporters Shield Foundation (SSF) announced that they had voted not to award the Shield in 2020. The SSF made the announcement with five games remaining for a majority of teams, and little information was given on who exactly made the decision. The Supporters Shield Foundation made it seem like it involved a vote from the Independent Supporters Council (ISC); while the Independent Supporters Council said they had no vote but backed the decision. After all this, a majority of MLS fans (myself included) were left to Google both of these groups, about whose existence we had just learned. 

When the decision was made to revoke the Shield for the 2020 season, fans filled Twitter with reactions left, right, and center. However, past those immediate reactions, there was one sentiment that remained more prominent than the rest, “Who the hell are these guys?”. While the SSF and ISC spoke as if they represented fans everywhere, the general consensus was that most supporters had no clue who these people were. Therein lies the issue with the Supporters Shield. It’s lost all context. 

Once thought of as representing dedication and devotion, the Shield has lost nearly all meaning. If most supporters have no clue where the Shield comes from, is it truly a trophy from the supporters? If the trophy is revoked, and the primary reaction is “Who’s idea was this?” does the trophy truly represent fans’ loyalty? These are questions that are critical in the conversation around the Supporters Shield. If a trophy is truly for and by the supporters, then there needs to be meaningful dialogue throughout supporters when it comes to the Shield. Without this dialogue, the Shield becomes yet another trophy with a meaningless name.

So what’s to be done? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. The conversation around the Supporters Shield is larger than one article or one person’s opinion. It’s a trophy that’s supposed to be symbolic of the country’s supporters culture, and it isn’t. While the league has grown and the culture of being an MLS supporter has changed drastically, the Shield’s governing bodies have remained stagnant. The fact that it’s nearly impossible to find who voted on withholding the Shield in 2020 speaks drastically to the issue at hand. There can be no trophy representing the loyalty and passion of supporters without transparent dialogue surrounding the award.

Do you think the Supporters Shield needs more input from supporters, or are you fine having the trophy managed by whomever, as long as it’s awarded? 

(As of this article’s writing, the SSF is holding new meetings after the initial pushback from supporters. A public updade regarding the decision will be forthcoming. You can follow that here.)

6 Comments

  1. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Honestly, until I just read this article, I thought it was just a trophy that MLS gave out similar to the NHL’s President’s Trophy.

    No clue that it’s always had some sort of management/administration going on behind the scenes which frankly seems silly.

    I just assumed that some cubicle underling at MLS HQ was responsible for looking at the final standings each year and setting up things with the local engraver before boxing it up and shipping it out.

  2. James Lockerbie says:

    to sum this up easily, Fubar…Fucked up beyond all repair

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Excellent feature photo. Cogent.

  4. Irishkeeper39 says:

    There’s a problem here and it is this: last I checked, the winner of the Shield earned a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League. How do you fix that? Does MLS just say “team with most points gets that spot?” Well, if that’s the case, do me a favor and get rid of conferences, play a home-and-home set like every other league in the world, and then have a playoff for the top 8 or 12. That way true winners are rewarded. I’d love to see a Shield winner take almost all the points in their conference and get crushed by the other one.

    • MLS said they will be awarding the CCL spot and prize money they normally give to the Supporters Shield winner to the team that would have won it.

  5. Thanks for researching and explaining… appreciate your thought process and how you laid it out for the reader.

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