A week has passed since Pitch Invasion published an article largely based on an interview with the head of Section 8 Chicago (the Independent Supporters’ Association of the Chicago Fire and not, I’d like to make clear, an individual supporters group) that criticised the decision of Toronto FC to only offer around 100 tickets to visiting Chicago Fire fans for their upcoming game in October.
Section 8 Chicago had requested more than they had taken in May last year, well over 200, believing that with six months to plan and only one trip to Toronto this year, they could continue to develop the tradition of strong travelling support demonstrated over the past decade with trips to Columbus, the only shorter journey for Chicago in MLS and one that has regularly attracted hundreds of travelling fans.
The Away Support Issue
The criticism of MLS by Ben Burton in the article was not a kneejerk reaction solely to this trip. Similar problems getting enough seats together for Toronto in 2007 led to Burton having to turn away many fans who wanted to make the trip and he has expressed concerns before about safety in other stadia, believing the general issues surrounding away support need to be discussed.
Burton wrote to MLS Commissioner Don Garber about the issue in May 2007, noting that “In the short term there’s perhaps nothing that can be done for this trip. But long term the ISA firmly believes that more measures need to be taken to accommodate traveling fans. This is a topic that we would like to discuss with Major League Soccer for the long term health of the league and its supporters.”
Though Burton has been in contact with the league about it since, he described progress as “glacial” and his comments in the article last week expressed a frustration that more progress had not been made. Perhaps neither he nor I quite expected the firestorm of interest to erupt that came out of it, though.
Pitch Invasion is almost a year old, but no article has attracted as much interest as this one. Thousands upon thousands have read it, and dozens of other bloggers, forums, and articles linked to it. Some comments and emails were critical, most were supportive, and many came with offers of help.
In the coming days, Pitch Invasion will outline the next steps Section 8 Chicago plans to take to deal with the issue, and we are also currently in contact with MLS to put across their reaction.
In the past week, Section 8 Chicago have been inundated with inquiries from various quarters. They have talked further with MLS, numerous supporters’ groups around the league, and received help from representatives of Supporters’ Direct and the Football Supporters’ Federation in England as they craft a proposal to deal with the general question of away support that will have a broad appeal and be relevant to the North American situation.
Many journalists have contacted Section 8 and your author to cover the issue, which has become a bit of a hot topic. Let’s look at the reaction so far, both positive and negative, across the internet.
Writing for ESPN Soccernet, Ives Galarcep wrote a column titled Facilities for visiting fans need improvement. In it he asked the big question: “Why should teams care about opposing team’s fans?” His answer is that “Teams should care because those fans help complete the game-day experience and there is something artificial about a soccer match without that group of fans sporting different colors, singing different songs and expressing different emotions to the action on the field. Teams should care because they want their fans afforded the same courtesy and because few things help strengthen the bond between supporters and their club, than the experience of road matches.”
Ives concludes MLS should mandate an away support allocation league-wide.
MLS needs to establish a policy that mandates a standard visiting supporter’s section in every stadium in MLS, as well as tickets that opposing teams can sell and distribute to its traveling fans. The league needs to institute a policy so that it isn’t left up to clubs that might not understand or appreciate the importance of traveling supporters in the league.
Traveling fans are a resource soccer in the U.S. needs to spend time cultivating because it is the growth of the diehard fan that will ultimately help MLS thrive, and it will be those traveling fans who will eventually give MLS matches the kind of natural atmosphere they need.
Peter Wilt, the former Fire GM and President, says that he hopes “that MLS realizes that the addition of Philadelphia, due to the Sons of Ben and its proximity to the Red Bulls and United, has the potential to be the tipping point of turning MLS from a League supported mainly by suburban soccer families to one whose base audience of suburban soccer families is infused on a REGULAR basis with passionate fans who follow and promote the League seriously. Now is the time to build the supporters culture, not to constrict it.”
More critical commentary has come from another former Fire employee, Kenn Tomasch, the recently departed broadcaster. He says that “the notion that it’s critical that the league spend man-hours crafting a policy for Chicago-Toronto that would apply to Los Angeles-New York is a bit ridiculous.” Kenn believes the free market should determine who gets a seat at the stadium, and that there is no need for a league-wide policy, commenting that “In Toronto’s case, it’s smart business. If TFC continues to be a bad team, away supporters’ tickets might not be so hard to get in a few years. That’s called the free market. And MLS doesn’t need to try to legislate that.”
A Toronto perspective is provided by Gramsci’s Kingdom, mincing no words as he calls Toronto’s decision “horseshit” and notes that “If MLS wants to make a better product, it will encourage friendly rivalries and travelling fans. Lord knows, a lot of the appeal of TFC is the brilliant way we’re able to get people out to away games.”
- MLS Underground emphasises that Philadelphia’s impending entry suggests this is an issue MLS should deal with soon.
- WVHooligan says we should not “go crazy” about Toronto’s decision, but agrees that “the league has to help accommodate for fans that want to travel better.”
- sanford’s soccer net says that this is “classic MLS here. Since its foundation the league has always had a very top-down view of the product, from the ownership structure to the player contracts…It seems that this indifference has been replaced by active discouragement, at least in cases where the stadiums are more than half full.”
- World Soccer Wrap connects the issue to the moving of a Dynamo game to midweek.
- Fighting Talker says that restricting Chicago fans to 100 tickets is a “joke”
- The official MLS in Seattle site puts it in a broad perspective, opining that “There ought to be a way to grow the game. Expanding the league is one way. Expansion may also be needed in some stadiums. Hopefully, MLS, the clubs and the various supporters clubs can come together and agree on a minimum percentage of seats to be offered to visiting fans. It would be much the same way college football accommodates travelers. Making way for perhaps the most passionate supporters will go a long way toward building the gameday experience of all–the fans, the players and the TV viewers–in MLS.”
Check back here soon for reaction from MLS and updates on Section 8 Chicago’s work behind the scenes.