Football is nothing without fans
EFW covered the incredible rise of Seattle Sounders last season with interviews and their attendance figures are indeed impressive. When we did so, we were also inundated by Portland Timbers fans who left us in no doubt as to the intensity of the football rivalry, showing us that the Americans at least get that bit.
Then, the clubs were in different leagues, but Portland and another side from the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver Whitecaps, are set to join MLS in 2011, giving the fans the chance to resurrect the rivalries and better still travel to away fans and experience that awayday feeling that is the core of football culture.
You would think that this is something eagerly anticipated by all. Sadly not. Sounders FC's majority owner, Hollywood director Joe Roth, has threatened to restrict away fans to just 150, the minimum under MLS requirements despite Seattle's Qwest Field having 28,000 empty seats for every home game.
We asked Steve Clare, the editor of Prost Amerika the only site that covers all three clubs, what the hell was going on:
Can you sum up what the battle is about? Next year three sides from the Pacific Northwest, an area we refer to as Cascadia after the mountain range, will play in Major League Soccer. They are about a 3 hour drive apart and all three cities have a long (for America) history of football and of rivalry. All three were members of the old NASL in the 1970s. With Vancouver and Portland about to join, these rivalries will be resumed.
Sounds great, what's the problem? Your readers will know that the publication of the fixture calendar is a moment awaited with high anticipation to see when the derby days are, especially those away from home. That anticipation stands threatened by a policy of restricting away fans to just 150.
Where does the 150 limit come from? It's an MLS mandated number but fails to take into account the long history of football rivalry and indeed away day traveling in Cascadia.
Who's making the threat? No-one had said it outright until yesterday but conventional wisdom suggested that the Seattle Sounders are the moving force behind this. Their majority owner Joe Roth advocated such a policy in a meeting with fans, and Vancouver's top guy Paul Barber has indicated to Whitecaps fans that he is more sympathetic to their wish to watch their side in Seattle and Portland. Portland owner Merritt Paulson was articulately coy when I asked him about it in an interview. Yesterday, a unified statement released by Portland’s Timbers Army, Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters, and Vancouver’s Southsiders specifically pointed the blame at Sounders FC.
Joe Roth set to incur the wrath? (Photo: Jane Gershovich/Prost Amerika)
Credit where Merritt's due? Portland owner Merritt Paulson (Photo: Allison Andrews/soccercityusa.com)
How have fan groups managed to stay united given the hostility I observed on EFW when I first interviewed you? Their love of the sport is stronger than their hatred of each other! Seriously though, despite their reservations, all three groups have really risen to the challenge of putting the common good first. I hope that's what your readers take away from this as a better indication of the strength of, and love for, the sport here. Most of them were here for football before MLS arrived and will be here for the sport until they kick the bucket.
Are the three clubs united or is it Seattle v the rest? The evidence seems to suggest so but neither of the other two clubs has said so publicly. So far the three ownership groups are not criticising each other publicly, but internal discussions between the owners of Vancouver and their Southsiders group, and the Timbers and the Timbers Army, certainly suggest that neither of them is aggressively promoting a travel ban. Joe Roth and Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer have supported the policy more publicly. The unified statement form the three groups fingering Sounders FC though probably opens a new chapter. Portland and Vancouver fans will be asking for a clear statement form their own clubs, almost certainly based around the 5% rule.
What if Portland sell more than 95% of their capacity to Season ticket holders? The figure needn't be 5%. My gut feeling is that a lower number might be acceptable to some, but they could also sell a 15 (MLS will have 17 home games next year)game package that excludes the derby games for a cut price. With vision and creativity, there are ways to make this happen without the clubs leaving a single seat unsold.
The Timbers Army at Qwest Field (Photo: Rick Morrison/Prost Amerika)
Portland and Vancouver fans mingling at Swangard Stadium. (Photo: Michael McColl/Vancouver Southsiders)
Isn't there an English connection at Vancouver? Vancouver brought Paul Barber as an executive over from Spurs and I've been told by Caps fans that he knows how vital away support is to the vibrancy of the game. They seem very confident he is batting for them.
What are Sounders FC's objections? Fairness, security and the integrity of the home crowd.
Fairness? Sounders FC has a bigger capacity than the others. Qwest Field holds more than 65,000 seats for NFL, of which they only make 36,000 available to the Sounders. Sounders FC claim it would be unfair to their own fans to offer more places to the Timbers and Whitecaps than they could have when Sounders travel. The other two clubs have far smaller number of seats at their disposal.
I have to say though that this argument is a bit of a fantasy in Sounders FC's minds. I have spoken to most of the fan leaders in Seattle, none of whom have advanced this argument. They recognise the other clubs can offer less but nonetheless do not wish to turn away opposing fans because of it. The Emerald City Supporters policy is to allow them the FIFA mandated 5% of capacity allocation to away fans. All sides seem to agree a percentage allocation is fair, so I'm not sure on whose behalf Sounders Front Office is advancing this.
Security? Joe Roth actually used the word 'riot' to describe a possibility of the consequences of allocating them more than the minimum number of tickets. Maybe that was Hollywood hyperbole but it upset many people that someone charged with advancing the sport here would use such detrimental and pejorative language to portray potential fans. It seemed like a gift to the many enemies football has in the mainstream media here. It also made him seem slightly detached from the reality of watching a game in Cascadia.
But going beyond that unwise choice of words, of course there is an issue with bringing 2000 fans in from another city although the NFL Seahawks seem to manage it without riots.
Seattle's main railway station is right under the stadium and this is something the authorities manage in Europe week in and week out. I refuse to believe that 2000 people from two generally law abiding cities cannot come in and out without bother, or that our excellent Seattle Police Department can't handle it.
The integrity of the home crowd, what does that mean? Beats me. Four decades watching football and I never heard it before now.
Won't fans travel anyway and buy their tickets on the internet and from touts, and then be in all parts of the ground, thus creating a much bigger security risk? Of course they will. You know it, I know it and the fans know it. It's what Basil Fawlty would call 'the bleedin obvious'. But none of us run the clubs. People who just don't get supporter culture do, whether that be Joe Roth or the NFL people from Vulcan who occupy many of the places of power and influence at Sounders FC. All three fan groups are adamant that not allocating sufficient tickets to visiting supporters is a recipe for trouble. They are very worried about the consequences for the sport if this 150 ticket policy leads to a lack of segregation.
Is there any history of violence in the Pacific Northwest? Sounders FC had zero arrests from about half a million attendees in Year 1. It would be interesting to see that compared with the numbers lifted at the NFL Seahawks games. This is relevant because Vulcan Sports and Entertainment own the NFL team outright and part of the Sounders.
Many football fans, including many in Portland and especially Vancouver travel to see the Seahawks, and are livid about the insinuation that they are welcome customers when watching NFL but a security risk when coming down for football. There is real anger about this in Vancouver especially. I was told there are over 3000 Seahawks season ticket holders in Canada who spend a fortune coming down, not just on tickets, but on merchandise, food, drink and hotels. Now they feel they have been accused of being potential hooligans by Roth and want to hear someone at Vulcan SE stick up for them. I'd never seen Canadians so angry. They're just not known for it.
Vulcan has just appointed a new CEO, Peter McLoughlin, and those Whitecaps/Seahawks fans are expecting to hear from him. If not, they tell me, he'll be hearing from them. But yes, fans accept games have a risk attached to them. Several creative solutions have already been proposed to Sounders FC. Supporters are willing to closely work with all to make this go smoothly.
How are the parties addressing the issue that Seattle can simply offer more seats? By quoting FIFA's 5% rule. Sounders fans seem to accept they will get less tickets than they are given, just as Arsenal get less tickets at Stamford Bridge because it has a smaller capacity.
What can EFW readers to do to help? That's not for me to say. But there is a Facebook Group where others have expressed opposition to the 150 ticket suggestion.
Is there a danger that Sounders will become the global poster child for anti-football? This is my biggest concern personally. I have watched the club since the USL days and although I cover all three local clubs, I do live here and attend every home game. I'm paying out of my own pocket to watch them in Los Angeles at the weekend. Although Prost Amerika's match reports stay doggedly unbiased, I would hate to see the club become the personification of American corporate crassness in the football world. The thought of Sounders becoming football's Halliburton appalls me.
US football has made so much progress in recent years despite the shame of only drawing with England. Sounders have been part of that progress in a big way and got many many things spectacularly right. The Pacific Northwest is the hub or the epicentre of football culture in North America and Joe's threat allows for the real potential of the region being portrayed in a diametrically opposite way. This proposal threatens to take a fantastic opportunity and turn it into a PR disaster that will follow the club around for decades.
What happens next? There are three possibilities. Sounders reaffirm the policy and the issue completely overshadows the close-season and indeed all MLS publicity about the renewal of the rivalries in the Northwest. All three sides can then anticipate protests. A more generous bi-partisan agreement between Portland and Vancouver cannot be discounted, though I doubt either of them would say that publicly yet. Alternatively, the three clubs could announce a numerical or percentage formula of some sort and start working on the game day administration challenges and PR opportunities that presents.
One think won't happen. The issue won't be going away. Unlike the Cascadia fans.
Definitely worth mentioning the excellent work of the Football Supporters Federation at this juncture. Check out their website.
Journalists wanting to cover the story can email Steve at this address.
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