This a large look, at a complex issue. It reviews how an issue has gone from simmer to nearly boiling, but ideally will include new data, new opinions, and a way that we in this region of over 10 Million people can continue to move forward in our love of sport.
About a month ago an article was published which claimed that Away fans would be forbidden from attending matches amongst the Cascadian teams in MLS beyond the MLS-mandated 150 tickets. It clearly laid the blame upon the Seattle Sounders FC front office and heavily leveraged statements that Joe Roth and Gary Wright made to myself and other members of the Alliance Council at our last two live face-to-face meetings to create a bit of controversy.
While that original story referenced the abbreviated recap provided by Matt Gaschk on the team's website, Matt's story was about events weeks before the second of two meetings with the Alliance Council and representatives of the Front Office. His statements were condensed, and only a partial view of a discussion that has taken place over multiple meetings and hours of talk.
For four weeks things have simmered. I have received emails, facebook messages, tweets and phone calls from around both countries concerning this issue, an issue that largely exists because of one site's story. It continues to simmer, and has even led to the Southsiders of Vancouver to issue a Press Release regarding their opinion on the upcoming Cascadia Derbies.
Vancouver Southsiders want the doors left wide open for soccer fans travelling from Seattle and Portland
VANCOUVER - Next year, Major League Soccer will be home to the legendary Cascadia rivalry between professional soccer teams in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. The league will also have to address an issue it has never had to contend with before - hundreds (possibly thousands!) of "away days" supporters travelling up and down the I-5 to watch their teams play on the road.
It's a scenario that seems to have MLS executives mystified. Media reports out of Seattle suggest that Sounders FC owner Joe Roth has been spooked by public safety concerns, and may limit ticket allocations for visiting supporters to just 150 seats per match. League commissioner Don Garber also met with the Timbers Army supporters club in Portland this week, where he admitted that he doesn't really understand supporters culture and the "away days" phenomenon that is so important to soccer fans around the globe.
IN OUR VIEW:
The three-way Cascadia rivalry is an absolutely crucial part of the past, present and future successes of professional football in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.
The away days experience is vital to building camaraderie and solidarity within supporters groups, and expanding their membership numbers.
Supporters groups are the lifeblood of successful soccer teams, as they increase club exposure, generate an exciting matchday atmosphere and lend credibility to a sport which must compete with the Big Four sports entities (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL) for fans, dollars and media recognition.
Bearing these points in mind, we feel there are steps that could be taken by Major League Soccer which would benefit the teams, their supporters and the league as a whole:
- All home / away derby matches between Cascadia rivals should be booked for Saturdays, Sundays or long weekends. This will make it much easier for greater numbers of visiting supporters to attend these matches. Midweek fixtures make travel expensive and impractical.
- The three Cascadia clubs should not restrict the number of away tickets available to rival supporters. We believe that the presence of visiting fans on a rival's home turf makes for an exciting atmosphere that strengthens the resolve of all supporters and encourages them to sing and cheer even louder. By welcoming the Cascadia rivalry right onto our doorstep, new Whitecaps supporters can see firsthand that they are a part of something that is truly unique to North American sporting culture. This rivalry is a powerful phenomenon that has the potential to convert casual fans into passionate, lifelong supporters. Major League Soccer should not be shying away from this amazing opportunity.
- Major League Soccer should work with supporters to pre-empt any security concerns well in advance of the 2011 season. This is something which Vancouver Whitecaps FC has done extremely well over the past three years, resulting in a practically flawless safety record, even for matches with a significant presence of visiting supporters.
We believe there are three key principles which should serve as basic guidelines for Major League Soccer clubs who face the prospect of hosting large numbers of away supporters:
- Away supporters should always be seated together in one area of the host stadium. This allows police / security personnel to supervise spectator conduct, and to swiftly identify and respond to any safety issues which may arise. The away supporters seating area should be located at a reasonable distance from the home side's most active supporters groups.
- If possible, away supporters should be instructed to enter and exit the host stadium through one or two predetermined designated gates. These gates should not be anywhere near pre / post match marches, rallies or places of congregation which are known to be frequented by the home club's supporters. If away supporters seek entry at an incorrect gate, stadium staff should immediately redirect them to the appropriate entrance.
- If absolutely necessary, visiting away supporters can be escorted in / out of the stadium by police / security personnel at predetermined times. Doing so will minimize the potential for verbal / physical altercations between rival fans. For example, away supporters can be escorted directly to their seating area 15 - 30 minutes prior to kickoff, and detained for 15 - 30 minutes after the final whistle before being escorted out (this will allow time for home supporters to disperse from the stadium, and once again reducing the potential for interactions between rival fans
Vancouver, Seattle and Portland bring something to Major League Soccer that it has never had before – a legitimate and historical rivalry spanning three generations.This adds credibility to a league which is trying to establish itself in an increasingly crowded professional sports market.
We are of the belief that the pros of hosting away supporters by far outweigh the cons, as their presence on our home turf will only fuel the passion of the Whitecaps fan base. It would be a shame to allow a few misconceptions and fear of the unknown to get in the way of a truly electric match day atmosphere.
A sport only has relevance if there are fans rallying behind it. It's time for Major League Soccer to support its supporters.
It should be noted that the suggestions given above are the standard practices throughout MLS at this time. While there have been some issues with them in the past, as of the last Supporters Summit these ideas were the ones moving forward.
MLS clearly sees the supporters culture as a key element in what the sport is. Just watch the advertising of the league and its sponsors.
Some of the ideas from the Southsiders are excellent, but in all I figured it would be better to talk to the source, because there are some disagreements between my thoughts and theirs. Ben Massey over at 86 Forever put me in touch with the current Southsiders President John Knox and we had a fairly substantial exchange of ideas.
First off, I asked him about what other "media reports" are out there.
With regards to Seattle "media," no, I am not aware of any sources other than PA. I used this term in the release for the sake of brevity, given that my local media audience wouldn’t have a clue who Steve Clare or PA is, or how the blog fits into the regional football scene. It’s hard enough educating them about the difference between MLS and all the D2 entities.
In the few interviews I’ve done since the release I’ve made a point of saying that I haven’t heard Joe Roth speak on these issues directly, and can’t vouch for the accuracy of the PA remarks. That said, the reports by PA are not my sole source of concern, nor the sole reason for issuing the statement we did.
I watched the recent Garber Q&A videos from Portland, and to say I am concerned about his grasp on the marketing potential of this rivalry (and its importance to the supporters) would be an understatement. He seems believe that a stadium full of unified support will draw better ratings than a derby match with opposing fans giving each other holy hell for 90 straight minutes. Does he really believe that ESPN viewers flip the channel upon realizing that the stadium has opposition supporters in it? That’s ridiculous. It’s stuff like this that really exposes the disconnect between the people who administer football, and the people who live for it as we do.
This is an important distinction. Knox recognizes that there may be issues with the initial reports (like away fans not actually being forbidden from attending matches), but still sees that there may be broader issues throughout MLS. Sometimes MLS ignores both local and international sports analogs in their quest to break into the "Big" sports in America and Canada.
Whether that is the strong traveling support of Europe (with its relatively easy travel schedules), or when MLS ignores that in college sports we already see large sections of traveling support. They are called students and they sit together when they travel. In fact teams that historically travel strongly get LARGER allocations than those that do not. One need only look at the Nebraska-at-Washington game earlier this year when 7,000 seats were set aside for Big Red. For me, this is a key fact to note.
The Southsiders were quite bold in calling for no cap on a large away supporters section, and so I had to ask, is there actually going to be enough room at Empire Fields? BC Place will certainly be able to expand, but could Empire Fields even fit several thousand people from Seattle, considering that the Whitecaps expect sellouts?
Empire Field (the temp stadium) – it seats 27,000 for gridiron football, but the Caps FO have routinely insisted that they are keeping the numbers down to around 20,000 to 22,000 in order to maintain consistency with the lower bowl soccer configuration at BC Place. That said, I think this has a lot more to do with creating a local demand for tickets than they are letting on.
As for how Seattle and Portland fits into that picture... well, that’s a different situation entirely. You aren’t Vancouver fans, so they don’t need to convince you that the Caps are a hot ticket item. I think they’ll expand Empire’s capacity for those first few derby matches because you’re a gravy train of cash that only rolls through town once or twice each year.
This is a comment that I have made to the Sounders as well. One of the reasons you want to invite away supporters to the stadium is that you can make tens of thousands of dollars off of them. They will need to pay for their seats, buy food, buy drinks. They may even buy scarves and jerseys so they can set fire to them later.
But while it is apparent that both Seattle and Vancouver can allow for large groups of away fans to sit together what about our Southern neighbor? Could they fit more than 150 there? At this point they have expressed no interest in curtailing local sales to support a few match days of away support from Seattle and/or Vancouver. They have denied the ability to the Sounders FO, while the numbers clearly don't support the ability to be fair in how they want their fans treated compared to how they will treat the ones from the other two cities. What does Knox think of that?
As for your question re: fairness, it’s a tough one to answer. We have to take into account that everyone has a different-sized venue, and a different number of season ticket holders eating up the available seating capacity. I think that all three venues are going to be capable of absorbing at least 500 visiting supporters. If that’s the "even steven" benchmark, maybe that’s where we all start.
Of course, Seattle and Vancouver may be able to offer substantially more than that. Regardless of what is "fair" for all involved, I have asked Vancouver’s FO to let as many visiting supporters into our ground as possible, absolutely regardless of how many seats are open to us in Seattle or Portland. We want no part of tit-for-tat negotiations between the clubs. Your FOs either get it like ours does, or they don’t.
I have seen no indication that Portland will be able to have even that 500-seat mark. But again John Knox makes sense here. Two of three teams can easily fit more fans, and they should. It will help the two that can fit more make more money, it will lead to better TV, whether the analog is collegiate sports, or European football. The impact in local media of packed trains and buses heading along the Cascadia corridor will capture the imaginations of people around the world, not just locally.
There is that minor issue of security, though. While security concerns in MLS are not new, they do arise when large groups travel. Security has been so mishandled between Toronto FC and Columbus Crew that the Reds fans no longer make their massive trip to Crew Stadium.
But even those incidents were quite minor. While they were handled improperly, it was no worse than anything that happens at Philly Eagles or Oakland Raiders game. They were also easier to handle because the groups that traveled were seated together rather than scattered around the stadium.
On this subject Knox basically wrote a separate essay.
We only need to look at Europe to know that seating away fans together makes excellent sense from a security standpoint. The potential for trouble is always rooted in situations where fans have crossed the line in their interactions with each other. If you limit their ability to interact with each other to singing from opposite ends of the stadium, you’ve neutralized 95% of all things which could potentially go wrong.
As you know we’re mad for hockey up here, and the Vancouver Canucks are the most popular sports entity in town. Vancouver also has noticeable numbers of Toronto Maple Leafs fans. When the two teams play each other here, the perennially loud and obnoxious Leafs fans are scattered all throughout the arena, much to the nuisance and annoyance of everyone else. Home fans don’t want away fans seated near them, especially if the home side is losing. This inevitably leads to taunting and other nasty verbal exchanges, and in some cases, physical altercations which could have been prevented.
If sufficient efforts aren’t made to accommodate the large numbers of Cascadia supporters who want to travel, they will inevitably turn to ticket scalpers, resulting in scattered pockets of potential trouble all throughout the host stadium. This is trouble that none of the three main supporters groups want.
That final paragraph is quite true. No one in MLS wants a massive in stadium incident. The League will be on TV more in 2011 than it ever has before, a large part of that will be due to the expansion of the TV deal in Canada, but also because of the likely reworked deals in the United States.
The imagery of opposing fans within a stadium can be a powerful message. If you look at Rivalry Week for college football, these are some of the most watched games of any season. Most of the people who watch Michigan v Ohio State aren't doing it because they went to either school, they are doing it because it is a spectacle. The same holds true for Army/Navy, Harvard/Yale, Florida/Georgia, Texas/Oklahoma.
These are EVENTS.
The Cascadia Derbies can be the soccer analog of those events.
Contacts with the Timbers Army have told me on multiple occasions that they will not go on record in conversations with me, as they try to avoid a media presence. ECS leadership and I have discussed these issues many times, and much of their position exists within my own.
My statements to Joe Roth have been that we need not concern ourselves with fairness from one or both of our neighbors, we should lead. We can show that MLS stadiums are too small for what is needed for the sport to continue to grow. I have a feeling that ECS and GFC leaders agree. We want them here, be they Timbers Army or Southsiders. Come to my stadium, spend your money, and watch your team lose.
That in essence is what the Southsiders want as well.
We love the derby atmosphere, and we also know that the interaction between supporters groups will help us energize the Vancouver sports scene in ways that nobody would have ever dreamed of. Believe it or not, it’s fans from Seattle and Portland who are going to help us convert Vancouver spectators into Southsiders supporters.
2011 will be a year of change for MLS, and while the new rules, the schedule, the new TV deals are all part of it, a large part of it will be three teams challenging for the Cascadia Cup in ways that should remind America of Tobacco Road basketball or SEC Football. The fans will be traveling, the only question is how organized will it be.