MLS Fan Culture: A Sleeping Giant

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

MLS fans have become one of the driving forces in one of the fastest growing sports leagues in the world.

For all of the early years of struggle MLS has had significant growth over the last seven years. In fact, nine teams have been added - two of those teams start play in 2015 - in the last seven years. One more will be added by 2017, and rumor has it that another will be added at that time, too. By 2018 MLS could field 24 teams and may reach critical mass in league growth. Now, if you go back two more years, when Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake were added, it means that over half the league, 12 teams, have been added in around ten years.

One of the many reason for this rapid growth is clearly due to the supporter culture. Of the 12 teams added (since 2005) seven had a fan base in place. Six of those seven teams were added successively, starting with return of MLS to San Jose, then the progression to Seattle, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Portland and Montreal. By having the supporter culture in place all of these teams could hit the ground running underpinning season tickets and name brand awareness among the soccer fans in those markets.

I remember when MLS was touted as a "family friendly" environment, when MLS was trying to get soccer families to come out to the stadiums. Attendance lagged and the numbers were laughable. Once MLS started attracting a more broad demographic, and most of the teams controlled their own stadium, attendance finally started to creep upwards. MLS and it's owners now know they need to market the league differently, as Don Garber points out in this Inc.com article concerning the growth of MLS.

But if the rest of the soccer ecosystem is creating potential new fans, how does MLS lure them to the league? It starts with its hardcore supporters. Much of MLS's marketing efforts are tied up in its existing superfans, he said. This investment is meant to fuel word-of-mouth marketing to bring new customers in.

Not only is word of mouth bringing in new customers, it is also creating supporter cultures outside of MLS. The Sons of Ben is a prime example of how a fan base can bring an MLS team to a market. In addition, even smaller markets, with limited "traditional" soccer footholds, are sprouting up. Case in point: Nashville FC.

So, MLS is no longer writing its own destiny. The fan culture and fan passion can be significant forces for (and sometimes against) MLS and its owners. Grassroots supporters will be able to help grow MLS and soccer in America.

One person with a unique perspective on the entirety of supporter culture and the passion American soccer fans in the US is Sean Reid. A native Oregonian, who has talked to hundreds of supporters on a journey around the country, has recently completed a book about American soccer from the fan perspective. I had the opportunity to ask Sean the following questions about American soccer fans, and some questions specifically about the Timbers Army:

After talking with many supporters around the country what about soccer fans sets them apart from other sports fans?

People always point to the passion - but I think more specifically it's the expression of that passion. You see it in tifo, gameday chants and the atmosphere, supporter groups that give back to the community instead of simply tailgating. It's tribal. And there's a feeling of ownership and initiative that's almost Google-like. If Silicon Valley is the wellspring of new American innovation, the supporters' section is the crucible for this American soccer revolution the country's witnessed. Look at the American Outlaws. Over 115 chapters nationwide. Nashville FC - a fan-owned and operated club. You can't make this stuff up.

What about the TA or the Timbers Fans is different than other supporters? What is similar?

In my chapter, I pull a quote from my interview with Timber Jim, speaking about the Sunshine Goal. He called the Timbers Army "a loving army." That really resonated with me. I think that the TA's inclusiveness - the philosophy of "if you want to be Timbers Army, you already are" - I think it's genius and very progressive. Merchandising, the group is on point, and I love the community outreach. The Pitch Invasion program and moments like the massive turnout for Atticus Lane Dupre define the group, help the club, and build on that long, loving legacy.

Growing up near Portland in The Dalles were you ever able to make it to a Portland Timbers game?

I saw Pilots games at University of Portland back when Kasey Keller was playing, but I never made it to a Timbers match until 2010. It was great though to see the old PGE Stadium before and after the renovation. Every time I visit the folks now we always check to see if there's a home game happening.

Any other interesting stories from your book that would be interesting to a fan of the Portland Timbers?

I was disappointed in the initial rebrand. Loved the old crest. But the Timbers Army collaborating with the front office on a cleaner design is just one example I think of how the fans help improve the game's legitimacy and authenticity here in America. We have a voice and great ideas. I want to tell these stories like these throughout the book. In many ways, we're writing our own history, and I don't think you can't say that for many other sports in the country.

Where can people get your book?

So we want to raise enough money to print the book like we envision, color artwork (Brent Diskin's lent us a piece with Timber Joey), high quality design and printing, scarves on every page. Just really a fan's dream to both look at say, I'm a part of that. For those wishing to be a part of the book campaign, you can pre-order your copy by contributing to my campaign to help make it possible. (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/love-thy-soccer/). If you can't donate, please help me spread the word.

So where do you think soccer supporter culture is headed? Are we going to see slow, methodical growth, or is it ready to explode?

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