There's a bit of a battle brewing in the stands of the NWSL. Well, maybe "brewing" is a little strong and it's not exactly all over the league, but with the Portland Thorns in town this weekend Seattle Reign fans got a little taste of it.
"It" is, of course, the language being used by the Rose City Riveters, the Thorns' supporters group. If you were at Sunday's game -- a 5-0 dismantling courtesy of the Reign -- you surely found yourself quickly forming an opinion on this topic. If you haven't, feel free to head on over to the Reign's Facebook page to see some of the opinions.
On one extreme is the group of folks who can't believe fans feel compelled to use four-letter words during a soccer match. These people may or may not realize that the exact same kind of language is used at Seattle Sounders or Portland Timbers game, but they certainly don't want to hear it at Reign games. The reason? The children, of course.
On the other extreme are the actual supporters. They put their blood, sweat and tears into supporting their soccer team and generally feel as though four-letter words are just a by-product of passionate fandom. They are also disinclined from stopping this behavior simply because they are being asked to.
Somewhere in the middle is the likely majority, people who love the energy supporters bring to a match but could probably be just fine with a slightly sanitized version of them.
Can their be a real supporters' culture without cussing? Of course. Is it likely? No. The thing about supporters' groups is that it really is a bit of a all-or-nothing proposition.There are surely examples of teams that have reasonably vibrant supporters' groups that also manage to be completely family friendly, but my personal experience suggests that skirting the lines of decency is pretty much standard practice. Some groups are obviously worse than others, but if you think the Riveters even come close to that side of the spectrum, I'm going to guess you haven't been around many supporters' groups.
A vibrant supporters' culture requires quite a bit of trust between the team and its fans. The team needs to trust that the fans aren't going to get out of hand and the fans need to know that they aren't constantly in danger of being punished. We've seen what can happen when that balance is put off, like what's happening in Orlando City right now or what has been going on with the San Jose Earthquakes.
Beyond that, fans also need to decide what kind of environment they want. Do they like the atmosphere at Reign games? Or do they want something that is more similar to Sounders games?
Make no mistake about it, the Reign want what supporters bring. Ask any player and they'll tell you they love the energy in the stadium when a group like the Rose City Riveters are in full voice. It doesn't much matter if those fans are rooting against them, as long as they can hear them, that's what really matters.
I'm fairly confident Megan Rapinoe speaks for most of her fellow players when she says this: "I won't take anything away from the Portland fans. They're brilliant, they're organized and they have great cheers. We'll take notes from them, their cheering section."
It's not just atmosphere for atmosphere's sake, of course. The Reign know that part of what makes Sounders matches so fun are the supporters, which is why they are such a big part of the team's marketing. They know that the reason CenturyLink Field is packed every game is because fans have genuine passion for the team. They care when the Sounders play poorly and they lose their minds in the best possible way when they are playing well. Passionate fans also spend quite a bit of money.
And real, genuine passion also comes laced with expletives at times.
As Rapinoe also observed, Reign fans just aren't there yet. They'll cheer a good pass, a nice move or a well-executed tackle. When the Reign score, Memorial Stadium gets legitimately loud even when it's not full like it was on Sunday. But there's sense that fans are emotionally invested in the result the way they are in the Sounders. Win, lose or draw the area behind the goal is packed with youths hoping to grab an autograph. It's hard not to get the sense that failing to get a player to sign their shirt would have been a bigger blow to a lot of them than if the Thorns had won on Sunday.
There's nothing inherently wrong with any of that, but we do have to acknowledge that if the Reign are ever to maximize their popularity here that games will probably have to start looking and sounding a lot more like they do at CenturyLink. And chances are, that's going to mean more four-letter words.