Onward and Upward

Earlier today, Prost Amerika Editor Steve Clare posted a great piece about the future of MLS as it ventures into the “post-Beckham” era. Like him or hate him, it’s hard to argue that the “Beckham experiment” wasn’t a success. Attendance is up. TV viewership is up (slightly…more on that later). Combined with the Cascadian expansion and NHL lockout, MLS is in prime position for continued positive growth, while other pro sports leagues look to have steeper hills to climb.

After proclaiming NBC Sports commentator (and former Sounders voice) Arlo White to be the something along the lines of a soundtrack for the advancement of soccer in America (insert obligatory anti-Sounders rant here), Clare uses the second half of his article to say that the role of David Beckham as the unofficial face and ambassador of MLS is likely to be filled by the fans, particularly supporters groups.

If you think about it, supporters groups are a major factor of the MLS experience that helps the league stand out from the American pro sports pack. We’re numerous. We’re fun. We’re loud. We’re diverse. We’re organized. We make clever signs. And, to the delight of big name advertisers and media buyers, we’re young and have disposable income.

Clare further states that supporters groups and the suits at respective teams’ front offices, as well as at MLS headquarters, will need to collaborate on a frequent basis in order to protect this forward momentum. Clare then uses a word that tends to strike fear in the hearts of supporters groups: “compromise.”

While Portland’s front office staff and supporters can talk a big game within the realm of MLS, something tells me that both sides of the negotiation table (front office on one side, 107ist board members on the other) will need to go even further when it comes to compromising in the future. Today’s announcement of a 96% season ticket renewal rate, plus a waiting list of about 6,500, reveals that the Timbers front office will have to go to great lengths to screw this thing up (no, I’m not challenging them to that). It also reveals that Portland sports fans might be gluttons for punishment.

Considering the 2012 season was one of the most emotionally painful sports journeys I can remember, a 96% renewal rate, plus a deep waiting list, does give the front office a bit of negotiating advantage over the TA when it comes to things like game day operations, post-mortem incident reviews, away travel issues, etc. (In summary: “if you don’t like it, there’s someone else behind you waiting to buy your seats.”) However, owner Merritt Paulson has gone on record plenty of times saying that the Timbers Army is a large part of what makes every Timbers match special. I can’t imagine him having the gall to implement major restrictions that would alter this experience.

We’re quite fortunate with what we’ve got here in Portland, likely to the point where most other MLS teams and supporters groups would label us as “spoiled.” And I think I have to agree with that sentiment. When fans line up too early on match days and scratch and claw against line cutters for prime general admission seats, a wristband solution is developed. When food options get slightly repetitive, local food carts are invited into JELD-WEN Field on match days. Don’t care for Budweiser? Why not have one of many local microbrews (let’s just forget about that one-time Spiced IPA thing, ok?). Oh, and so what if our team has spent all season hovering around the bottom of the table…we’re still gonna see camera crews from ESPN and NBC (that’s right…not just NBC Sports, but NB-MF’n-C) at JWF!

In Portland, this is status quo. For most other teams in MLS, these are situations that both fans and front office staff would sell their eternal souls for.

Speaking of TV, this is one area where we could probably use a slight amount of compromise amongst ourselves. We seem to have appointed ourselves to be the “keepers of cool,” especially with regard to “sticking it to the Man” by going out our way to defy any act that might resemble an endorsement of Walt Disney and Comcast (owners of ESPN and NBC, respectively). That’s an admirable stance to take considering you probably already pay them money to watch Timbers away matches on TV, but I digress. God forbid we see a camera boom whip around 10 feet in front of us in the North End and resist the urge to extend 20 middle fingers into the air, or unleash the fury contained within what you perceive to be the most mind-blowing hand-made two-stick ever. Hate to break it to ya’, but Portland’s status of cool-by-default left town once Portlandia season two began production. National TV networks are gonna be at Timbers matches whether we like it or not, so you might as well get used to it, Occupiers.

Granted, the support of national TV networks toward American soccer in recent years has been lackluster at best. Putting a Saturday afternoon marquee match (such as our 9/15 match hosting Seattle) on NBC to compete against Lord-knows-how-many college football games was a terrible idea. The fact that it pulled even a 0.4 rating is amazing. Meanwhile, last weekend’s MLS Cup match drew an also-terrible 0.7 rating. This is actually below the 0.8 rating that the 6/24 Portland-Seattle match drew on ESPN, which also happened the be the third-highest-rated regular season MLS match on cable ever.

While we strive to never kowtow to the demands of the suits representing the front office, MLS, and TV networks, we must recognize that unless the TV numbers improve over the next few years, this current forward momentum could be greatly reduced. If that happens, the sport suffers.

In addition to TV issues, when MLS touts their average attendance figures becoming larger than those of the NHL, threatening hockey’s place as the number four pro sport in America, they usually forget to mention that NHL seasons consist of 82 games, half at home, half on the road. That’s 41 home games for season ticket holders, families of four, local businesses, temporary workers, etc. to attend over about seven months, not counting playoffs. MLS currently remains at a 34-match season (17 home games), with more days of rest between matches over eight months, not counting playoffs.

Plus, hockey’s a bit more of an expensive sport to grow up in (skates, pads, ice rink rental, etc.) and/or follow compared to soccer. It’s a much larger revenue stream to manage, and that’s without corporate logos on players’ chests. I could go into my unmowed backyard on this rainy night and start a pick-up soccer game with my dog right now if I wanted to. There’s far more money to be made (and lost) with hockey in this country. With soccer, if the MLS Players’ Union threatens to strike at the next round of negotiations with team owners, I’d be surprised to see it anywhere near the front page…of the sports section. Yes, soccer is growing in this country, and could become #4 soon, but that just means that soccer is in 4th place. That wouldn’t even qualify for a medal at high school track meets.

While MLS and the American soccer scene are on the right path, it’s still on fragile ground, and even the slightest bump in the road could derail the entire thing. As members of the Timbers Army, arguably the largest and most under-the-microscope supporters group in this country, we must acknowledge that our actions (both positive and negative) will have an impact far beyond our city limits.

A wise man named Uncle Spiderman once said “with great power comes great responsibility.” We didn’t go out of our way to become this phenomenon. We just happened to become it, simply by being our unique weirdo selves. As a result, we must recognize that it’s in our best interest to act as leaders in all aspects of our support.

We can’t use the 2012 Timbers season as a measuring stick to compare future awesome seasons against if the league ceases to exist. By acting as leaders, both inside and outside of JWF, this sport has no option but to grow within the United States.

 

This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the 107ist or the TA.

This entry was posted in TA Blogs, Timbers Army and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Onward and Upward

  1. Mike Pacific says:

    Really great article, but if I was going to be nit picky (and I am), I’d point out that while the wait list is 6,600, I’d wager that a very significant portion of that is due to the TA. So I don’t agree that the wait list gives the FO that much of an upper hand. I think the TA and FO enjoy a great partnership (yes, there are bumps in the road, but all relationships have that) and hope both sides continue to work together as they have done.

    • Ray says:

      Agree with Mike. This is a classic supply-and-demand situation, except the team almost certainly isn’t what’s being demanded – it’s the gameday experience. While the FO controls access to that experience through ticket sales, etc, they’d be foolish to upset the apple cart too much and risk toppling the magic they’ve got going right now (and let’s be honest – having a 6000+ strong waiting list, a rabid fan base, and the national exposure we’ve had this far is pretty goddamn magical considering our team fought tooth-and-nail for the wooden spoon this year).

      I think we’ll see more cooperation with the FO as well as the occasional dust-up. Onward and upward (and fvck all the rest).

  2. A very very well thought out piece. You lay out a blueprint for both sides of the equation in Portland and bravely spell out some home truths, which will catch you flak in some quarters.

    This winter would be a great time to put past battles to one side and for all to ask “How can supporter culture grow the sport; and we have no problem if that includes making it more profitable and/or supporters groups more powerful?”

    Using TA, ECS and others as a marketing tool can not be unconditional but neither can those conditions be unrealistic. Fans may have to abandon some received wisdom but MLS 2013 may require different ideas from the battles fought in the past decade.

  3. Adam Evang says:

    Grammatrain huh? So thankful I avoided “christian rock” in my conversion years. That was the worst song ever.

  4. garrett.dittfurth says:

    I’ve got no problems with ESPN bringing a boom camera in. Where I have problem is when a boom camera operator deliberately swings that camera into a capo. Which is what happened. That boom camera operator is banned from Jeld Wen Field to my current knowledge and that incident is over.

  5. Spencer Bone says:

    Thank you.

  6. Tim Howard says:

    Like the article, but I disagree that the use of “compromise” was used to describe the FO and the TA. Facts are that the only compromise was on the TA’s part and at the expense of the fans/STH’s. FO started by giving us TA members more than we currently have at the beginning of the “expansion” year and have been removing items steadily. By removing freedoms like line-up at free will (wristbands) like allowing changes at the last minute to advance NBC (doesn’t work, look at the low quality of the broadcast), like implying that the FO should raise prices even in a lousy year because “someone will take the tickets”, like allowing our images to promote Adidas products in the League and STH contracts well as putting TA images on the MLS website to promote the Galaxy. like bouncing our fans from home matches because of flares in Salt Lake, and allowing the image to be used to promote league playoffs…all this and we still stink? What “compromise” is that?

    • Matthew Shields says:

      You do realize that the front office has zero control over what images the league chooses to put on its website, right? MLS is allowed to use images from MLS events to promote stuff, whether it be Adidas or other games. There is nothing the front office can do about that.

    • Thunderbear says:

      You do realize that the league promptly took that down in embarrassment after it was called out here on this very website and in several national blogs, right?

      http://timbersarmy.org/mls-double-standards

    • Joanne Couchman says:

      Tim, you wrote “By removing freedoms like line-up at free will (wristbands)” and you know I’m going to get all defensive on that one ;)

      No one EVER removed your freedom to line up at free will. All we removed was the freedom to be a douche and cut in line in front of others. Why is that bad thing?

      Also “allowing our images to promote Adidas products in the League and STH contracts” I think you’ll find some small print on your ticket or in your season ticket holder book which states that all visual and audio recordings are their permission and be attending the event you agree to allow them to be used. It’s fairly standard venue language. I’m not saying I agree with some of the stuff done, but our rights are limited by all that small print.

      Anyway ‘compromise’ is the fine line we walk all the time and spend endless hours debating. It will be interesting to see what the year brings in terms of MLS embracing supporter culture and how that affects what we do.

  7. Tim,

    I used the word ‘compromise’ initially in my article and it wasn’t aimed specifically at the TA.

    However, I am going to have to say that the recanting of every injustice from the past (and I know many of those you stated are very real) is exactly what is not required.

    But it does show that SG leaders will need thick skins.

  8. Owen Thornhill says:

    I really enjoyed the athmosphere in the north end despite being used to non pc European football culture. I will be going to games next year and will apply for a seasin ticket in 2014. FO could increase the capacity of the ground by making the front of the north end terreced and increase the size of the east side. Other than that i would agree with increasing ticket prices for the first teams games but keep the women’s team reserve and US open cup games cheap.

    • Joanne Couchman says:

      The main problem with increasing capacity isn’t finding the space to add seats, but the extra traffic in the narrow concourses, they can hardly handle current gameday traffic as it is.

      Owen, it’s funny that you mention the non-pc European culture… according to certain high profile league people there’s still too much swearing going on :)

      • I have been to a Timbers game and a Revolution game and i only heard one foul mouth insult between both (although i wasn’t in or near section 107) and it wasn’t that bad. “you suck asshole” I’m used to much worse. Just doesn’t seem like a intimidating atmosphere ass i didn’t notice any chants abusing the other team.
        Supportive of your own team yes very much so but not intimidating to the opposition. But i can understand horrendous abuse to the opposition would not be family friendly and as above the Front Office know there are people to take my,our seat if we step out of line. I have taken part in walk out’s & boycotts to put pressure on the club management to deal with our fan groups in comparison, but my club in Ireland does not sell out the ground.

  9. Cory says:

    Unfortunately for Tim I read the article linked below, right before I read this piece, and it puts a little context into some of the situation of what the FO and powers that be affords SG’s compared to many others out there…. Just food for thought
    http://www.rollingstoneme.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1884

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