Monday, May 9, 2016

[D.C. Untied 10] D.C. United vs New York City FC, May 8, 2016

Deep into the second half D.C. United is 2 goals down to NYCFC and look like they’ve forgotten everything they’ve ever learned about how to put a ball inside a net. Across the pitch I can see people drifting towards the exits. From in the District Ultras section Srdan waves his arms to get our attention. We’re switching chants. He starts singing:

Oh United

Even when the times are bad

They can try but they won’t stop us.

We’re always black and red.

The banner in front of our section tonight read “District Customers,” a nod to the word that had allegedly been thrown around the meeting Ultras leadership had with the D.C. United front office. We weren’t supporters or fans, we were merely customers. Why did we have to be so troublesome?

But with the way D.C. United has been playing and the deterioration of the gameday experience, if supporters were merely “customers” the stands would be even emptier than they are now. A losing team, a crumbling stadium, shabby treatment from security staff, poor concessions options, a choice of paying $20 for parking or dealing with a broken Metro system… I’m pretty sure I could find something else to do with a Sunday night than spend it at RFK stadium.

#districtultras #DistrictCustomers #DCUvNYCFC #rfk #WeAreUnited #UnitedVsOne #MLS #DCUnited

A photo posted by District Ultras (@district_ultras) on

What keeps us coming back? What keeps us singing in the stands, hoping against hope for late comeback, a stoppage time goal, a miracle penalty kick? What keeps us buying jerseys and scarves and novelty shot glasses for a losing team in an unpopular sport? Is it the value the team gives us in exchange for our money or are the supporters creating the value themselves? Can you also sell fan loyalty in a discount ticket pack with a free t-shirt on brand tie-in night?

I may still be learning the finer details of soccer as a sport but I am a stone cold expert in fandom and I don’t think I’m out of line in thinking that D.C. United and MLS are heading down the wrong path. The era of big media is over. Deadspin just had a piece on how the live sports rights bubble is bursting and just like the American music and film industries before them, the US sports industry has no plan in place to handle our collective move away from television: Twitter is currently paying 1/45th of what CBS and NBC are paying to broadcast NFL games. Nobody knows yet how to monetize the internet, and rightsholders’ future profits in large part depend upon them being the ones to finally figure it out.

There is no future for MLS in attempting to emulate the success of the “big four” American sports. MLS is never going to grow the large, shallow pool of consumers that those sports depend on. For one thing, soccer is nowhere near as popular among casual fans as American football or baseball or basketball or even hockey. And for another, not insignificant portion of American sports fans who like soccer only watch foreign leagues--whether because of cultural ties, quality of play, or hipster cultural cachet. Casual sports fans may tune in for the occasional World Cup game but week to week they are watching “the game” that their buddies are watching and depending on the season and region, that game is baseball, football, basketball, or hockey. Casual soccer fans may trek out to the local stadium when the local MLS team is playing Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, and NYCFC but will they be there when there are no international soccer stars on the pitch? I’m guessing the couple (or should I say “customers”) I spotted in matching Andrea Pirlo shirts were not impressed enough with D.C. United’s quality of play and the gameday experience to return next week.

What D.C. United has right now and is in the process of squandering is a small but deep pool of support. This is the audience MLS needs to bank its future on. These fans, these supporters are the people who can and will drag people like me to games--for years if necessary--until we give in and become supporters ourselves. In a crowded entertainment market, in this long tail economy, for D.C. United to survive, it has to focus on what it can offer its customers that nobody else can and whether the front office likes it or not, part of the D.C. United product is the supporter experience.

In the wake of the smoke bomb incident and the banning of Parsons, I’ve read story after story of D.C. United fans who became fans because of the supporter group experience. People who may sit on the quiet side but enjoy the atmosphere. People who may not join in with the chanting but enjoy standing in the crowd, enjoying the energy the supporters bring. People who understand that MLS isn’t the highest caliber of soccer in the world and that D.C. United isn’t objectively the best team but, god damn it, it’s our team. Win or lose. This feeling is not included in the price of a ticket. D.C. United didn’t sell it to us. This feeling is value added by the fans ourselves.

When I was in Chicago, I spent a long time talking with some old time Chicago Fire fans. The reason they’ve stuck around through all the losing seasons is the relationships built up with the other fans. Losing season after losing season, it’s the banter, the camaraderie that keeps them buying tickets and official merchandise not the product on the field.

D.C. United has a small but deep pool of support and a little effort invested in cultivating the relationship with the supporters groups instead of in Star Wars tie-in night would be a million times better for the financial health of the team. For example, why isn’t there anything on the ticket purchasing page of the website giving guidance on where to sit. A couple of weeks ago, a family of four, two young kids, had purchased tickets in the front row of section 128--in the heart of the supporters section. They must have thought they were getting a deal, cheap seats and a front row view? But once the drums and flags and swearing and beer showers started up, the family was uncomfortable and decamped for a quieter location. Did they call and complain? I don’t know. Will that family come back? Probably not. And the fault lies not with the supporters groups nor with the family for buying the tickets. The fault is with a front office so disconnected from what’s happening inside the stadium that they don’t bother to give any real guidance to potential customers about the RFK game day experience: what to expect on the quiet vs the loud side, where to enter to see (or to avoid) the supporter group parade, etc.

Here’s another example, a handful of the District Ultras went to hang out with the NYCFC away fans during the first half of the match. There is no real animosity between our two clubs. We’re enemies on the field for 90 minutes but we’re all MLS fans. The away fans put up a large banner in support of the Ultras and we hung out and cheered with them for 45 minutes, occasionally throwing in a “FUCK THE RED BULLS” for good measure. But for whatever reason, security was on edge. They had no reason to be. We were all friendly banter and insults and group photos. But security didn’t trust us to police ourselves. Had they been told there would be trouble? Did front office not understand the difference between NYCFC and our actual arch-rivals the New York Red Bulls? Considering that the night we played the Red Bulls has been turned into Star Wars night--a theme we still mock the Columbus Crew for like ten years after their attempt at it--and the night we play our amiable neighbors to the north, the Philadelphia Union, was being pushed as “rivalry night”, the front office not understanding local fan culture and traditions.

(Friendly meeting of two #15 fans.)

And MLS itself seems just as clueless as to what their fans and supporters actually want from Major League Soccer. Hint: It’s not breathless gossip stories about Justin Bieber spotted wearing a hat for an MLS club that doesn’t even exist yet nor is it creating rivalries between teams that don’t have any particular animosity towards each other. Fans want their team to win. They want to read analysis about how that’s going to happen. They want human interest stories on their favorite players. They want inside jokes and banter.

Listen up, MLS. This weekend at the Columbus Crew home game against Montreal Impact, fans held up a banner that said DROGBA LEGLOCK, referring to that time last year when Drogba grabbed onto Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark’s leg and I laughed out loud when I saw it. That is what you want. A D.C. United fan enjoying a Crew-Impact regular season game via a paid-for MLS Live subscription, cheering when flashy Ghanaian Dominic Oduro scores points for her MLS fantasy team, and laughing at some banter from Crew fans about an incident that happened last season. And here is how you ruin that--policing and micromanaging the fan experience so there are no banners, no banter, no reason to go out to live games because my team sucks, and no reason to buy MLS live or play the fantasy game because MLS is pushing a top down Fan Experience™ presented by Audi focused on Justin Bieber and “Da Boy” that most of us have no interest in.

I’ve learned a lot from Indian film fans and Japanese music fans over the years and MLS could also learn a few lessons from those industries. Small but deep fan pools won’t bring in as much money as large, shallow customer base but that large, shallow customer base is no longer buying much of anything. Japan’s music industry is the healthiest in the world because the artists put a lot of effort into creating an emotional bond with the fans. When the fans have that buy in, they’ll spend money. They’ll buy CDs and official merchandise and they’ll keep buying it. Tamil language films do gangbusters business in Tamil Nadu for the same reason. They speak to local issues and the stars have an emotional bond with local fans. Is a Rajinikanth film going to make as much money globally as a Tom Cruise film? No. BUT it is going to make much more money than a Tom Cruise film in Tamil Nadu and it’s going to give more to the community. Tom Cruise isn’t stopping by local shopping malls but Rajinikanth can. Tom Cruise isn’t going to be in local commercials, hobnobbing with local politicians… and people may pay once to see Mission Impossible 27 or whatever at the theater but they aren’t compelled to the way they are compelled to go out and support Superstar Rajini. And in Japan, people may pay $0.99 for a Taylor Swift song but they aren’t compelled to go and buy the CD and official merchandise like they are with Arashi. Tom Cruise, the NFL, maybe casual fans will watch if it’s on or if their buddies are going but are they going to go out of their way to pay for it? To support the product? No. You maybe buy a song for $0.99 and then it's gone. Forgotten. Who cares if she has another hit? So if the live sports bubble is bursting… D.C. United had better think real hard about its existing fan base and whether it’s worth alienating them to chase after an illusory large but shallow mass market of customers.

The NYCFC game was a huge disappointment but I’ll be back next week to support the team. Customers aren’t going to turn up for a losing team but a supporter, a fan, most definitely will. Even when the times are bad on the field, we’ll turn out to support the black and red. At least as long as front office will let us...

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