As MLS Grows, Will the Hardcore Fans Still Be Welcome?

MLS has been marketing directly to urban 20-somethings and promoting the supporter culture they've brought. Are they prepared to deal with the baggage?

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Jun 14 2016, 1:14pm

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Parsons figured he was just doing the same thing he had been doing for years. He had started going to D.C. United games in 2004 and joined the District Ultras in 2010, becoming a hardcore fan and a leader of that group. Since then, Parsons, a 30-year-old Whole Foods employee, had seldom missed a home game, driving three hours each way from work in Newport News, and made "pretty much any away game within a 12-hour drive."

On a unified march from one of the outer lots at RFK Stadium before an early-season game against FC Dallas in late March, the various fan groups decided to amp things up. Parsons lit a smoke bomb. Big whoop. They'd done this countless times. "This is – or was, I should say – very commonplace at RFK and never even thought of as doing something wrong in the parking lots," Parsons says. "After that we all continued into the stadium and everything went on as normal."

Then, the following week, Parsons got an email from the club informing him that he'd been banned from D.C. United games for a year. Major League Soccer then banned him from every other stadium for that same period as well. Setting off a smoke bomb in the parking lot was both against the law and against stadium rules, they told him. He was dumbfounded, and his expulsion has sparked something of a low-key uprising among the league's hardcore fans.

Read More: Behind the Scenes of MLS's Efforts to Improve Officiating

MLS originally catered to families, lamentably termed the soccer moms. It wasn't until it pivoted to urban 20-somethings in the last decade that the league took off. Not because only young people show up — a sizable part of stadiums is still occupied by parents with their kids — but because they forged an atmosphere that became as much of a spectacle as the games themselves.

The fan groups have historically enjoyed enormous liberties to help set that mood — the Philadelphia Union's Sons of Ben, who played a considerable role in the genesis of that club, even got to help design their own quadrant of the stadium. But the hardcore supporters feel that the clubs are attempting to sanitize the fan experience, leaning on them to clean up their language and actions. But does MLS risk cannibalizing the thing that makes it worthwhile as a live alternative to all that sumptuous European soccer on your TV?

After all, the biggest thing MLS has going for it is that it's here, stateside, in or just outside your nearest metropolis. And that it's entirely different from going to a baseball or basketball game. That's the essence of the product. For now.

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Parsons concedes that the club informed the District Ultras about a ban on smoke bombs inside the stadium. But, says Parsons, "To the best of my knowledge it was never made clear that the parking lot counted as inside the stadium." He, like several other fans, points out that fireworks are often set off in that same lot after games, and said the club turns a blind eye. Fireworks, like smoke bombs, are illegal in the District of Columbia.

"If I had done something worthy of a ban, got caught and then banned, that's fair and I would accept it and move on," Parsons says. Like several other long-time fans, he claims they'd been using smoke bombs for years without repercussion. "The issue here is the precedent that the organization is trying to set with fans, and that is that we are no more than customers to them and if we do not act or behave as they want, they have no problem kicking us to the curb in hopes that our seats will be filled by some other sucker or youth soccer team."

D.C. United says the fans were very much aware of the rules and that its hands are tied. "The District has very strict laws regarding fireworks, which by their definition includes everything from bottle rockets to smoke machines to fireworks," says Director of Media and Communications Lindsay Simpson. "There's not a lot of wiggle room within the law itself. Devices like that are unequivocally illegal. Adding to that, in our stadium policy and on our stadium grounds, smoke devices are prohibited."

The club says it has handed down punishments before, and rather than turn a blind eye, it often struggles to identify, and therefore punish, the perpetrators. In Parsons' case, the club says it had witnesses and evidence that Parson set off the smoke bomb under a bridge leading to the stadium, alarming children and other spectators.

But Parsons is hardly the only one to feel aggrieved by MLS's actions lately. Other long-time fans also claim that MLS is making a concerted effort to curb and control their activities, and that Parsons is simply the most obvious victim of it. "The whole issue really has very little to do with me personally, which is why you see groups from around North America speaking out about it," Parsons says. "No one would care if I got banned for a legitimate reason, but fans around the league can see that this is just the beginning of a trend to try to mute fans' expressions and control fans to act as they see fit."

The central friction here is MLS's zeal to scale safely — doubling its number of teams in two decades and drawing ever more fans to bigger and better stadiums — while preserving what differentiates the league from every other professional sports offering in the U.S.: its supporter culture.

You could dismiss MLS's stadium culture as an impersonation of what's found in Europe and South America, but the organic thrum of an MLS game — the singing, chanting, drumming and home-made tifo — sets it apart from the sterile and prepackaged atmosphere in other North American leagues, the kind where a JumboTron implores you to "MAKE NOISE."

Yet to allow for all this in a venue with many thousands of other spectators requires a careful balancing act between expression and safety. "We absolutely encourage our fan culture," says Simpson. "We make special exceptions so that they can take their drums and tifos and flag poles in. We're absolutely doing everything we can to cultivate this dynamic fan experience. But when it comes to smoke, not only are our hands tied but we also want to make sure that our fans feel comfortable and safe. To say that we're stifling their culture is looking at this through a pretty myopic lens. There's one issue."

Srdan Bastaic isn't convinced. He's been a hardcore D.C. United fan since 2004 — with the Barra Brava at first, and now with the District Ultras. He grew up on the savage soccer terraces of the Balkans in the 1980s. "This is still the first generation of North American hardcore support, it's still growing even though MLS is doing their best to squash it and control it," he says. "The more cameras and checks and scanners and security presence you have the more sheepish and controllable of a stadium population you'll have as well. These smaller [supporters] groups are popping up in [other] American leagues and most of them seem more supportive than MLS. That's insane to me."

In mid-April, MLS tightened its bag policies, banning coolers, briefcases, backpacks, computer bags and camera bags, among other things. Fans again took umbrage and viewed it within a larger drive to demote them from supporters to customers. The league, once again, points to security and says it consulted extensively with experts.

"There has been I think a really good relationship that's developed between the clubs and their supporter groups," says Mark Abbott, MLS president and deputy commissioner. "And over time the league and the clubs have developed a very good set of policies that balance what we're trying to do in the stadiums and in the parking lots — celebrating the games, which is just fantastic, part of our culture and what's great about Major League Soccer — with safety."

But Devon Rowcliffe, a Vancouver soccer fan, was put off going to Whitecaps games because of the "invasive" pat-downs, the bag checks and the general difficulty of being a hardcore fan. He took particular exception when the club raised the price of the supporters' section tickets, trying to monetize the superior atmosphere those supporters themselves were fostering.

"Most MLS clubs do embrace active supporter culture, but only to a limited extent," Rowcliffe says. "In essence, the clubs enjoy benefitting from the facade of supporter aesthetics, but ultimately view fans merely as customers, rather than as partners in a symbiotic trinity of players, fans, and front-office staff. Active supporters often wonder if they are perceived by MLS clubs as veritable cheerleaders that pay — rather than get paid — to perform at matches.

"Most clubs heavily censor the messaging displayed by supporters, and demand the right to pre-screen them prior to allowing banners into stadiums," Rowcliffe continues. "Vancouver Whitecaps in particular refer specifically to supporter culture in their marketing — 'Be a part of the best sporting atmosphere in Vancouver!' — yet the club engages in many behaviors that actually serve to dampen, censor and control such supporter culture. In these conditions, supporters often feel that it's less hassle to just be passive, as if they were attending a movie theatre instead of a soccer match."

While it's true some MLS teams have censored supporter tifo and chants, the league also works within parameters it can't always control. And it has made an effort to allow smoke where possible. In Columbus, the Crew purchased and maintain a smoke machine which the supporters operate with a button. In Houston, a pyrotechnics expert manages smoke on the supporters' orders. And in whatever cities the fire marshal will sign off on it, the league allows it in stadiums. But in places like D.C., local laws get in the way. In San Jose, the fire marshal decided that Avaya Stadium was too close to the airport and smoke could hamper plane pilots.

"I think what got mischaracterized here was some feeling that the league had engaged in some sort of capricious decision with respect to smoke devices and it's just not true," says Abbott. "It's really straightforward. Where they're prohibited by law, we prohibit them. Where the fire marshal allows them, we allow our supporters, pursuant to an agreement, to follow those procedures. I think it works in 99 percent of the cases. What we can't show flexibility on is violations of the law. That is nothing where I believe we're stifling our fan groups — we're obeying the law."

Still, it feels incongruous for a league to advertise its supporter culture — and it's front and center in many promotional materials and footage — while giving those same supporters the distinct sense that they're encroaching on their freedom to be those very fans.

"I have no problem with clubs or MLS using imagery they had nothing to do with to promote themselves," says Bastaic. "I just take issues when they then ban those people that provided the imagery."