Club, Community and Consumerism: What Do We Support?

What is the purpose of a soccer club?  What, indeed, is the purpose of using the word ‘club’ in the name of so many Major League Soccer teams – to keep the question focused on these North American shores just for now. Are we supporters of clubs, or are we consumers of products? (This is a question Toronto Football Clubs have been asking themselves recently, as we will discuss)

We should begin with a pathetically brief description of what a ‘club’ is.

Clubs originated as a basic way for people to associate outside of family to support some kind of common interest. Some clubs have membership, some don’t.

What kind of clubs, then, are those that call themselves such things in Major League Soccer?

Writing at Match Fit USA, Robert Jonas argues — primarily from a Bay Area perspective, given the demise and rebirth of the San Jose Earthquakes in MLS — that clubs don’t exist in the league, in any sense he sees as valid.

For a league that reportedly lost nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in its first decade, 2010 is seeing some teams finally turning an annual profit — even as the country endures difficult economic times. Fans are embracing MLS in ever greater numbers, and new teams have been joining the league every year since 2005. At league headquarters in New York City, I can imagine the broad smiles and back-slapping that must be going on in the boardroom when looking back at how far the league has come.

However, back at the community level, the growth of MLS is having a divergent effect on the individual teams’ local fans and supporters. With each passing season, the idea that these people are actually “stakeholders” in the organizations’ success is fleeting. In fact, I will go so far as to say that identifying with these teams in the traditional sense as “football clubs” is fading fast. Your connection with your local “club” will soon be measured solely in terms of the dollars and time spent on their products and services. Oh sure, we’ll probably still have teams that feel the need to have the word “club” in their titles, but any semblance to the organizations of the past from which they borrow that term will cease to be.

I guess at this point I should clarify what I define as a “football club” in order to support my point of view. Using the traditional definition shared by many teams in a variety of sports, a club is an sporting organization where the community invests their efforts toward a common goal. In soccer, this means a team that is local owned and operated by the same people that participate and follow the progress of that team. Those that invest in the club are given the right to provide input to the club’s management team, and even elect those officials that run the club on a daily basis. The club then returns that investment through entertainment and value.

Jonas goes on to argue – referencing an interesting sounding speech by former Quakes GM Johnny Moore – that because MLS clubs do not have this local ownership by the fanbase, their relationship with their “clubs” is purely transactual, and thus they are not really clubs at all:

In two well publicized instances recently, supporters groups in Seattle and Toronto have raised their voices to express displeasure with their “football clubs.” Focusing mainly on the issues of season ticket packages and their costs, these organized protests have at least garnered official responses from the organizations. Both teams have announced new policies and price points moving forward in an effort to placate their supporters’ concerns. Maybe the Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC — two MLS franchises that invoke the notion of being a club by identifying themselves as such — were at least responding in a way that Moore might generally approve of

But really, in both these cases, the issues are not organizational but really that of straightforward customer complaining. The ticket buyers are consumers of a product, and they are voicing their displeasure at the perceived return on their investment. For me, this illustrates clearly the notion that TFC and Seattle Sounders FC are not true “clubs” — supporters do not garner any financial return on their purchases. Pure and simple, they may or may not be entertained during the matches they purchase tickets for, and that is as far as the relationship goes.

Jonas is right in the most basic, vertical sense: Toronto Football Club are, for example, owned by a company whose aim is to make money, and not by fans. They sell a product, soccer games, for this purpose. That they do not consider themselves associated with fans for the common cause of TFC was demonstrated by the recent ticket price rise debacle. They consider fans consumers to be milked.

But the same is not true horizontally in Toronto Football Club as a cultural institution: that is, the very protests Jonas mentions show that fans have clubbed together for the sake of the sporting organisation in question (Toronto Football Club) in a way that meets Jonas’ definition of a “community [that] invests their efforts toward a common goal.” It is true that the fans do not own this club in a formal sense: but nor can they simply be divorced from it in terms of what Toronto FC is. Cultural capital is important, too.

It is notable that the TFC protests aren’t just about “me”, but are expressing the fears of fans about the damage that pricing out supporters’ groups could do to the club as a whole, built on the idea of “all for one” (I’m simplifying a very complex situation in Toronto, of course).

We could also look at this from the opposite pole. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch became a bestseller because it illustrated the personal and communal passion that surrounds supporting a football club (in Arsenal’s case at the time, not one any regular fans had any monetary stake in).

FC United of Manchester

Can we not consider that football fans associating to support a common cause in ways uncommon to regular consumer transactions – singing, tifo, protests, fundraising, travelling thousands of miles in support of the team – creates clubs as community institutions in a cultural sense, regardless of formal ownership?

Let’s read Jonas’ words again: “Pure and simple, they may or may not be entertained during the matches they purchase tickets for, and that is as far as the relationship goes.”

If we were discussing purchasing tickets to a movie at our local multiplex – yes. You don’t form either a vertical (with the company from whom you give money to) or a horizontal (with your fellow movie goers) relationship at the cinema that lasts beyond the length of the movie. The same is obviously not true with sports clubs, and particularly peculiarly, with soccer clubs: we find friendships, we find shared spirit, we find lasting ties. Community spirit is intrinsic to a club as much as the opportunity to purchase membership financially, I would argue, even if it is a much more fluid and slippery relationship – yet it might be an even more important one.

In follow-up posts I’ll try to illustrate what I mean in a little more detail, and I’d more than accept that there’s a big difference between being a fan of the club called Manchester United and the club called FC United of Manchester due to the varied opportunities for fans to be a part of those clubs. One is clearly closer to pure consumerism than the other. But fandom and the sense of association around soccer clubs is also not as straightforward in England or in MLS as the swiping of a credit card.

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