Commentary

The argument for sterile supporters groups

Photo: Ryan Griffith

Last week, vaunted PSP author Thomas Hill wrote about MLS’s increasingly sterile supporters groups.

It’s a great read with some passionate commentary to boot. It also seemed like a piece deserving of its own counterpoint from this site’s resident contrarian (and occasional “Old man on his lawn yelling for some reason”).

Author’s note: I don’t necessarily agree with any of the points I’m about to make, but consider it worthwhile to articulate another perspective on why things are they way they are, for better or worse. Moreover, given last night’s woeful attendance in Harrison, it’s encouraging to know that at least one franchise is attempting success with full-stadium sterility.

Enjoy, and see you in the comments…

Equity

What’s the difference between a “supporters section” and a “supporter’s section?” The answer is ownership.

The former is a place where supporters of the team sit (or stand, as it were), the latter is a place that supporters of a team own. In reading the recent history of clashes between fans and clubs, it seems as though the disagreement is about an apostrophe – who owns the seats, and thus who makes the rules?

MLS has a published Code of Conduct for all fans. It certainly has its flaws, but specifically bans many of the activities that have gotten other club’s groups a trip to the exits.

Incendiary devices? No.

Politics, violence, hate speech, and harassing officials? No, no, no, and no.

It appears as though some of these groups violated more than one of these rules more than one time – it’s no wonder they were shown the door. The same treatment would be given to any other fan in equal measure.

Authenticity

And yet, the Sons of Ben are not just some run of the mill supporters group, they’re different: they’re responsible for the existence of the Philadelphia Union – they created the market into which Jay Sugarman brought a franchise after all. The owner said as much again during his last visit to the group’s tailgate earlier in the year.

This is a miracle of fandom, a once-in-a-generation achievement, a needle in the haystack of American sports. Has any other franchise been birthed of such passion?

The answer is likely “no,” and for obvious reasons – until just recently, there was largely no such thing as a supporters group in the United States: no Ultras, no tifosi, nothing. DC United had their disparate bands early on and there were some scattered others along the way, but until the last two decades there just weren’t public, organized, fan groups the way there are today for any sport anywhere in the country.

And yet, all manner of American sporting competition flourished anyway.

My aforementioned colleague saw first hand what uber-American fandom could look like when he attended the University of Wisconsin’s opening football game this season with 76,831 others. The entire weekend was a red-tinged sea of organized chaos in the state’s capitol, but more specifically he saw one of the famed fan moments in the sport, “The Jump Around” – a throbbing mass of bouncing humanity that bridges the gap between the final two quarters in Madison.

It’s beautiful, and the fans manage pull it off every week without a membership fee or a capo in the stands.

Perhaps American soccer owners see what’s possible in this sports-obsessed country, with or without an organized fan group. Perhaps, since 80% of the crowd at most soccer games is part of the latter group – non-“supporters” – there’s something else that drives these decisions.

Money

Yes, money.

The Union are a business after all, and one that has grown exponentially since being founded. Though the team’s value has increased, their annual profits hover near break even every year – part reality, part accounting trick of course – but the biggest driver of their ability to turn a profit is ticket sales.

Supporters groups pay the least amount per season to watch the team play ($450 for the full year in 2022, or $349 dollars less than the average fan in 2021). This is a discount that is sometimes good for attendance but not as good for revenue – and if the 80/20 rule of sales applies, terrible for business.

Author’s note: the 80/20 rule suggests that 80% of a sales person’s business revenue comes from the best 20% of his or her clients, while 80% of the problems invariably come from the lowest revenue-generating 20%. If you’re not in sales, ask a friend who is about this rule – they’ll have stories for you.

In fact, this cold-blooded, soulless confound is precisely why the US Men’s National Team is happy to have high ticket prices and low attendance: it’s the foundation of their plan to achieve more revenue.

Yuck, and also yes.

Beyond that, even though supporters groups are the most committed of fans in the stands, their membership (in terms of buying tickets) turns over at a higher rate that one might imagine. The numbers say the percentage is greater than one in eight after any given season – which means that every year in Chester, assuming the section is sold out, about 450 supporters don’t come back.

If that holds, does it make any business sense for the front office to do more than the minimum in order to appease a small, surprisingly transient group of people who pay the least for their product (there’s that 80/20 rule again)? There is so much more opportunity to cater more generally to the larger group of fans, those who are paying substantially more for the exact same product.

Catering more broadly makes sense even in the case that half of them will be back next year and half won’t (the numbers here say half of the larger stadium population is pretty committed and half are a revolving door of casual fans and walk-ups) – and especially because the reason both groups list as why they give up tickets has nothing to do with wins and losses:

Fans were much more likely to give up their season tickets if they had children under age five, or if they described their lives as “complicated.”  – Soccernomics, pg. 254.

It’s not about the supporters groups for these businesses, it’s about everyone else, and mostly it’s about the families. Focusing on families isn’t an assault on the in-stadium experience, it’s the only way to ensure a domestic club can pay its bills so that an atmosphere exists at all.

Families don’t bang drums or set off smoke bombs, but they do spend a few hundred dollars every time they come to the stadium.

Summary

Most fans are casual ones – they support the team, but don’t follow the players on Instagram, don’t go to autograph signings, don’t paint tifos in the parking lot, don’t pay attention to transfermarkt, and don’t use the pronoun “we” when talking about which side won the night before.

Though it may not seem this way from the States, this is actually something that holds true with soccer fans all over the world (Soccernomics is required reading in this case, and is available as a free PDF for some reason here).

Clubs are right to leverage the passion of supporters groups in order to create an exciting home field advantage. Clubs are also right to put limits on what these groups do during games to ensure a great game experience for everyone else – because the experience of everyone else is the overwhelming rule to the exception that are supporters groups.

34 Comments

  1. I lost all interest in being a Sons of Ben after all It really was a propaganda and marketing arm of the Union and the MLS. Where other people money and time were being used to whitewash the Union being cheap and shitty.
    .
    A new playground is nice but a 8% sales tax at the stadium and paying property taxes would probably be better for Chester as a whole.
    .
    A docile supporters group that is just there to tow some corporate line isn’t even worth being a part of and not worth having at all.

    • Also it could be said that the MLS was stagnant until it embraced supporters culture. Most stadiums were suburban catering people with cars and families.
      .
      When Seattle and Portland showed up with urban stadiums and strong supporter cultures did the MLS really start to take off.
      .
      Excitement draws new fans any generic form of family entertainment is immediately in competition with a million other forms of generic family entertainment.

  2. Fantastic piece and points Chris.

    Where you fall on this issue likely depends on where your ideals lie in a larger world view. As is most things with soccer, it’s hard to escape the parallels between the issues seen here and the larger divisions in our country amongst increasingly desperate socioeconomic groups.

    Here’s hoping regardless of what side anyone is on, we can all work together to insure the continued success and survival of our clubs, while simultaneously making them accessible for all.

  3. Relative casual fan here who only attends a few games a season (work weekends, small children, yada yada) some with one or two of my small children some without.

    I would go to many more games and bring more people, including small children, if the environment was more exciting.

    I want none of this family-friendly, safe space business. I want that Club America tension and awe. I want drama and spectacle in the stands and on the field. I want Union matches to be categorically different than a Phillies game. Less corporate white and wealthy.

    • A Union game has some inherent advantages over a Phillies game for small kids. You’re a lot closer to the field making it easier to see the players and a much larger percentage of the time there is actually something going on so if a child is only paying partial attention they are more likely to see something happening when they do look up.
      .
      I’m also thinking that it would be more fun if there are songs and cheers that they could join in with. I haven’t been to many baseball games in the last 30 years but I’m guessing there is nothing like continuous singing at a Phillies game.
      .
      However, I’m also thinking that you would rather not expose the kids to racist/sexist/homophobic things either, especially if they will be singing along.

  4. What I would really like to see is the Union look for a way to promote some of the SOB’s atmosphere into the rest of the stadium. No, I don’t want to stand for 90 minutes (and that definitely wouldn’t work for people with young kids and/or disabilities). But I would like to hear more people singing along with the supporters during the game rather than my wife and me being among the only ones. Of course, for that to work, the chants do need to be G/PG, but like I did last week, is there any real difference in message between “We’re from Philly, filthy Philly” and “We’re from Philly, f**kin’ Philly”?

    • Maybe the Union, SoB, and the Corporate Overlords, er Sponsors could generate a SoB Song Book for distribution. I’m sure the arguments against will include 80% or more will just be thrown out or left in the seats so its just a clean up night-mare. But when half of the stadium can’t really make out whats being sung, its hard to start to sing along.

      • The SOB have a chant list:
        http://www.sonsofben.com/gameday
        and I remember they did hand out song sheets around the stadium for 1 or 2 games – but I don’t think it helped.
        .
        At one point the SOBs also had a speaker system across the RE that one capo controlled to help with leading the chants. I can’t remember if it was aimed towards the RE or towards the rest of the fans, but it didn’t last long.

    • Andy, I agree 100%.
      Simplest thing to do is stand up and turn away holding up Union scarfs when the players on the other team are announced. My wife and I do it by ourselves in our section – because most people don’t really seem to know or care about it.
      Be a pretty cool site if the whole stadium did it.
      Similar deal is the clap on corner kicks.
      Kids love to get involved in that kind of thing – particularly if they feel like they are helping the team by doing it.
      It probably just needs to be communicated better to the fans – maybe a video on the screen with union players before the game –
      “Hey fans – be our 12th man and help us win today. Here’s how…”

      • Chris Gibbonds says:

        Honestly, an over-arching issue that comes up when I attend games is the things I wouldn’t want to pass to my kids (yelling “sucks” every time an opposition player is announced or turning my back on an opponent, both of which are tired and unoriginal) are the things that have somehow made it through the stadium – while the things I would like to pass on, songs, chants, etc…, have not.

      • Chris, this again is something that is easy to solve. I just yell “boooo” for opposing players rather than “sucks”. Same attitude of displeasure but not nearly as personal.

    • Maybe you could be the word police Andy. I know you love censorship… fans can regulate themselves. We know the deal. People don’t need to be so sensitive.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        You suck, asshole. How’s that for lack of censorship?
        .
        Or I could just say that I disagree with you and that there is no need for organized preplanned swearing as there are other ways to get the same point across just as effectively and in a more family friendly way. I’d rather find a way to fill the stands (and that means people bringing their kids) and getting the whole stadium as loud as possible throughout the game rather than have Subaru Park look like Dead Bull arena did Wednesday night.
        .
        (and please don’t take the first sentence as a personal attack, I was just trying to make a point)

  5. Kevin joseph says:

    The season ticket price is the same for the same seats on the opposite side so the supporters are not really getting the discount you claim.

    • True. I think that’s a first for 2022. I know that SOB wnet up, wonder if the opposite side line stayed the same?

      • I know midfield bridge side went up about 20%. Probably trying to make up for lost revenue from last year and the start of this.

  6. Commit to builiding new facilities near the complex for the World Cup and get the team out of Chester. So many more people would support this team more than they do if public transit was an option.

    • And how many current supporters from the Burbs will see our in person support wain if it means traveling into the city?

      • +1. It’d be worse for me.
        Maybe there should be club sponsored buses from closest rail transit stations – show your tickets to get on for free.

    • I actually think this would do more for the fan culture than any other sort of social engineering you could come up with. Too many MLS stadiums suffer from being out in suburban locations where people are literally living because it’s safer, more stable, etc. Not making a value judgment. I live in the burbs, too, and like it just fine. But you’d get a younger and more diverse crowd in a city location. Imagine if the Union played in West Philly near Penn and Drexel and easy access to the Market Line. Or out in Fishtown…. I think you might lose suburbanites but you’d be able to tap into substantial young and diverse populations that just can’t make it to games in Chester.

    • Not gonna happen. Folks need to stop this narrative.
      .
      1A there’s no land to build an arena at the complex.
      .
      1B the Union wouldn’t get ANY parking revenue as the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers control the lots. This defeats the purpose of having a stadium.
      .
      2. The Union’s ownership owns most of the land surrounding Subaru Park, and have already invested millions of dollars in Team facilities on the property.
      .
      If the Union and any MLS for that matter wants to get more of the Family crowd, they need to STOP having games in the afternoon. That’s when their target audience is at youth soccer/sports games!!! I understand some games are for TV spots, but the point still stands.

      • I’d be OK with afternoon games in early much when the temperature is only around 40 degrees and maybe during the playoffs in November but I think that had a big impact Saturday (although that was for national TV).

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        This is interesting to me and unsolvable. I used to go to every game, then I had kids. I started going to night games only because they were easier to find sitters for and my kids were napping during the afternoon games so I could just watch them at home in peace. Now my kids don’t nap but aren’t really old enough to go to night games, so I can only really take them to afternoon games (because their soccer practices are in the mornings on the weekends). This is what the Soccernomics book meant when they said things got “complicated.”

  7. el Pachyderm says:

    Appreciate the rebuttal article.
    .
    My rebuttal to the rebuttal…. and because they are casuals you have what we have in Chicago home games, NYRB home games and FC Dallas home games and plenty of other stadiums around the league…which is a grand total of about 15,000 fans across three giant empty bowls of stadiums. It is deeply concerning in particular these three huge cities are unable to drum up more than 5,000 fans for a home game. At a truly grassroots deep supporters level, the game isn’t about winning and losing.
    .
    Casuals only care about wins and losses pretty much just like those same casual soccer parents who don’t know any better standing on the sidelines watching Johnny play a fetid kick and chase Ruote 1 game.
    .
    This rebuttal also precludes why SUM and MLS and US Soccer is trying its hardest in linking its trolley to Mexican soccer, which is some kind of strange fandom kick in the balls. We cannot generate our own interest uniquely enough, we generally underserve the entire Latin community in our suburban soccer experience —but we need them so we’ll use them for their money.
    .
    It’s a sin you ask me.
    .
    It is a corporate suits – white persons game in this country as I argued in the previous article. That makes it generally safe – whihc is good. It also makes it entirely dull and insipid by comparison.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      The data says the casuals don’t care about wins and losses though, they come for the event (which might be the only argument for having a stadium in the city). What’s happening in the markets you mentioned (and NE should be included there too) isn’t a location issue, or if it is it’s part of a much broader rot that gets lumped in with geography. Those places have no character to their team, something which might be built through a supporter’s group but not sustained by it. If someone like me, a former resident of the supporters section, stops sitting there but stays engaged – that’s a win. If I stay home altogether, that’s a loss.

      As for the demographics, that’s an entirely different debate but one on which you and I stand together.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Interesting thought (argument) about the data. I do not read data on this so am arguing from ‘the eye test,’ which has clearly shown, specific to Union- when the team isn’t winning- attendance drops way down. Teams without culture tend not to win so I will stipulated to your point its can be viewed as about more than ‘wins and loses’ but again, IMO it isn’t really a whole lot more. In america we ask our kids did you win or lose today… and that’s the culture most these children grow up into adults caring most about.
        .
        I’d argue only NFL football in this country manages butts in seats despite wins and loses the best.. which is intersting as those butts in seats tend to come with a Personal Seat License which is this country’s closest thing to ‘ownership’ we get.
        .
        The fans of professional sports are not ‘part of the club’ here… and more than speaking of them in terms of ‘we’ — this idea of calling professional sports franchises “Clubs” is the most galling of the things I tend to hear… which when I bring this up to better people then me in the media or talking heads I get rebuffed and scoffed about.
        .
        I personally do not use the word ‘we’ and I for sure do not think of Union as a club… because it is not and this is ultimately at the heart beat of the issue IMO depsite wheat theose media folk and talking heads think.
        .
        In my opinion it is THE VERY heart of the issue. Have a great Saturday my PSP brethren.

  8. Have been a fan from before the stadium was built! I have written several times on this page about the US having 4 other sports to detract/distract from soccer. Also because the sport struggles to get traction throughout the country the growing of organic support and fan traditions (chants and singing) is much harder to come by! The borrowing of traditions from other leagues helps the passionate fan feel more connected to the team that they support. I drive in from Southern New Jersey so no matter where the stadium is I’m in a car. We have come with family,friends,kids,our patents in their 70’s and 80’s. The “You suck a**hole!” on goal kicks was always a bit much. And there was always some explaining to the kids about the language. I would love to see more fans in the Park. And I think the bus idea has merit. I like that the Park has a unique setting with the bridge as a backdrop. Chester is not as easy as the complex but I think that mass transit access can be addressed. Really enjoy this page! Lots of great ideas and a great read Chris!

  9. The stadium experience has so much more potential if the surrounding area is built up with entertainment. The real estate adjacent to the stadium is cheap…do something useful for the supporters, casual fans, and Chester community. The investment will pay dividends.

    As far as MLS goes, attendance at Union games is either average or slightly better than average across the league. For our market, I think the size of our stadium is appropriate until we have more consistent sellouts.

  10. The one thing I take issue with is your first paragraph of the summary. I don’t follow anyone on Instagram, let alone a Union player. I don’t have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or any of the many other social media brain drainers. I don’t got to autograph signings. I don’t make tifos in parking lots. I pay attention to Transfermarkt when rumors abound, but not daily. Mostly importantly to me, I don’t use “We” when talking about the Union because I’m not out on the field. I don’t get up at 6 a.m. everyday and get out on a soccer pitch to go through training sessions. I don’t deal with nagging injuries. I don’t give up my personal life in dedication for my professional career. I don’t use “we” because I don’t deserve too. It’s respect for what this group of men do on a daily basis.
    .
    I didn’t start this journey as a soccer fan. I was a 4 for 4 guy that derisively laughed at the idea of soccer. Slowly but surely that passion grew. It probably wasn’t until the third or fourth year that the spark was lit. It was inflamed when I found this site a year or two later. Now 11-12 years since it’s inception, the Union are the only thing I care about in Philadelphia sports. It’s what I live for every week. I wear my Blue and Gold with pride, almost everyday. Right now I’m writing this while keeping warm in my Union sweatshirt. But I’m a casual fan?
    .
    That first paragraph of the summary is one of the most insulting disrespectful things I have ever read on this site, and I’ve probably written 2 or 3 of the top 5. You can curse me out and call me names, hell even spit in my face. None of that compares to how insulting that paragraph was.

    • Totally agree with your thoughts on the use of “we”. I occasionally slip up but try to avoid it. The closest I am to being part of the team is spending about $2000 a year on tickets, parking, and water at games.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      You’re on this site though, which wasn’t mentioned in that paragraph but probably should be as a place where fans who are more than casuals go for information. Anyone here, especially people who make insightful, thoughtful, and regular comments like you do, is much, much more invested than a casual fan. We’ve already taken the red pill.

      I won’t share readership numbers with you, but I’ll share podcast numbers instead as a sense of scale: the best All 3 Points episode of all time was downloaded about 750 times. Most episodes fall in the 175 – 250 range. As far as I know, the most popular Union podcast gets downloaded about 1,200 times per episode. Or, if 250,000 people watch a Union match in person and on TV, fewer than 0.5% of them seek out the kind of content provided by podcasts and websites like this one. We’re all the exception here, not the rule.

    • For right or wrong I, for the most part,try to treat this site and the people on it, as I would a friend. Some might interpret my coarse uncouth rantings as being the opposite of friendly. I assure you that is the furthest from my truth. If I didn’t care, you wouldn’t even be acknowledged let alone debated. If I take the time to argue, get pissy and use a few off-color words, it’s only because I care and value the interactions between us.
      .
      I’ve said all that because I would never question anyone’s fandom here, or anywhere for that matter. If someone chooses to describe themselves as casual then that is on them and their choice. Just like in past years where the season ticket debate has been had. I would never tell someone where, when or how to spend their money let alone judge how much of a fan they are because of it. As I said above, my fandom started with a slow roll and maybe up until a year before I found this site I would have indeed called myself a casual fan. But there was that year before when I was in complete ignorance of this wonderful forum we have. I wouldn’t say I was like I am now but I was still hungry for more. Was I less then, than I am now? Maybe. Certainly I have learned more since then. I’m not sure I’d say I was less of a fan for that year. How can one know what they do not know?
      .
      Chris I think trying to put qualifications and checked boxes on someone’s fandom a dangerous road to go down. You may have felt it an innocuous statement at the time of writing. I’m here to tell you it’s not. It is impactful. I don’t think you meant it with malice or anything of the like. Which in some ways makes it worse. So I guess I’m asking you to think twice next time. Maybe you’ll feel the same, maybe not. At the very least you’ll know someone thinks it’s wrong. Thanks for your time spent. Be well. Be safe.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I appreciate your perspective and absolutely understand where you’re coming from. There is no gate-keeping from me on who gets to be a fan of this team or any other, and like many others on this site, I have spent the better part of 12 years attempting to convince my fellow Philadelphians to come see what’s going on in Chester.

        You and I orient our lives around this club. Most fans of the team don’t. Neither is more or less valid.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      My relationship with Union is bond.
      .
      Bipolar schizophrenic bond…
      .
      and have never once stepped foot in The River End, created a TIFO, or tailgate hopped.
      .
      I relate to these arguments.

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