Seattle residents wake up to find Sounders scarves adorning statues and overpasses and telephone poles across their city. Portland’s Merritt Paulson, owner, poses with his team’s talisman - an axe - between his teeth, just like thousands of crazed Timbers fans before him. Kansas City residents can’t believe how much Sporting - a one-year-old brand - is already a part of their civic identity.
(And the New England Revolution are one year into seating fans on both sides of their stadium, so it doesn’t look so empty.)
Major League Soccer’s history has been marked by eras - the Honeymoon Phase (‘96-‘97), The Era of End Zones & Yard Markings (‘98-‘00), Operation: Survival (‘01-‘03), A Series of Hyped Events (‘04-‘07), Guys! The Guardian is Talking About Us And Not In A Mocking Way (‘08-‘10), and currently, the Age of Mutual Love. It took M.L.S. and U.S. soccer culture a while to get here, but those who’ve endured have learned a lot about their fans. The best teams - and even the average ones - now realize how unique and powerful soccer fanship is, and how deeply it can take hold of people. They’ve learned that by loving their fans back as much as they are loved, they create a bond that has no precedent in U.S. sporting culture. Together, teams and the groups that support them are forging relationships that are turning fervent fans into missionaries and regular fans into life-long devotees.
(And the New England Revolution are a few months removed from having some of their most ardent supporters arrested.)
In today’s American soccer landscape, there’s nothing more important than how much a team understands, relates to, and yes, loves its fans back.
What Are You Doing For Your Fans?
What do I mean by teams loving their fans back? It can be as simple as acknowledging how much your fans mean to you, or as involved as putting them on billboards. It can be as cheap as giving out some scarves, and as expensive as adding a roof to your stadium because it’s better for atmosphere. It can be as nice as buying your fans a beer, and as detailed as designing a jersey around special aspects of your city or your most passionate supporters.
Loving your fans back is creative and kind and personal and meaningful and thankful. It’s spending money, yes, but in a way that shows you understand your audience. Sometimes that means making splashy moves; other times, it means doing little things right.
Philadelphia Union’s primary colors are navy blue and gold, representing the Continental Army’s uniforms during the American Revolutionary War. The light blue in the middle of the badge is derived from the civic flag of Philadelphia and is a tribute to the Sons of Ben supporters club.
official Phila. club history
(The New England Revolution play last-place soccer in an NFL stadium. After 16 years, their new, “ambitious” jersey is a stock adidas template, you can’t take any form of public transportation to their games, and they’re talking about “turnover” and “a lot of player movement” as reasons to be positive for the upcoming year.)
It’s no secret that many think the Revs can do better (including me), in player sourcing, stadium atmosphere, branding and public promotion. Judging from online opinion, I think it’s fair to say that Revs fans have never felt more frustrated during an off-season than they do this year. I live in Boston and I love soccer. I have no ties to the Revs, or any of the various supporters’ groups, but I’m absolutely rooting for their mutual success. To be honest, I’d like to be a New England Revolution fan. But not under the current terms.
Smart Teams Love Their Fans
In a nutshell, the Revolution don’t seem capable of loving their fans back. And, with due respect to their great core of fans, I’m not about to test that theory by becoming one.
Last week, the Revs held a “Supporters Summit,” an evening to allow their diehard fans - people so into the Revs, they’d form, join, and promote independent organizations dedicated to loving the team - to come and interact with the team’s front office.
The first is that the front office doesn’t seem to be absorbing or acknowledging the frustration - sometimes edging into despair - that many long-time supporters are feeling about the team. Things that were merely tolerable while the Revs were winning games, things like the lack of stadium atmosphere, playing on football-marked Field Turf, playing second fiddle to the NFL Patriots, playing “home” games away from New England, being invisible on the local sports landscape, etc., have become downright insulting now that so many other teams are treating their fans like first-class citizens. The Revs aren’t doing that, and now they’re also playing last-place caliber soccer on the field.
Who’s in Charge of Thinking Like a Fan?
In reading the transcript of the event, the Revolution management team seems to say they feel bad too - but not on behalf of their fans. And they go on to say how much they’re shuffling things around - but not that they’re making the only changes that would amount to a show of respect to Revs supporters: substantial improvements to the quality and thoughtfulness of their own actions.
For instance, on player and coaching changes, here’s what a team that loved their fans might say:
On the field, winning is our bottom line. We will not tolerate finishing near the bottom of the league again. We’ve upgraded our coaching staff, trained on new models of statistical analysis to modernize our philosophies of player acquisition, doubled the scouting budget, and made major improvements to our youth team, which we expect will be the best in M.L.S. this year. We’ve targeted and signed several impact starters, including a designated player - and we will be spending actively to get another one in here before the year is out. And if we weren’t saying it clearly enough before, we are now: the Revolution live and breathe a culture of excellence, from the front office down to the field, and we intend for you to hold us to that standard. Expect success from us this year.
As reported by New England soccer publication The Drug is Football, here’s what fans actually heard from the team’s General Manager:
I guess what I’d say to that, we certainly on the technical side have not been happy with the way the past 2 years have gone. What I’d say is I think it would be more frustrating and more disappointing if we didn’t make any changes. We’ve changed out coaching staff, 10 players aren’t back with us, we’ve signed four international players, which is probably more than any other transfer window in the last 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 years and we’re probably not done signing international players for even this transfer window.
What I can say is there has been a lot of movement, I think there has probably been more player movement this off season than essentially any other team in MLS. I understand your frustration, believe me, there is no one more disappointed with how last year went than the guys sitting up here. In terms of status quo and not doing anything I wouldn’t agree with your assessment and that’s because the buzz might be one thing, but we’ve certainly made a lot of changes this off season.
Suffice to say reality doesn’t match what I’d expect as a supporter. Most importantly, no concrete reasons are given why any of the changes should be considered upgrades or improvements - the Revolution front office seem to think that announcing personnel churn is enough. So changing the coaching staff was needed; why is the new coaching staff better? Signing more international players is a sign of action, yes; why are the specific players you’ve signed people to be excited about? Why, exactly, did you target them? How will the new setup lead to more success? And most importantly, what are you doing better? What philosophies did you change? What realizations did you make? How did have you learned? What resolutions can supporters hold you to?
Are You Really Doing Everything You Can?
It comes to a fine point, to me, when the Revs go on to discuss what they’re doing off the field to improve the team and, by extension, life for their supporters. Again, here’s what I would have liked to hear:
It hasn’t been easy for us to watch other M.L.S. teams, especially ones with less history than we have, give their fans what they deserve. You are the best fans in the country, and deserve to be treated like it. First, you deserve a home of your own - and we want it as badly as you do. I think everyone here understands why it’s been a complicated process. I can promise you that we will be 100% transparent about our plans for a new stadium as long as we’re not jeopardizing sensitive negotiations. And that we expect to give you updates every few months on where we stand from here on out. But I want to move beyond the stadium stuff for a second - you also deserve amazing game-day atmosphere, as good as we can make it. You also deserve creative promotion. You should also be able to open a newspaper and see good coverage of the team. You should also be able to buy a Revs jersey at any sporting goods store in New England. You should be able to take public transportation to a game. Your groups should have a direct line to someone in front office if you need assistance. These are things we can do better at right now. Here’s how we’re changing…
Again, as reported by T.D.I.F., here’s what the Team President actually said:
[The stadium] is something that we’re continually working on. We’ve got a project that we’re working on right now. We’ve got some people, basically we’re spending money on it, they’re doing some work for us on it. We’re hopeful to have some answers on that project I’d say in the next 2-3 months or maybe sooner just to know where we stand with that particular project. […] It’s something we’re still committed to, we’re still aggressively going after we’re still spending a lot of money on researching things.[…]
From the off the field stuff, if you’re talking about sales and marketing and that side of things, I can just compare ourselves to what we do versus other teams and what we do versus other teams in our market. I can tell you in M.L.S., that I just looked at the numbers today, we’re in the top third of the league in advertising and marketing spent of the entire league and if you take out staffing, which our staffing is a little lower because we have shared staff that we don’t report; so non staffing advertising and marketing costs we’re at the top 3 of the entire league, we’re third in the entire league. Relative to other MLS teams, we are spending a lot on advertising and marketing, so I know people want more but we’re trying to do as much as we can within the business model that is MLS. Would I like to do more? Sure.
On the stadium stuff, I think the answers are close to as good as possible. Construction projects in Boston can only move so fast. But there isn’t much empathy for the plight of the fans - just once, it would be nice if the Revolution acknowledged that watching a game in Gillette is not that satisfying for the fans, and that they’re not happy about it either. It’s a little thing, but I think it would help. The Revs organization needs to treat fans like you’d treat someone in your family to whom you had to give disappointing news - not with half-justifications and platitudes, but with heartfelt sincerity and acknowledgement that things aren’t great. And then, ideally, solid reasons why things will get better.
And that brings me to the marketing responses, and my second major concern: even if the Revs knew how to communicate with their fans, it’s not clear that they have the means or the expertise to accomplish real improvement. I don’t understand the team’s justifications of marketing and promotion at all. First of all, it’s not a good thing to be in the top third of marketing spend when the results have so obviously little impact in the local market. I would be more relieved if the response was something like “we’ve been spending near the bottom of the league on marketing, but we’re aiming for the top third this year!” - at least then supporters might hope that they were capable of improvement. But no; they seem to be content to spend promotional budgets in traditional ways, approach public marketing in the same manner they always have, and justify it by saying they spend as much as anyone in the league.
Would I like to do more? Sure. B. Bilello, Team President
And second, they seem to be missing the larger point. Where is the affection for what these supporters mean to the Revs? These are people who want to stand in outside in a parking lot in November and sing songs about how much they adore you. Where is the reciprocation? Where are the thoughtful touches? The third kits? The free beer every now and then? The creative promotions around Boston that give the team some buzz and help add to their numbers? It’s good that the Revs have competitive money to spend - now how are they changing how they spend it? Who’s being brought in to try new things? What interesting steps are they taking? Who’s in charge of thinking like a fan?
In short, as a Revs supporter, I’d expect to hear more from my front office than that there’s been “a lot of movement” during the off-season. I’d expect to hear more than that they were pleased to be spending “in the top third” of average M.L.S. promotional budgets. Movement is necessary, yes - but it needs to be made in the right directions; otherwise it’s just treading water. I’d expect acknowledgement that a bond between team and fan has been severely tested lately, especially in light of what other M.L.S. teams are doing for their fans. Smart M.L.S. teams love their fans. Any Revs fan should be expecting, and demanding, love from their team. They should be insisting on concrete examples of how that broken bond is going to be strengthened into something better than it ever was - both on and off the field.
If Love Isn’t Mutual, Something Has to Change
And that leads me to a final concern - that Revs fans aren’t willing to hold the team to this standard. Online, at games, in person, and especially at a Supporters Summit, Revs fans could do more to demand the team they deserve. Vocally, and by threatening their very support if need be. (I’d pull mine, but it seems more logical not to give it in the first place.)
Robert Kraft gave Revolution send-off for Tucson pre-season trip. Told me he is committed to giving team what it needs to succeed. F. Dell’Appa, Boston Globe
As long as the Revolution measure “success” in spending rates and turnover and player movement, they’re going to fail at the larger game of winning and maintaining passionate fans. They should be offering wins, yes, but just as importantly, respect and love. In an era when their peer organizations are giving love to their fans and seeing it returned multiplied many times over, the Revs either can’t or won’t follow suit. If they are capable of loving their fans back, they need to start now. It doesn’t have to be a lavish new stadium and two Premier League designated players, either. A few little things - a few creative things - would start to demonstrate that they’re capable of caring.
If they’re not, then the Revolution isn’t worth loving in the first place.