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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I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt

This Sunday is Beckham’s Grand Finale to his five year stint in MLS. In his time he’s marketed the league to a new group of fans who had at least heard of him – even in the USA where football means something altogether different. He’s also successfully marketed the league to aging European stars as a place to play out their last few years: Henry, Ljungberg, Keane, and Frings are probably here in part because of him.

It’s like Superman swooping down from the sky building up the league and then declaring, “my work here is done.” So Sporty Spice once again leaves his team/league in a better place than when he found it (the exception to the Beckham effect is Milan, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Wherever he’s gone, prosperity and success have followed. He started at ManU, was an important part of the treble winning 98/99 side – which is even more amazing considering that he began that season as the most hated Englishman for his sending off in the World Cup. Later he went to Real Madrid, only a club known as the Galacticos could possibly be big enough for Beckham, and again he left after hardship (put to reserves by future England manager Capello) followed by triumph: back on the first side and winning La Liga. So it was off next to America where he could not only take a team, but an entire league to new heights.

The North American adventure followed the traditional script, he sold a bunch of jerseys and then met with some problem, now it was injuries to the no longer youthful Beckham. Yet even injured, he managed to lift attendance and put the whole MLS on more solid footing. I always thought that the Beckham in America project was about his wife (and I still think that is part of it), but I’ve also grown to realize that he does see himself as much a football ambassador as a style ambassador. His loan to AC Milan perhaps undermined some of his commitment to the MLS project, but his faithful return and his play over the last two seasons have made up for that. The Milan loan also broke his string of bettering the teams he joined, as AC Milan was arguably at its peak at that moment and thanks to the trials of its owner Silvio Berlusconi has fallen far.

I was lucky enough to see him this spring during the Champions League match between Toronto and LA, and I have no doubt that TFC was able to get 43,000 fans into Rogers Centre due to the presence of Beckham. He was the star of the show, yes I got to throw a balloon and streamers at him on a corner in the first half (second row seats are fun), but the moment that sticks out is when he complained about the beer can that the far corner tossed at him just before taking the corner that tied the game for the Galaxy. He fights hard and gets mean when he needs to, he’s less posh than I thought. The fans cheered for Toronto, but came to see him.

And so once again Beckham is headed out, likely on a high note with the Galaxy in their second straight MLS final, but as he removes his jersey on Sunday (in full view of the crowd naturally), what jersey will he put on next? The success of the team is not Beckham’s criteria, it is the style of his arrival and playing that matters to the Beckham story. He began in Manchester, which has its own sort of cool, but wasn’t the fashion capital like say: London. His next moves have been to Madrid, LA, Milan – he lives the good life and he lives it in style. He also has a family to think about. So in the various rumors offered up so far we can see the potential moves for Beckham.

  • Australia is out. Beyond the no already stated, Australia serves no purpose in the Beckham project. It neither advances soccer in that country or the world, and it is too remote from the fashion world to serve as a typical launching pad of Beckham style.
  • Glasgow Celtic is out. Even if Snoop Dogg were to buy a stake in the team – don’t hurt yourself jumping on that bandwagon Snoop (you might make Rod Stewart cry). Glasgow again lacks the style requirement for Beckham.
  • Paris-St. Germain has apparently offered once again to take him. While you can’t argue against Paris for style, and he has lived in France before, the other consideration for Beckham is that his aging body requires a league that he can still look good in: Ligue 1 yes he can do it, Champions League no he’s lost that pace.
  • That leaves three intriguing options that all represent the same goal. As a soccer ambassador, and fashion-forward mannequin, I can think of no better place for him than Asia. By this I mean China, Japan, or Korea. The parallels to MLS are important, he would come as the conquering hero of global soccer he already has legions of fans in those countries, and the risk to his brand by setting up there is negligible. Didier Drogba’s move to China this summer only increased the likelihood that Asian teams would try to land known superstars in the future.

Forget Gangnam style. They’ll be bending it like Beckham after the January transfer window.

 

How Soccer Explains Canada

I’m currently living in what is becoming known as the city where sports go to die. Toronto has some of the least successful franchises in North America. Leafs: no playoffs since 2004, Raptors: no playoffs since 2008, Blue Jays: no playoffs since 1993, Argos: only 2 times since 2008, and then Toronto FC: never, not once, never.

This is a little painful for me. I want to cheer for TFC, I have cheered for TFC. I can’t cheer for any other sports team in this city because I grew up elsewhere in Canada, where we’re all taught to hate Toronto teams on principle. But TFC is an exception to that rule because I moved to Toronto before they were founded, so I was never trained to cheer against them. Unfortunately, they are losing me fast. Partly because of how bad they are, but also due to the arrival of another Canadian Major League Soccer (MLS) team I have been trained to cheer for: the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Soccer has a fragile hold on the country at most times, we are a nation of hockey fans. But the future of Canadian soccer is clearly headed to the West Coast. My prediction is that Vancouver will win the MLS Cup before Toronto, if Toronto ever manages to (which doesn’t seem likely at this rate). I base this on a number of factors that will tilt the balance of soccer inevitably in Vancouver’s favour. For this discussion I’m going to cut Montreal right out because while they are clearly better than Toronto for now, that isn’t saying much, don’t worry Montreal Impact you’ll get your turn.

The first factor I’ll look at is history. The Vancouver Whitecaps are not as new as one would think. They are in their current incarnation a second year MLS team, but the history and following of the Whitecaps goes back to the ’70s in the old NASL. There they were a successful team and even beyond the collapse of NASL they continued playing in whatever top flight league they could enter. This team may just be sprouting in MLS, but it has very deep local roots – something that the 6 year old TFC team cannot claim, yet. Sure there are the immigrant communities that follow soccer out here, but many of them are still attached to the old country teams, not a new team in a new land.

Another factor working for Vancouver is the importance of soccer in the local sporting system. Vancouver barely gets snow worth mentioning, and much of Southwest BC plays soccer through the winter. That is not possible in snowbound Toronto. Here, soccer is the sport that parents fill the empty spots in the hockey calendar with; in Vancouver, the soccer players may take the summer off to play baseball, but soccer dominates. It is a the key sport in a rapidly growing region of Canada. Due to the territoriality of MLS, this makes the Whitecaps Academy a much stronger contender than TFC Academy over the long run.

They win on fan support, future prospects and now the final factor: ability to sign players. Toronto is a fair city, and I’d say a fair bit better than many American cities, but its competing against Vancouver to sign talent. Following the transfers and signings in MLS this season shows a trend, and it isn’t a good one for Toronto. Vancouver is able to attract global players in a way that Toronto is not. Yes, Toronto has Frings (but how much longer can that last), and Koevermans, but who did we get mid season? Eric Hassli, a Vancouver surplus (apologies to Hassli, I actually really like his play and wish that he had some help out here but we truly are hopeless). Vancouver managed to keep drawing in and signing players and efficiently use their Designated Player spots.

Perhaps this points to another Vancouver advantage: passion to win. Toronto is now so accustomed to losing, we’re thrilled with mediocrity. I don’t think minority owner and NBA all-star Steve Nash is ever going to walk into a Whitecaps meeting and say, “Congratulations on making our business targets for the year. Too bad we didn’t make the playoffs.” Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment has so alienated many of the sports locals here that we’re now convinced that it is just bottom line that matters. Yet we stupidly fill the seats anyway.

I think we’re dreaming for the Seattle Sounders option of voting on the GM’s job. In the meantime, Vancouver can dream of that MLS Cup. It certainly looks a lot closer from out there.

Vend it Like Beckham

If there is one player who has blurred the line between being a player and being a commodity, it is David Beckham. He is a poster for soccer, but also a billboard for advertisers to hang their products off of. He was a good player (we’ll talk in past tense as his languishing in MLS is really a form of easing into retirement), but never that amazing superstar that was clearly the best player of his time. Yet he turned his ability to take a wicked free kick into a marketer’s dream. I mean he had a movie named after him where he only had a cameo.

Even more amazingly, he has maintained that marketing allure long after his most productive on-field days are behind him. His move to North America served as a marketing tool both to attract MLS fans (how many LA Galaxy jerseys had you seen before he signed?), but also worked to market the league to aging European stars as a place to play out their golden years without the hassle of being  recognized everywhere they went.

Beyond the soccer though, he has always been a mannequin to put new hairstyles, clothes, and men’s care products on. He is synonymous with metrosexuality, and that will be his career once he finally hangs up his cleats. Now he literally is a mannequin – or at least represented in a larger than life statue that has adorned H&M stores around North America (and dare I say worldwide?). We first met silver Becks while on vacation in New York in August, I read that he would be promoting his new line of clothing with these statues at H&M’s midtown Manhattan stores, so since we were in town…

I love the pose, the picture of him in the background smoldering, and the idea that this is all to sell some undies. So I though of course New York would get these statues, but not little old Canada. Oh how wrong I was…

Silver Beck’s Canadian Tour

So now the global brand is hawking his (under)wears in Canada, or at least the larger than life silver version of him is.

P.S. – I will give him credit for some comfortable underwear.