Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thin-skinned, ham-fisted and tone-deaf is no way to go through life

I hesitate to be too judgmental, seeing as I'm not a Public Relations Professional, but it seems calling a team's most ardent supporters big meanieheads and claiming their behavior in unspecified incidents is hurting the club would rank fairly low in the job description for a Direction of Communications. That's exactly what the Chicago Fire's Dan Lobring did this week, though, penning an "editorial" for the club's official website that decried those who criticized him, owner Andrew Hauptman and the front office even though those people are trying REALLY REALLY HARD, YOU GUYS! While it would be easy to dismiss Lobring's post as 1,400 words of sunshine pumping from a man whose job it is to be as positive as humanly possible about a mediocre Major League Soccer team, let's delve a bit into the substance of his complaints.

Lobring spends the first few paragraphs bemoaning the online reaction to his arrival six months ago before reaching the crux of his complaint. He seems genuinely upset by the "personal attacks, threats, accusations, etc." directed at the owner during Chicago's 2-0 home loss to last-place DC United in the US Open Cup semifinals. After helpfully providing a link to the club's charter and quoting the sections on supporters' behavior, he lists examples of the club's work in the community and expresses surprise why anyone would criticize an organization that's working SO HARD to live up to the owner's high standards. He closes by reiterating how proud he is to work for such an "incredible club" and asserting that the silent majority of fans -- the Real Fans, those who want both the club and Lobring to succeed -- will have his back.

I've not had the pleasure of Lobring's company. Judging by his recent appearance on Soccer Morning, I'm sure he'd be a decent enough fellow in person. In his "editorial", however, he comes across as a sniveling weasel. Let's leave aside the questions of why it took him two weeks (the Open Cup match was on Aug. 7) to formulate this post or why he cares so deeply about anonymous fans' opinions about the Fire's director of communications. What did Lobring hope to gain by telling the club's biggest supporters that they were bad fans and, in the process of Doing It Wrong, hurting their team? Listen to the language he uses:
There’s a fine line between love and hate and being critical vs. being destructive.
But don’t also be surprised that if someone personally goes after anyone in the Club or its supporters in a way that defies the inclusive culture being built at the Fire, that the Club will respond sincerely and want to know why they would still want to be a part of it?
Why would we choose to work together on building this Club with anyone who takes a stand that prevents progress, espouses negativity and is just downright not truthful, inhibiting us from doing our jobs to the best of our ability? Or worse, make attending a game for a supporter a fearful experience?
Sounds an awful lot like "if you're not with us, you're against us", doesn't it? All the Real Fans appreciate the Hard Work their club is putting in to Be The Best and will be positive no matter what. Those Bad Fans who are bringing the negativity don't really want the club to succeed and only get in the way of our vision for this Great Club. If his gig with the Fire doesn't work out, perhaps Lobring could land a job with the Korean Central News Agency. He might have to shave, though.

Perhaps not surprisingly, fans who have been part of the "Fire Family" longer than six months didn't take kindly to an arriviste telling them how to support their club and that "[t]he inclusive and authentic nature of our culture starts from the top down." Fire fans have pushed back against Lobring's attacks and pointed out quite accurately that Chicago missed the playoffs once in the pre-Hauptman era but now has done so two of the last three years (or all three, depending on one's interpretation of a loss in last year's "play-in" round) and is in danger of missing out again this year. Chicago's last trophy came in 2006, a year before Hauptman's group bought the club from AEG. The fans also note that Lobring's claims of abusive fan behavior are fairly light on specifics about the alleged confrontation. A clue could come from this post on a message board for Section 8, one of the Fire's supporters groups:
"I was in section 129 directly in front of what I can only assume is the owners' box. At the end of the match I turned around and yelled "please spend money on someone who can score" and some goon yelled back at me "hey asshole, shut the f**k up." I'm a 4 year season ticket holder and sick of this pathetic excuse for leadership. Unreal." 
Was this what prompted Lobring to clutch his pearls and claim "we/I have heard from many longstanding supporters who were afraid, fearful, disgusted with certain attendees behavior"? This made attending a game a "fearful experience"? What a G-rated life he must lead. Also, if all this hot air stems from genuine concern and actual complaints instead of businesscritters getting the vapors after seeing fans get upset over their team performing poorly, why broadcast your disdain across the Internet? Why not take those complaints to the supporters groups and have them self-police, which they've shown a willingness to do? The behavior is all the more puzzling after news emerged that the Fire's CEO signed off on the "editorial" and Hauptman publicly supported Lobring. Given that, it sounds as though the club's official position is that it's willing to go to war against any Fire fans it deems undesirable. That's a peculiar position to take for an organization that -- like most MLS clubs -- depends heavily on gate receipts for its financial health. Would this be an opportune point to mention that this whole kerfuffle comes up before the deadline for season ticket renewals?

It would be one thing if this was a one-off example of a single club's ham-fisted attempt to beat back criticism of its underwhelming on-field performance. Instead, this fits with a larger trend of MLS and its clubs trying to micromanage their fans, and in so doing driving a wedge between the league and its most fervent supporters. For example, consider the attempt by MLS to trademark the Cascadia Cup -- the trophy created by Portland, Seattle and Vancouver supporters groups in 2004 (prior to any of the clubs joining MLS) and awarded to the team with the best head-to-head record among the three. The league claimed that “[a] registered trademark would put Major League Soccer in a position to protect the brand from exploitation by parties unaffiliated with the League and its supporters." The league acted unilaterally and tried to assume control of something it didn't create in order to "protect the brand" on the off chance someone other than MLS tried to profit off the Cascadia Cup. Fortunately, sanity prevailed in the end and the Cascadia Cup Council (comprised of the three clubs' supporters groups) retained the name, logo and likeness of the trophy, but the initial swoop was a surprisingly tone-deaf move by a league that rarely puts a foot wrong in the PR department.

Then there's the YSA Affair. If trying to assimilate the Cascadia Cup in Borg-like style was a well-intentioned if poorly-executed move by MLS, this borders on Big Brother behavior. For those not hip to the lingo, supporters groups have been known to shout "you suck, asshole" in unison when the opposing keeper takes a goal kick. Without question it's sophomoric and hardly creative; it's also fairly harmless. To MLS and its clubs, though, apparently stamping YSA out of existence is a matter of grave concern. Real Salt Lake, Seattle, New England, Colorado, New York and other clubs have demanded supporters groups stop YSA or face several possible sanctions, including a prohibition on many of the objects and displays that help supporters groups generate the atmosphere that MLS so loves to advertise. Again, note the language used in this letter from RSL to its supporters groups, telling fans they must:
(1) demonstrate a universal commitment to eradicate YSA, its derivatives and other chants employing mass use of foul language –both at Rio Tinto Stadium and on the road; (2) support messaging campaigns via web, social media and face-to-face to all supporters, including a public endorsement to eradicate such chants; and (3) energetically overshadow attempts at YSA during goal kicks both at Rio Tinto Stadium and on the road.
New York supporters groups received a very similar letter not long after their RSL counterparts, though to the Red Bulls' meager credit they did offer bribes to groups that cease YSA instead of jumping straight to shutting down supporters. Do MLS and these clubs really think they can dictate what outside groups do and do not put on their social media accounts? Even if the league's sole intent is to make the game-day experience more family-friendly, a well-intentioned abuse of power is still an abuse of power. All this follows on the heels of well-behaved New England supporters being ejected, banned and arrested two years ago and Colorado admitting to keeping secret files on supporters and banning one fan for life for "verbal assault" without even being told of the accusation. Getting an Orwellian vibe yet?

This all smacks of paternalistic micromanagement by businessfolk who live in fear of not maximizing their earning potential. Why would MLS wage such a campaign against the fans it claims to love and support? The cynical (if not entirely incorrect) answer is money. All three of the league's television deals expire at the end of 2014, so it would behoove MLS to paint as positive a picture of its product as possible in the run-up to negotiations. The league might also be worried about potential customers shying away over concerns about supporters' salty language. This is an understandable concern, but how much business from profanophobes is MLS really losing? League attendance is on a steady upward climb, and average attendance is better than 18,000 per game thus far this season (and that's with Chicago's attendance down 14 percent from last year and Chivas USA's down more than 33 percent). Has MLS received so many complaints about YSA and other colorful metaphors from the fearful, invisible masses that it feels compelled to embark on this leaguewide crackdown?

Any desire on the part of MLS to rein in supporters groups must be tempered with the knowledge that it is those same boisterous fans on whose backs (and vocal cords) the league builds so much of its public face. The league and club owners are at once pushing the raucous atmosphere generated by supporters as an example of how hip and vibrant the league is yet also attempting to pour cold water over those same supporters lest some church group get their ears singed. Making hardcore supporters feel marginalized and unwelcome is self-defeating -- those fans show up and spend money week in, week out and do far more for the club than the suburban family of four that comes to the stadium once a month. Spite these fans in the pursuit of a family-friendly atmosphere and MLS will only end up spiting itself.

Spend a few minutes watching SportsCenter (yes, it's a big ask) and see what major issues this country's leading sports leagues are tackling -- performance-enhancing drugs, player safety, work stoppages, caring for retired players, etc. Yet MLS feels a nationwide crusade against naughty language is a good use of the league's time and resources? For a league whose leadership counts so many savvy business minds among its number, these attempts to manipulate and coerce supporters are stunningly ham-fisted and tone-deaf. It's instances such as these only further the belief that, for all its success and good intentions, MLS HQ's opaque style of governance belies a leadership that is out of touch with the lifeblood of the league -- the fans.

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