To most fans, the term "tifo" is relatively innocuous. It's a word that has come to mean "a big display," something you'll most likely see at a soccer game, but that we've recently started to see at other sporting events. In Seattle, especially, it has almost always come to be understood as something Emerald City Supporters do (although other supporter groups have also dabbled in such displays).
To be sure, the adherence to this definition varies and there's no universal truth.
But among supporters, the term has a bit of a deeper meaning. First off, tifo -- short for tifosi, which literally means "fan" in Italian -- can be any kind of fan-made display. That includes flags, two-poles, banners or any other kind of sign. For them, the most operative part of the term is that it's a fan-made item, not something given to them by the team and certainly not something that doubles as an ad.
For supporters, tifo is part of their culture. It's an important part of their culture and probably the most visible. ECS, in particular, takes much pride in refusing team money for funding their sometimes massive displays (although other groups do accept that kind of assistance). The idea of turning even the smaller tifo elements into some kind of brand activation runs completely counter to the spirit of supporting the team through their own hard work. Tifo is a display of passion, after all, and they take pride in keeping it that way.
That all brings us to the latest flap between ECS and the Sounders front office. As you may have heard, one of the latest promotions is a display being designed by goalkeeper Stefan Frei and sponsored by Delta Airlines. Here's the video announcement:
There's even a page on the team site devoted to the project, called "The Fabric of Sounders FC." The video and website speaks glowingly of the culture around tifo, and its importance to the Sounders experience: "Sounders FC are pioneers and legends throughout the soccer community. A huge part due to the unmistakable displays that are created and unveiled during matches at CenturyLink Field."
While Frei designed the display, fans are being asked to help paint it. The first part of that painting occurred on Wednesday at Sounders training, which featured people kicking paint-covered balls around a canvas. There will be five more pieces, with the final one being painted by a group of fans while they fly to the Sounders-Timbers game on Aug. 28 (aboard a Delta plane, naturally). It will be displayed before the Sept. 28 match against the Chicago Fire.
From a bit of distance, it actually seems like a sort of cool project as it involves the design work of a player, fan participation and, apparently, won't even include any branding on the final display. You can understand why a brand might find being attached to such a product attractive, even if it doesn't serve as an overt advertisement.
But it's not tifo, at least not by anyone who has actually helped create tifo or is even passingly aware of the culture surrounding it.
The Sounders -- and probably Delta -- were reminded of that the hard way this week.
There was also a post on the ECS website titled "The Fabric of Betrayal." An excerpt:
While the sentiment of "uniting" fans in Seattle is one that we can get behind - whether you're an ECS member or not - we don't believe in doing so under the guise of a corporation and calling it "tifo" the way that Delta and the Seattle Sounders are doing so here. It's not an "activation." Ever.
The message was apparently received. While the initial announcement was full of references to "tifo," the more recent releases were missing it and the landing site was even scrubbed of the word. There were still signs outside Wednesday's session that used the word "tifo" but those were surely made prior to this week. Privately, the Sounders have acknowledged they probably should have avoided using the term in the first place.
But ECS's response wasn't just about the use of the word. They were also upset at a certain level of co-opting of supporter culture. Even without the word tifo being used, the entire project plays on the communal nature of building and designing something that is meant to display passion. In a way, Delta's lack of overt branding, while using their advertising slogans -- "You Can't Stop Seattle" -- is even more upsetting, as it's designed to look like a grass-roots display. That's in stark contrast to the massive EA Sports display that happened before the 2014 Tottenham friendly, which was also referred to as "tifo" but was unmistakably advertising.
That's hardly the worst crime a brand can commit against its customers, but it should at least help you understand why there's so much angst about this.
Fans who want to participate in this project should do so proudly. But they should also go into understanding what it is they are participating in. This is not "tifo," it's a potentially fun activity that will result in a what will surely be a cool display, but one that is very much part of a branding exercise.