Chicago Fire burns its fans

The job title Communications Director implies someone with a good understanding of how to communicate with others. At a soccer club that of course means communicating with fans and supporters. I’m sure it can be a tough job at times, having to promote your team in such a way that you don’t come across as just a corporate shill. There has to be a rapport with a wide range of fans from the hard core supporters to the casuals that may just check in from time to time. Keep a friendly, yet professional tone would be a good rule.

Yesterday, Chicago Fire’s Communication Director Dan Lobring posted a fabulous rant on the Fire’s website that was the verbal equivalent of throwing gasoline on the smoldering Fire fanbase. In it he recounts how he was openly questioned as a ‘shitty hire’ from his first day, and how he was never given a chance because – as he freely admits – he had no soccer experience and is more of a Detroit Lions fan (sigh). He then chastises the fans for their behaviour following their Aug. 7 loss to DC United in the US Open Cup. While admitting they have the right to boo and express their disapproval, he takes the fans to task for unspecified “personal attacks, threats, accusations” and “shouting obscenities to staff, our owner and his family, or other supporters attending games with their families”.

Reaction among the MLS-following twittersphere (#cf97) was swift with many considering it either some form of “I quit” or that Lobring would be fired shortly. Yet club executives quickly rushed to his defense with the COO saying that the blog went by him before it went out. While I won’t say that Lobring had no right to say what he did, but how he did so and how it was received shows that it is an absolute failure of communication – which supposedly is his job.

Communication is about clarity. That some of his complaints, while necessarily not directed at specific individuals, are then easily generalized to the entirety of Fire supporters is his first failure. It is one thing to point out that poor behaviour occurred, but it is another to place that, in a negative tone, across a broad group of supporters. Nothing will alienate you from a group faster than labelling them all as hooligans when not everyone was. The tone of the blog is yes self-depreciating at times, but it also reads as extremely negative to the Fire fans themselves. I can’t say that I’m surprised that some Fire fans have called in saying that they aren’t renewing their season tickets and that the Chicago Fire seem to be taking a lot of heat over this (my worst pun by far today). The front office are so clearly out of step with the supporters that I don’t think they even appreciate what they’ve kicked up here.

Where it isn’t negative, it comes off as slightly condescending – as “the club knows best, you must listen to how WE do things.” Yes I understand that in pure business and property terms the Chicago Fire are owned by Andrew Hauptman, but in a cultural sense the club is owned by its supporters. What is it that teams sell? They sell the opportunity to belong to something, you go to be with others in a communal emotional event – it’s like paying to go to church. That experience is provided only in part by the team on the field, a large part is played by the other paying customers in the stands. Go to any sporting event that is sold out and compare the atmosphere to one in front of an empty stadium and tell me that the experience is the same. A club isn’t selling wins and losses, it is selling a collective sense of belonging. So your customers are not just your customers, they are your product as well. Most fans begrudgingly accept they are to be exploited in some way by their club as part of the marketing experience, but a club would do well to remember how important the fans are to the product they promote.

Which brings up the basic cultural difference between soccer fans and North American sports fans. MLS soccer fans have embraced and tried to copy the fan culture that they see elsewhere in the soccer world. The chants, banners, songs, flares are all something that soccer fans see and want to bring to their game as well. The cultural appropriation of global soccer fan culture grew dramatically following Toronto’s entry in MLS, and carried on in the other new franchises added since (Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, Vancouver and Montreal), even some of the older franchises have looked at ways to up the intensity of fans at games. But this is something that has to be fan driven, supporter’s culture is distinctly “authentic” nothing irks the supporters more than something being imposed on them by the club. Most clubs are aware enough to then do this through some sort of negotiation with the supporters group, but the important part is that the fans are recognized as stakeholders in the club – remember the club owns the team and the stadium, the supporters own the culture.

More worrying to me is that this is now the second team to complain about its own fans. Last month NY Red Bull resorted to offering charity bribes if its fans would stop yelling “You suck Asshole” at opponents. The YSA bribe is not going to get anywhere. Yes the clubs want to create a wonderful family environment and YSA is not exactly conducive to that, but have you ever even attended other professional sports in North America? Sadly that is about as creative as the insults get, but YSA is certainly just as common at baseball games (in New York it’s probably common at little league games too). Football, hockey and basketball fans are no shrinking violets either.

Communication: you have to be able to say the good and the bad, but you have to make sure you say it in the right way. Dan Lobring and the Chicago Fire (for supporting him) have given us all a wonderful “what not to do” message that I think we all understood more clearly than they did themselves.

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