There's an old saying... "Laws are like sausage, it's better to not see it being made."
I don't know if that's entirely true (some of us are nerdy enough to think both are interesting) but just like making sausage, there's a lot going into democracy. For those of you interested enough, here's a post about an issue here in Seattle.
At the March, 2013 meeting of the Seattle Sounders FC Alliance Council, a resolution was introduced that called for all of the tickets in the away allocation for the Sounders games in Vancouver and Portland in 2013 to be split solely among the various Supporter Groups (SGs) of the Club.
Much discussion ensued. The resolution was tabled.
In April, the Council took up the resolution again. We wound up splitting it to deal with Portland and Vancouver separately.
We passed the Portland version, which deletes the 74 tickets designated for fans not affiliated with an SG (non-SG fans for simplicity throughout this post) and sets a default percentage split for the SGs (should they not be be able to come to agreement amongst themselves on how to split the tickets.)
The Vancouver version took up most of the rest of the meeting and in the end, was tabled again, to come up at the May meeting of the Council.
How did we get here? A bit of history for you...
In late 2010 and into 2011, Portland and Vancouver were coming into MLS. The "standard" ticket allocation for away fans at an MLS game is 150 tickets, and the SGs fought very hard to increase those numbers. The issue dominated much of the 2010 Annual Business Meeting of the Club and the demand for tickets was intense.
(It's worth noting that the SGs- led primarily by the ECS- have taken well over 150 to several away games outside of Cascadia, including a number of times in 2009 and 2010. Heck, as I write this, the ECS is going to have over 150 at the May 4 game in Philadelphia, over 2,000 miles away as the crow flies.)
The SGs eventually won a bigger allocation of tickets, though nowhere near the 10% that the English Premier League sets aside for traveling fans and short of the 5% that FIFA regulations suggest as a minimum number. With around 500 tickets set aside, and much greater demand, the SGs were unable to agree amongst themselves as to the percentage split of the allotment.
The Sounders FO and the SGs worked together but were unable to come to an agreement on the percentages for the split of the allotment, so the FO gave the issue to the Alliance Council to resolve. The Council then passed a resolution to divide the away supporter tickets amongst the (then) three supporter groups.
Notably, in Vancouver and Portland the tickets were also designated for supporters, and Vancouver had a firestorm of criticism when they came up with a plan to have a local travel agency handle the distribution of the tickets- and that firm promptly added significant surcharges and profit to the pricing structure. They were forced to go with what Seattle and Portland were doing, and sell the tickets at cost to the SGs and let them handle their own distribution.
In 2012, the allotment increased by another few hundred tickets. The SGs were able to agree amongst themselves on how to split them, but at a Council meeting, a proposal rose to set aside 74 tickets for non-SG fans. 74, of course, is symbolic of the year the Sounders started playing.
These 74 tickets were supposed to be handled by the Club FO, including procedures for how to pick who would get them (a lottery) and ticket distribution. This leads to a discussion of how to manage this away travel...
Behind the scenes
At any away match, there is actually a significant amount of planning and work that happens behind the scenes. Supporter groups get some benefits from being organized entities, and they also have some increased restrictions and responsibilities.
Benefits of being an organized/recognized SG on away travel include the ability to stand, sing, and chant throughout the game without hassle from the stadium security/ushers. Often they are allowed to bring in items that the general public are not, like a drum or instruments for use by the SG.
Many clubs have tight restrictions on tifo, like flags or two-pole signs, banners and overhead choreo. SGs are usually allowed to bring those items in for use in their section.
These benefits also come with restrictions. Organized supporter groups are not allowed to buy tickets and sit/stand elsewhere in a stadium; they're limited to their own section. (In fact, in the Cascadia matches, SG members found in other parts of the stadium are subject to ejection at the discretion of the stadium ops folks.)
In Cascadia, the three clubs worked along with MLS and came up with a set of restrictions and rules. The SGs are required to arrive at the stadium and enter it immediately, and they must do this 120 minutes ahead of game time.
They must enter as a group; originally they were all required to arrive in one group of buses, in fact, without any walkups by SG members (though the clubs have relaxed some on this requirement). They're not allowed to move around the stadium. They have to have identified leadership individuals who are responsible for coordination with the away club's front office and/or MLS officials.
One of the biggest issues is that the entire SG is going to be held accountable for actions by any of its members. If an SG doesn't take effective action to make an individual answer for bad behavior, the entire SG might wind up losing privileges or being punished.
Conversely, one of the things about Portland and Vancouver entering MLS was that if/when things went well, the SGs would receive additional tickets (such as the increase from 2011 to 2012) and increased tolerance of the tifo, drums, etc.
One basic security measure that is often applied both in MLS and internationally is that away fans are held in their seating section for an extra 15-30 minutes after a game. This allows the home crowd to exit with much less mingling between the groups- and that's mingling in crowded tunnels or concourses where it's more difficult to monitor the situation and take control if things get out of hand.
Here's a listing of other things that an SG will typically handle in planning for an away match:
- designate point of contact/planning lead (for coordinating with the other Seattle fans/SGs, stadium security/operations, etc)
- ticket distribution method that prevents scalping (ie, in-person distribution at the stadium on their way in)
- crowd/security control (ie, arrive 90-120 minutes prior to the game, enter as a group, remain in seats afterwards, exit 20-30 minutes after game)
- take part in pre-match planning (telcon or coordinate with SG reps who participate)
- Point of contact works with SG security guys to deal with any issues between groups
- Point of contact works with stadium security to deal with issues with any SG members
There's usually at least one and sometimes multiple teleconferences between the away club's front office, stadium ops/security, and visiting SG members. Of course, SGs also handle all the ticketing issues, and for Cascadia they also have the transportation side of things to arrange- bus arrival routes, parking, and coordinating bus pickup times and such.
With the addition of the 74 tickets in 2012, unfortunately there were a number of issues and problems in the non-SG group of people. These included (but weren't limited to):
- ticket scalping
- problems with very drunk people arriving at the stadium and the Vancouver Police getting involved
- problems with who was supposed to sit/stand where
- people complaining about the tifo in the section blocking their views
- people who refused to stay in the designated Sounders away fans concessions area
- shoving, cursing, and complaining about various issues with other Sounders fans
- people wanting to leave immediately after the game and being angry about being held in the section
- some folks left early anyway, and then there were incidents on the way out with them and Vancouver fans; same thing in Portland
Some of these things can be handled with better communication but many are items that require someone to be at the game in person and have authority to handle the situation.
In 2013, the Council again took up the issue of how to allocate the tickets at the away Cascadia matches. The Club told the Council that the numbers are 1500 in Vancouver and 750 (again) in Portland.
At the March meeting, a resolution was proposed to go back to the 2011 plan and have all the tickets allocated to the Supporter Groups. The resolution's author indicated that it was not as much about the desire for the tickets themselves as it was to avoid the sorts of problems we saw in 2012.
This resolution was discussed for some time, and ultimately tabled until the April meeting. The Council sought out input on a few questions from the Sounders FO, and the FO responded to the issues.
In April we took it up again. The FO indicated that they are unable to dedicate resources and personnel to handle the types of trip planning organization that the SGs handle for themselves, but would be willing and able to offer the same type and amount of support as they had in 2012.
This would include running the ticket lottery and distributing the tickets, and handling all the billing issues associated with that.
The Council's discussion revolved around many of these issues. The SGs were unhappy with the 2012 results, as they were frequently called in to deal with non-SG people who were causing problems. Additionally, the SGs (primarily ECS) feel that they get unjustly blamed for these situations.
Ticket sales were not a huge part of this. Most of the SGs wound up selling at least some of their allotment to non-SG people at some point, although those tickets went with the SG set of rules and expectations. The SGs all operated under a principle of selling to their own members first (naturally enough), then if they couldn't sell their entire allotment they offered their spare tickets to the other SGs, and finally to the general public.
The non-SG people indicated their belief is that the trip organization and planning should be handled by the Sounders FO. The SGs want accountability to extend to the non-SG people and want someone in charge of the non-SG attendees.
After working at it for some time, the Council wound up splitting the two cities. For Portland, with a smaller number of tickets available, the SGs believed they would easily sell their entire allotment. A resolution passed that deletes the 74 tickets to the non-SG people and allots all of the tickets to the SGs.
For Vancouver, the Council voted to set aside one section (roughly 200-300 tickets) and target the non-SG people to get these. However, the Council wants someone responsible (ideally a non-SG member of the Council) to step up and handle the work of organizing and running the trip, utilizing the same sorts of rules, expectations, communication and planning that the SGs are required to use.
In the May meeting, we will again take this issue up and hopefully move it to some type of resolution.
Conclusion and personal comment/observation
I'll move to a less objective and more subjective mode now. As many of you know, I am an ECS member and have done travel planning in the past. I helped organize trips to Portland as well as across the MLS, assisting the folks who've volunteered to be ECS's Head Travel Planner.
Travel planning is not an easy task, and it's one that involves a lot of worry and concern because you want everyone that attends a game to have an excellent experience- whether they're a member of your supporter group or not.
For the people who aren't in an SG, this means someone needs to do the work involved. Most of us are far more used to a business model where the Club handles most details (security, organization, etc) instead of it being fan-driven.
This is not a knock on the non-SG folks. For decades, the American sports experience has been almost all run by a business. Of course, it's a for-profit type of setup, but in soccer things are somewhat different. View, for example, the outcry over the Vancouver ticket allotment going to a travel agency for sales.
One thing that has become apparent to me is that there is a considerable lack of knowledge, understanding, or appreciation for how much work the SGs do behind the scenes when it comes to travel planning.
As things sit now, if someone doesn't step up and take the reins to organize the Vancouver trip for non-SG people, that too will revert to being entirely with the supporter groups. Perhaps it is for the best; all four of Seattle's SGs have shown a terrific ability to organize and run these trips, with mutual respect and cooperation.
I'm headed to Europe in a week or so and planning to catch a couple of games there. I have reached out to talk with leaders of some big supporter groups (23,000 members!) to see how it's handled in the Eredivisie and Bundesliga, and hopefully I can gain some insight as to why they do what they do.
The main things I think it's important for people to know (tl;dr) are:
- The decision to pull back tickets from non-SG people was not taken lightly; discussion ranged over two meetings and was very involved.
- The main reason behind it was the lack of leadership and organization for the non-SG folks, which led to a host of problems in that cohort of attendees. Contrary to what some will no doubt assert, it was NOT a desire to "hog all the tickets".
- Supporter groups put in a ton of time and work to organize their trips and take on a significant amount of responsibility for ensuring safety for both the traveling fans and the folks at the away stadium.
- The Sounders do not presently have anyone who provides these types of services for the non-SG fans, and unless/until someone steps up to provide that work, the non-SG fans will likely continue to miss out on going to the away Cascadia games.