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.

It’s a Woman’s World

Carlotta Schlein - Swedish Captain

Carlotta Schelin – Swedish Captain

A quick post so I can dash off home to watch the Women’s Euro semi-final between Germany and host country Sweden. I won’t be alone, this is a highly anticipated match in Sweden – having sold out and expecting a large TV audience in the soccer mad Scandinavian nation. The total attendance for the Women’s Euro has already broken the record set four years ago in Finland, and there are still four more games to go. The tournament has met with such success that it has forced a men’s game between Swedish powerhouse IFK  Gothenburg and Helsingborg to shift so it will not conflict with the final. Should Sweden get to the final they are expecting that the TV audience will surpass the 3.8 million that watched the 2003 World Cup final between Sweden and Germany, that’s over half the population of the country – so it’s not just the women watching. I’m glad the women’s game can attract such a high level of attention, as it bodes well for the game not just in Sweden, but in other countries that have latched onto women’s soccer.

Once you’re reaching those sorts of numbers for a country, you’re looking at Superbowl-like numbers, where the game becomes one of those shared cultural experiences. I’m thinking about the importance of the ’72 and ’87 Can-USSR hockey series, or even the recent Olympic gold medal hockey games and how they become important moments for the nation. While these are usually more important as wins, Canadian soccer has its own pivotal moment during the Olympics last year when the women lost to the USA in the semi-final, and won the bronze vs France.

All of which sets the bar very high for Canada in two years when we host the Women’s World Cup. Will we be able to generate the interest in our own country to support the games? The growing interest in the sport in general and the women’s team in particular bodes well. However, the lack of women’s professional soccer within the country makes it difficult for fans to follow on a regular basis. While the CSA is supporting roster spots in the NWSL, there is no franchise located in Canada. It takes time for fans to identify with a team and it’s stars, so Canada is going to need a good performance in some friendlies ahead of the tournament to really highlight who their players are.

But despite the growing popularity, the women’s game still faces a number of hurdles – in a recent post on BBC Sport about the English team’s elimination from the Women’s Euro, almost half of the comments were deleted because they didn’t meet the moderator’s rules or various other offences that get your comment banned from a forum. While yes these are mostly trolls, the degree of banned comments shows a high level of hostility to the women’s game. It was worse than most North American forums where the argument goes that soccer isn’t a sport. Then again, the class connotations of the game in England are far different than in North America. English football is a working man’s game both in play and spectatorship – few Englishmen I met found David Cameron’s interest in Luis Suarez at all convincing. In North America, the “soft” reputation of the sport and its elitist middle and upper class associations has given the women’s game a level of acceptability, and to some degree popularity that is unusual in women’s sport. So oddly, the very class association that has held back the acceptability of the men’s game in North America has given the women’s game a firm base from which to grow.

AFC Liverpool 1 – 0 Squires Gate

AFC Liverpool CrestThis won’t be your typical match report.

So my first English match was quite an introduction to the game. A short trip out of Liverpool to the town of Prescot to visit Valerie Park, the current home of AFC Liverpool. It isn’t every club where you can get a good chat with the chair of the club just by walking in, but welcome to the 9th tier of English football.

The team is set to finish 11th in the NWCPL – their best ever showing (in five years of play). And the club and its fans have a positive outlook for the future of their club. This is a team that was formed because they felt they were being priced out of Anfield. Rather than retreat to a pub to watch the big games (of course there is still some of that: Barca – Bayern was on at the same time) or to shift to a lower league team, the group got together to form their own club to bring football back to the fans that really wanted to watch the game live. This is what I’m looking for, AFC Liverpool created their own space so that they could be fans on their own terms, this is a supporter owned club for whom space is important.

Not everything is as AFC Liverpool would like it, they don’t have their own grounds at the moment, they currently are in a ground share with Prescot Cables FC from the Evo Stick Northern League (the division above AFC Liverpool), and while the grounds meet their current needs, it isn’t where the heart of the team is. This is a team that dreams of playing within the City of Liverpool rather than the outskirts. The goal of AFC Liverpool have their own ground in the next couple of years. Currently, only two places meet the field requirements of AFC Liverpool: Anfield and Goodison Park. For a football mad city like Liverpool I was rather shocked to find those were the only suitable grounds. Even the youth and ladies teams for Everton and Liverpool FC don’t play at the main stadia, as they are just too big for the requirements of all but the First Squads of the two clubs. Creating a third ground in the city would benefit AFC Liverpool immensely, but would also seem to fill a rather glaring gap in the availability of good football spaces in the city.

The move to the city would have another huge benefit to AFC Liverpool, they are after all called Liverpool, and despite the ease of getting to Prescot (my commute to work in Toronto used to be longer) Prescot is not Liverpool. A move into the city could bring out more fans that just wanted the experience of watching a game. They don’t see themselves as a competitor or replacement for Liverpool FC, just as another form of the football experience. Being in the city is important because they are Liverpool.

As for the actual game itself, there were some interesting dynamics among the fans. It being a small club, most of the fans seem to be regulars who know each other. There is a clubhouse for a pint before the game, with a merchandise table set up inside, and a small concession that sells football food (steak pie, peas, gravy, chip butty, etc.) The attendance of 82 (Valerie Park capacity: 3000) for the game was likely reduced because it was the second of three home games in five nights right at the end of the season, there was little chance that the club would move in the table, and the Champions League semi was on at the same time. Of the 82 I’d say about 10 were Squires Gate fans, and the rest were AFC Liverpool. AFC has taken on many of the symbols of Liverpool, including the all the symbolism around the 96 Liverpool fans killed at Hillsborough in 1989. There were about eight banners up displaying support for AFC Liverpool (none for Squires Gate), but one of the biggest disadvantages of a ground share is that they have little control over what the host club has up for advertising and they can’t promote their own team through signage. But it wasn’t the visuals that allowed the AFC fans to dominate the stands, it was the noise.

In their short history, one of the new traditions of the club has been to bring noisemakers to the matches. You know the birthday party goodie bag toy with a plastic noisemaker that you spin around and it makes an awful racket – likely thrown into the goodie bags of kids who don’t bring a big enough present. AFC Liverpool’s fans have the bazooka version of these made of wood. It is a deafening sound that rattles around the grandstand and its metal roof and is used when a good shot is made, a good defensive play or at times when the team’s energy seems to wane. What started out as one or two guys has now spread into a larger following among the more dedicated fans. It was such an awful racket that it drove the Squires Gate fans from the grandstand at halftime. This is exactly what I wanted to write about, the domination of the space through noise. When you get to Valerie Park on AFC Liverpool’s day bring earplugs, or go stand somewhere else. Of course this is very similar to the vuvuzelas of the last World Cup, and the noisemakers are apparently banned from top level clubs. My guess is that the noisemakers don’t threaten the game itself, but threaten the organization and control of the crowd at the stadium, and by sanitizing the experience, it is easier to control the crowd. In the longer term it makes me wonder about the culture of AFC Liverpool versus Liverpool FC, as AFCL create their own traditions and culture, they will become more distinct from Liverpool’s culture – the evolution of a new fan supporter culture (which you could argue already existed simply by their willingness to follow this club rather than just LFC).

All in all a fun game, and a friendly introduction to the English game, and an even better fit for my thesis than I thought.

Field Work Awaits

This is my last post on this side of the Atlantic for the next month. Tomorrow I leave for Liverpool and a month of field research on the football fans of that city. My plan is to watch a several games there over the next few weeks and to meet and interview some of the fans of the teams (primarily Liverpool and Everton).

I did a test run of my research methods at the Toronto FC – Montreal Impact game on Wed., so I have some idea of what it is I’m getting into, but I don’t think a sparse crowd of 11,000 at BMO will in anyway compare to the crowd at Anfield or Goodison Park. The biggest limitation is that I can only be in one place at a time, so I will undoubtedly miss some of the action that I’m interested in, but at the same time, in being at a game and watching the crowd (and the game too) gave me some confidence that this is actually doable.

Interesting observations of the TFC Impact game:

  • When the weather sucks it can be more of a factor than any crowd, and will keep the home supporters away (if you came from Montreal for the game you were going to stick it out no matter what);
  • Standing is waaaaay better than sitting in freezing, windy, and wet conditions;
  • I like that TFC fans swear in both official languages – how Canadian can you get;
  • Taking pictures is really easy since everyone else is doing it;
  • Taking audio clips looks odd, but maybe I’m just holding a weirdly shaped phone;
  • The best chant of the night was the “The Massive” chant that goes on between section 112-13 and 109-111. The call and response part of the chant really gets everyone into it – you feel like you’re part of the group and it takes over the whole corner of the stadium – my best instance of how the TFC fans claimed their territory;
  • Biggest limitation – it was difficult to observe the Impact fans as I was at the opposite end of the same East Stand – gotta be more careful in my seat selection (not that I have much choice in England).

So here I go, first match up is this Wednesday. AFC Liverpool vs. Squires Gate in the North West Counties Premier League (9th tier of English Football). Average crowd is about 100, so this should be a bit of a different experience. Will keep you posted about the footy on the Merseyside.

Pitch Invasions

Stoke City Fans invade following promotion to Premier League in 2008.

Stoke City Fans invade following promotion to Premier League in 2008.

Craziness will rule the soccer/football world for the next month. Between now and late May, the season will draw to a close and all of the promotion/relegation battles of Europe will be sorted out.

Some of these are far less dramatic than others: England, Scotland and Germany have all crowned their champions ridiculously early by any standard (Man U, Celtic, and Bayern Munich respectively). But there remains a large number of other domestic leagues and the entire pyramid of subordinate leagues that are still in the process of determining who goes up and who goes down. Yes this may seem like a foreign concept to the North American sports fan, but if a team has an horrible, terrible, no good, very bad season then they get sent to the league lower down. Rather than rewarding poor performance with a good player, they just kick the team out of the league and replace it with the winner of the next best league.

But I digress, what I really want to write about is the importance all the games take on for the various battles that are part of promotion/relegation. For many teams, promotion was never really the goal – they just got promotion to their current league, weak crop of players, financial limitations, stadium restrictions prevent promotion anyway, etc. They may have more to fear from the other end of the table, which makes that moment they escape relegation feel like they’ve just won a trophy.

In contrast to the solo pitch invasion earlier this season during the Manchester derby, the massive “we (didn’t get relegated/won promotion) pitch invasion” works entirely differently than the aggressive assault on the opposition players that occurs at other times. Now part of it has to do with timing, in that the celebratory invasion takes place at the final whistle, rather interrupting the match itself. A proper pitch invasion should also occur during a home game, it isn’t really possible to flood the field with visiting supporters in most cases. If the visitors did invade the pitch, it would no longer be construed as a celebratory act, it would be the invasion of the home side’s space, and could not be well-received by the home fans. So despite the fact that these mass pitch invasions involve hundreds to thousands of supporters, the incidences of hooliganism (which has resurfaced over the last two weekends in England) are not really there – people are too happy to fight. Well, most of them.  The invasion itself is a transgressive act – the stewards will still try to stop the first few before they beat a hasty retreat, and the act itself is reserved for the most important occasions – trophies or promotion. It is a moment where the fans actually possess the space that they’ve been defending all season, despite never being allowed on it. It is there moment of unity with their team, where both can share the field (even if the players usually flee for the changerooms as the whistle sounds).

Here are Barnet’s fans celebrating. (Language NSFW) What are they celebrating? Not promotion, not a trophy. This pitch invasion is to celebrate that they aren’t being relegated out of the English Football League 2. Note in the video, the drama is enhanced by a last minute penalty save, and that the steward still tries to stop the cameraman from entering the field. Much of the celebration then takes place outside the entrance to the tunnels where the Barnet fans sing to celebrate finishing 20th in a 24 team league. Barnet’s Underhill Stadium capacity is 2302 seated , which isn’t overwhelming, but consider that this stadium was packed to watch a team near the bottom of the 4th division of English football to get an idea of how popular the sport is.

Now to turn it up a bit, Cardiff City FC secured promotion last week, and this isn’t just promotion, but entry into the Premier League. The big show (with a massive TV payout to go with it). This video makes the Barnet invasion look quaint, as Cardiff City Stadium holds 26,000 fans. Watch the players and officials flee, even the stewards make a run for it, and within a minute the crowd has emptied onto the field. Again, the singing and celebration of the moment, without much of the stupid side of soccer that non-followers know all too much about.

So the ground that is taboo for most of the season then becomes for these few moments, the place where fans can celebrate together and celebrate “their” victory for the season, however big or small.

Tifos

I just had this horrible sensation that I am studying the wrong country. I keep reading these posts about how boring English football is and how its lost its atmosphere, and then this comes along:

"On the path of the lost CL Cup"

“On the path of the lost CL Cup” (click to play)

Borussia Dortmund did their Tifo today at their Westfalenstadion as the teams came out for the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal. I remember from their group stage match against Arsenal last year that there is usually a pretty impressive banner that goes with the Tifo, but the reveal wasn’t as nearly as dramatic. I can’t see the MUFC fans pulling this off at Old Trafford as it might interfere with the viewing in the sky boxes (where people are really there to be seen than to watch the game anyway).

One of the best, and creepiest Tifos I’ve seen. Tifos are any large section displays often done by groups holding up coloured placards to make a design and show support for their team. The first one I remember seeing was one from the Opening of the 1984 LA Olympics – all the flags of the countries at the games, and I had no idea that it was such a big thing elsewhere.

There’s some interesting stuff going on in the Bundesliga these days. Better brush up on my deutch for a PhD. Auf wiedersehen!