Tigers vs. Watermelons

So while a whole list of things have happened in the time since I last posted, the one that I choose to start writing about is the other – other – football: the CFL.

Tonight is the 101st Grey Cup, the Canadian Superbowl of mounties, bilingual anthems, and roughly 80 Americans running around trying to win a game for the two smallest-market teams in a small-market league: Hamilton vs Saskatchewan. Now I like the Grey Cup, I’ve got my boys into it by bribing them with chicken wings, potato chips and pop, but it is distinctly Canadian in its spectacle. The week prior to the game involves multiple parties for all of the eight teams in the league, a parade, pancake breakfasts, horses being taken into bars for a drink, and finally a game, but knowing that the hosts would also be playing in the game this year made it that much more special. Regina is a city that loves its team, but also with generations of people from Saskatchewan moving elsewhere in the country (the demographics only recently reversed) it seems that the rest of the country also loves the Roughriders (apparently they sell more merchandise than the rest of the league combined!). Going to a ‘Riders game means that they are the home team just about wherever they play. Fans hollow out watermelons to wear as makeshift helmets and the stadium tonight is a sea of green. So here it is. This is success for a small market team, they have become the biggest thing in the league by being the smallest.

After a scuffle, stewards allowed the banner to be shown

After a scuffle, stewards allowed the banner to be shown

The lesson here is transferable to soccer. One of the stories I have been following over the last few months is the drama of Hull City AFC and the changes being made to the team by their owner Assem Allam. He has taken the small team and with some big investments managed to lift them into the premier league, but the cost to the club is the name and the sense of ownership by the local fans. While he hasn’t messed with the colours  or personnel the way that the owner of Cardiff has, Mr. Allam has decided that the name that the team has had since the beginning of time will not help him in building Hull City’s global brand. Hull City AFC will henceforth be known as Hull Tigers. The change has been explained by Allam as one that is necessary to distinguish the team at a global level: he says that nobody understands the AFC, or Athletic Football Club, so that is gone. Next up, the ‘City’ in the name is nothing special and kind of redundant, so that’s gone too. That leaves lots of space for the mascots, the Tigers. Now changing a name and making it sound like an American franchise team was bound to go over like a lead balloon with some of the fans, and many have protested the changes. I should note that the change from Hull City to Hull Tigers is not official, as it will not be approved by the Premier League prior to April. In the meantime, there will be a fair bit of noise from the fans that don’t approve of the change: at the weekend match against Crystal Palace stewards scuffled with fans who unfurled a “We are Hull City” banner across the front of the seats.

So the motivations are that Allam wants a financially stable team, one that can stand on its own and that can compete on a world stage. Now I haven’t seen the Hull financials, but judging by the fact that they’ve been around for over 100 years I’d say they’d been fairly stable prior to Allam’s involvement. Jumping them up to the Premier League took a significant investment by Allam, and the sort of funds that many a team could only dream about having access to, but then the stability becomes reliant on the largess of their benefactor. And that’s where things so often fall apart, Allam expecting that football is somehow an investment strategy. Yes clubs are raking it in off the fans that pass the turnstyles every week, but don’t get into club ownership because it’s a place to make a quick buck. I had sailing described to me as standing in a cold shower and throwing money down the drain, football is not so different: you still get wet and your money drains away. I don’t think many owners do look at it as investment, they see it as an ego thing (Abramovich at Chelsea being a classic example), rarest of all is the one that does it just for the love of it all, I’m thinking Dave Whelan at Wigan. Whelan was so excited at the FA Cup, he looked like a kid, but then he was a player and seems to value the importance of stability in a team, even if it means a relegation. Allam clearly got involved for ego, and now wants a financially stable ego, but at a level he finds more appropriate to his needs and unfortunately for Hull that means the EPL.

But in trying to sell the Hull Tigers to the world, Allam is forgetting that perhaps it is the first word in that name that hurts the marketing the most: Hull. It takes years, even decades to build a fanbase of the sort that Allam wants and is no instant sell based on cute stuffed animals that will available in the gift shop. Hull just isn’t the global draw that Allam wants it to be, yes they are the 2015 City of Culture (or is that Tiger of Culture?), but it’s not London, Manchester, or Liverpool – cities that mean something around the world. In the globalized world Hull is a distinctly second or even third tier city, without the global punch that those other cities have. He can change as much as he wants but without the major trophies – a League title minimum, or success in Europe. Hull will just be one of those other teams that people are aware of but don’t really back.

Marketing the team this way goes against the whole marketing program of the Premier League this season. What happened to #youarefootball if one of the owners can come along and rip the heart out of the team? Or was that whole #youarefootball just some way to get some of the more uppity fans off the league’s back? Never mind, I think I know that answer. For a league that markets itself on the importance of fans and the supporter culture, Hull City (and Cardiff City) are doing a great job of alienating those fans that they say are so important. Fans also crave authenticity and belonging, and if Allam has just kicked many of the most passionate Hull fans to the curb, how does that create the atmosphere needed to draw in others?

Meanwhile in Canada, a team that has always been about small is actually quite big because they haven’t tried to become the Dallas Cowboys. Oh, and by the way, the team is publicly owned – tell me you weren’t surprised.

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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.

Occupy Football

Needs a shorter hashtag, but you get the idea

Needs a shorter hashtag, but you get the idea

I’m back from England now and the fieldwork has given me a lot to think about and chew on. So much so that trying to figure out what to post has been one of the reasons I haven’t blogged in a month. Now at home and with a little distance, what I keep coming back to is the discontent among the English fans. They are still fans and the actual game itself isn’t the problem, but everywhere I went there was talk of how fans felt that they, the local fans, were being cut out of the game. Something is rotten in the state of English football. And if there is one word on the lips of every English football fan it is: Germany. As in “The Germans own 50% of their clubs!” or “You can go to a game in Germany for 11 quid!” It came up in most of my interviews and nearly every conversation I had with fans over the month, which when coupled with the all-German Champions League final at Wembley was too galling for many of the fans. There is a sense that English football is less concerned with who is in the seats than how much money is in the seats.

Beyond attending games I was able to go to three events during my time in England: two meetings in Liverpool – Football Without Fans is Nothing, and Against Modern Football, and one academic conference in Manchester on Football, Fans and Finance. And again all three featured the theme of fans being left out of the game, administration (bankruptcy) and fan ownership. The first meeting, Football Without Fans is Nothing was actually an organizational meeting to set up a protest against the Premier League over away ticket pricing. I’m wishing I could be there on June 19th to watch the fans descend on the Premier League HQ in London to protest on the same day that the League releases its fixture list for next season. While there was a solid agenda and some certainty of how to progress from that meeting, the following evening at Against Modern Football was less focused and showed to me just how fractured and difficult it may be for the supporters to get their message across. Against Modern Football devolved into whinging and a call for boycotts (which, if you’ve ever tried to get tickets to a Liverpool FC game, wouldn’t even dent the demand for seats to be filled with daytrippers).

But the most fascinating aspect of the debates is the way that all the discussions fit into the current political debates in England while I was there. Days after my arrival, the UK Independence Party scored some major victories in council elections and much of political debate became fixed on the UK’s role in Europe. Both debates are essentially about the effects of globalization on England. The problem in football is that it is arguably one of the most important industries in England and certainly its most important cultural export. And so the current changes that many of the fans feel are that they have lost control over their own game (both foreign ownership and some concern over the number of foreign players) – mirroring debates about immigration from UKIP, an increasingly unstable and unsustainable economic model that many of the teams have fallen into – fitting into the national debate about staying in the EU, and very little control over something they regard as “their club” – again, the debate about staying in Europe. That there is a model (Germany and the Bundesliga) that the fans can aspire to that has not just had success for the fans, but success on the field has inspired a number of the conversations and given the upset fans a goal to focus on.

Why is fan ownership so important to the fans? Football traditions in England run far deeper than any franchise in North America, the instability in the leagues has meant that even the greats of the game (Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool, etc.) have a history of being in the lower tiers and have a long history that emerges from the communities that they were founded in and have always been in. Franchises move, but these clubs are part of the community, literally. These fans don’t just feel like they own the team, they really feel like they own the team. In attending any of the meetings, even the academic conference people identified themselves not just by their name, but by which club they supported. It is part of their identity. So the threat that their team could be put out of their reach, or that some owner could blow up the team through mismanagement hurts. Although even then some fans hope their teams “pull a Portsmouth” so that the team can die and rise again under fan ownership – short term pain for long term gain.

So my biggest lesson of my fieldwork was that I can go out there looking for one thing, but discover that I may find something completely different when I get there. I went looking for how fans create and use space in and around matches, and that is essentially what I found, but how I found it was not what I expected. It is exciting though, as looking at how these fans are reacting to what threatens their game gives my thesis a better focus than I had before I left.

I'm in there on the left at the back

I’m in there on the left at the back

Hockey on the Brain: Why North American Leagues Lockout (because they can)

A slight departure this week.

Normally at this time of the year there would be a hum of sports stories flying in the media. At this point the sports sections of the major Toronto papers could effectively be renamed the Leafs section. Alas no. For the fourth time in 20 years the biggest game in town has been shut down by the owners. In that time, the NHL has lost more games to work stoppages than all the other major sports leagues combined, it is also the only league to completely wipe out a season.

Why is my soccer blog venturing outside the realm of footie? I think there is a connection between how the leagues structures of North American sport operate and the work stoppages. Going back to the beginning way back to about a century ago, two continents decided on very different structures of  league ownership. In England (and similarly in much of the rest of Europe), the power of the overarching league control was given to the national federation, the FA. Owners got a seat at the table, but if there was a better team around they could lose out on their spot. While the FA wasn’t exactly a part of the government, it wasn’t a part of the owner’s little racket either. Perhaps it was a cultural trust for authority derived from the state?

North America turned instead to the power of the corporation. In cash we trust. Owners also formed leagues, but to protect their interest, they each got a seat at the board with the governor and decided that it was to work as a secret club, you needed to pass the test of having enough money for a team and then you could receive your membership for life. North American leagues work effectively as cartels; Major League Baseball was actually exempted from US anti-trust legislation. It puts far more power in the hands of the owners than a similar European league.

Now I’m not blind to some of the obvious differences in the geography of the two places. North American cities were separated by vast distances that made the organization of leagues slightly more difficult than say England. Europe was divided politically so that each country insisted on its own league. But I think it was the power of business in the US during the end of the 19th century that settled things for how sport was to be organized here.

The effect has been that NA leagues have stressed inter-city rivalries (Boston vs NY, Toronto vs Montreal) while England makes almost a bigger deal with its intra-city derbies (Liverpool vs Everton, Sunderland vs. Newcastle). It has also calcified the NA leagues and given owners some rather unique powers: Drafts – being able to designate the team rights to certain players and removing the player’s freedom of labour; Territoriality – how is it that Phoenix can still have a team when its pretty clear from demand in Toronto that a new team here would sell out in a second?; no fear of relegation – as much as I like having TFC in MLS, if they played as bad as they do in Europe they’d be in the 6th tier of soccer already and deserve it; and most importantly, lockouts – can you imagine the owners of any soccer league trying to pull this on their own league, fans and players?

No. It wouldn’t happen, short player strikes have happened before; leagues have threatened to hold off without TV rights settled, but the moment the doors close the vultures of every other league in the world will swoop down and destroy the pool of talent those teams possess. For most NA leagues there are few other options. NFL Europe: not really, baseball in Japan: maybe, other basketball leagues: not much of a comparison (but getting better), KHL or Swedish Elite League: maybe to kill time. Given that sort of power and few options for players is it any wonder why there are so many lockouts in NA sport? Owners here have the players over a barrel.

Yes I feel sorry for the millionaires over the billionaires, not by much, but seriously, how have MLSE ever helped the sports fans of Toronto?