You haven’t seen me around the last two weeks or so. There’s a reason for that: namely, I was on a roadtrip to the Pacific Northwest, and I didn’t have time on the road to research and write anything for here at any point. I had about enough online time to alert friends and family as to where I’d shacked up on any given night, check in on them in turn, and that was more or less it.
The recent arrests and indictments of FIFA officials by the FBI and Swiss police got sprung on me the same night I arrived home. Normally I’d be all over this, and if you follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook, you’ll see that’s exactly the case. I’ll likely start diving into the matter here at the Minnow Tank in time. But right now, I have slightly different business, as I want to share a story from the road.
Namely, my day with the Emerald City Supporters (ECS), the local ultras of the Seattle Sounders, spent alongside a member who also happened to be a fellow forumer on another online board of mine, going (in person) by the name Bender, that I was meeting up with and who helped fill me in on the situation. For those of you who’ve never been inside a supporters section, here’s a taste of what it’s like.
My last full day before starting for home was devoted to the Sounders’ May 23 match against Sporting Kansas City. The story of this game is tied to the Sounders’ match the previous week, visiting the Vancouver Whitecaps. I’m not able to find a clip of the incident, but I do recall seeing it in the highlights of the match beforehand in hotel rooms earlier in my trip. So I know it happened. What had happened was that MLS had wanted to put a camera on the ECS bus to Vancouver. ECS told them no. When they got to the game, ECS found not one, but three league cameras trained on them without their consent. The incident was that one supporter, at some point, flipped the bird, and that got on camera and wound up in the highlights packages. The fan received a stadium ban and was ordered to take a code-of-conduct course.
I met up with Bender at one of the ECS’s customary meeting places, a bar called Temple Billards. It wasn’t very full- it looked okay for some random day in a random burg in Wisconsin like I might see at home, but as a pregame soccer bar meetup point, it was considered barren. This was by design. The core supporters were being asked to meet up at another bar a couple streets away called Fuel for a meeting regarding the events in Vancouver. A little after Bender and I arrived there, another member of ECS, who I never got the name of, was handed a microphone and she gave the rundown for any latecomers (such as us). As it happened, things weren’t going to be left at that.
The ECS traditionally holds a pregame ‘March to the Match’ starting at Occidental Park in Pioneer Square, more or less kitty-corner from Fuel and a couple blocks from CenturyLink Field. Fearing that this, too, was to be co-opted by MLS, and noting that the fans are independent supporters and not advertising branches for the league, the core supporters were going to do things a little differently: they were going to start the march right there at Fuel (where they’d originally started the march from in the days before this whole MLS thing came along), parade behind a construction zone across the street from Occidental Park (where cameras wouldn’t see them), merge with the rest of the supporters after the park, and reassert control. Solidarity was also expressed for the fan from the Vancouver game, not so much for his right to flip the bird whenever he wants, but because he’s one of them and the imperative is to stick together.
A fuller rundown from ECS about what was said can be found here.
Thus duly fired up, the march began, beginning the nightlong drumbeat of songs and chants inherent with any self-respecting supporter group. For first-timers like myself, song cards are made available so you know what’s being sung and can join in, as is your duty if you’re going to be part of the crowd. I’m an Aston Villa supporter first and foremost, but as the Sounders aren’t playing Villa anytime soon, I had no qualms about doing just that. Gimme the song card…
…er, ‘Seattle’ by Perry Como? I don’t know that one. Perry Como is not my lyrical wheelhouse. I could, however, suss out the rest, at least after a repetition or so. (As I quickly discovered, and was informed, not all the songs are actually on the card. The ones that aren’t are either very simple, or contain bad words, or are verses of songs on the card that contain bad words.) Everything that was on the card, as well as some things that weren’t, are also available to view here, on the ECS website.
The song/chant selection is done by what amounts to an ultras cheerleader universally referred to as the capo. They’re not used everywhere, but here they are used. This is pretty much always going to be a guy; this game was no exception. Make of that what you will. The capo’s job during a match is to stand in front of the supporters section with his back to the game- though in some cases, Seattle included, there’s a Jumbotron behind the section so the capo can still see what’s going on in the game. For the most part, what’s going on in the game isn’t really important, as the capo leads the supporters and gets them as loud and boisterous as possible regardless of how the game is going. He’ll be on some sort of elevated platform so everyone can see him- in some cases having to straddle a retaining fence in order to do so- and at least in our case, he had a microphone so as to be better heard. The capo decides what gets chanted (starting it off and monitoring to see when the energy needs to be picked back up), when it gets chanted (with the occasional quick break to save everyone’s lungs and throats), and how long it gets chanted; in ECS’s case at least, there’s a signal for when to stop: one fist up means wrap it up after the next rep of the current chant, two fists crossed means stop everything right now. A few lieutenants were off to the sides, in the midst of the crowd, to help the capo carry out his orders.
This extends to the march, which the capo, naturally, leads. As the march was led behind the construction zone, green smoke canisters were set off as part of the spectacle. I happened to walk right over the first one deployed while it was still emitting smoke… and tried to chant.
PROTIP: Never do that. You just get a mouthful of smoke, which makes it rather hard to chant anyway. It pretty much wrecked me for most of the march (I’m okay). When I wound up walking over the others- I was positioned in the middle of the street- I just hiked the front of my shirt up to my mouth and waited it out. A couple times over the course of the night, I’d be coughing it out and a neighboring supporter would ask if I was okay. Turns out walking over a smoke canister is considered a perfectly reasonable explanation. Once I got into the stadium, my first task was to get a drink, but there weren’t any sodas I drink for sale, and the best thing on hand other than water was a Starbucks hot chocolate. (PROTIP: That was a poor decision. Get the water.)
This is all serious business in the soccer world. In ‘Soccernomics’ by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, it was determined that home field advantage in soccer is worth two-thirds of a goal. With the low scoring rate in soccer, two-thirds of a goal per game is a massive edge. The ultras are more than pulling their weight; their team is literally much less capable of doing it without them. As such, their job is down to a science. Organization, speaking with one voice, is far superior to the disorganized cheering common in the old-guard North American sports. Deciding for themselves how to cheer makes for a more enthusiastic and attentive fanbase than waiting for the scoreboard operator to exhort the crowd to ‘make some noise’ or ‘charge’. Signs are well and good, but they’re far better when A) everyone’s given prior consent to having their view blocked by them- we’re all familiar with that complaint at a game- and B) the fans organize in advance what displays get shown. A couple scattered signs saying ‘Go X’ or creating acronyms out of the broadcasting network’s name are less impressive than one gigantic pregame display that the entire section participates in, or at least, a ton of signs and banners all over the place isn’t half bad either.
In essence, you want an environment that makes it look like the supporters section is half-crazed and frightening for the opposition to be in the presence of, without actually being, you know, dangerous or anything. (Though some ultra groups will gleefully cross that line.)
This was the view immediately behind me during the march. Does that look like a group you want to mess with? No? Then they’ve done their job.
Before starting the march, one such example of this was demonstrated. As a further show of defiance against MLS authority, the members of ECS were asked what they were going to do when the cameras fell on them. A slew of middle fingers were raised (not mine, though). The message: if you ban one of us, be ready to ban all of us. However, once in the stadium, the capo clarified the situation slightly. You see, at a game in the 2013 season against the Portland Timbers, the camera happened to fall on a fan who was busy flipping off their ultras, the Timbers Army. Unfortunately for all involved, this happened during the national anthem. Hilarity ensued. This was doubly important to know on this particular game, as the Sporting KC match happened to fall on Memorial Day weekend. So while the middle fingers were going to come out, the capo instructed the ECS to holster them during the color guard display, moment of silence and national anthem, just to make sure there’s no tragic misunderstandings this time. I didn’t see any, so, mission accomplished.
He also provided a rundown of what was likely to happen in the game itself: recent matches against Kansas City had seen little scoring up until second-half stoppage time, and then everything went down at once. No game between the two has ever resulted in a margin of victory of more than one goal. He told ECS to expect no different. When anything particularly notable did happen in the game, a scoring chance, a hard tackle, and ECS began reacting to it like normal fans, the capo immediately jumped to reassert control, continuing the current chant himself and getting the group back to business. When one supporter produced a video camera (my point-and-click camera was apparently fine or at least went unnoticed), the capo gazed at the fan and went “…Not today.” (And shortly afterwards, “I’m sorry. Send him to me afterwards; I’ll buy him a beer.”)
There were really only a few instances where ECS was not being managed by the capo: as the group was going through the turnstiles (although this didn’t go without a verse of ‘Let Us In’ sung over and over to the tune of Stars and Stripes Forever), and during some of halftime. When the scoreboard operator told all the fans just before the game to get their scarves up- a pregame tradition- the capo begged to differ. This was a day of defiance. If CenturyLink Field as a whole is being told by The Man to get their scarves up, ECS was going to keep theirs down. And they did.
Not that there weren’t moments of cooperation, but ECS demanded the lead. The capo would, at a few points, instruct ECS to chant “Seaaaaaaattllllleeee!,” and wait for the rest of the stadium to obligingly chant “Souuunnnnnderrrrrrs!” At one point, the capo seemed amused by this arrangement.
Even the downtimes were carefully managed: at several points in the game, as opposed to a song or chant, the capo, still mindful of the theme of ECS solidarity running through the night, instructed everyone in the supporters section to turn around and say hi to their neighbor (seats are general admission). Really mean it, too. This is a community, after all. Seriously. Strike up a conversation with whoever’s next to you. Go on. Do it. This is how I found out the guy in the seat in front of me also happened to be in from Wisconsin, although he’d actually moved to the area and wasn’t visiting like I was.
Towards the end of the game, the capo made a call to the supporters to take a little pity on the other meetup bars that had been largely cleared out so that everyone could meet at Fuel, Temple Billiards included. Head to them after the game and make up for the lost business from earlier. (I have no idea whether this was done, because my task after the game was to get back to the parking garage and my hotel and prepare to start for home first thing in the morning. But I’m confident it was.) And then… oh yeah. The game’s in a scoreless draw and we’re nearing second-half stoppage time. Come on, ECS! You only have to keep it up for three more minutes! Empty those lungs out! Come on! Come on!
The Sounders didn’t come on. Neither did Kansas City. Seattle really should have taken the win- they had 65% possession on the match- but only one shot out of their ten was on target (Sporting was 3-for-9). No goals, one point apiece. It was actually a distressing result for Seattle, as they’d won seven of their other nine meetups against Kansas City, losing only in their inaugural meeting in 2009.
Most of the supporters stuck around to sing the Sounders into the locker room, and to chant the name of goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who was named Man of the Match. I, however, had to prepare for three days and over 2,000 miles of driving home, and left not long after the final whistle.
If you ever find yourself amongst your club’s ultras, hopefully this provides a taste of what to expect when you’re there. Every club’s local ultras have their own traditions, customs and mentalities. But there’s a fair bit that broadly holds true. Many of the same songs and chants are passed from club to club, the lyrics altered slightly to suit local situations- the ECS song card, for instance, contained the ‘No one likes us, we don’t care‘ chant originally made famous by Millwall, and Seattle is far from alone in co-opting it. Many of the same props are used by most clubs- scarves, flags, banners, smoke to name a few- and it’s typically a matter of which implements are used by a particular club and how often. And although not every game is spent sending some sort of message, like this one was, the sense of community is absolutely everywhere.
It wouldn’t be a supporters group, after all, if it wasn’t a group.
Go ahead. Say hi to your neighbor.
The cornerstone of North America’s efforts to achieve competitive balance in a league is revenue sharing. Some teams make far more money than others, but if some of the money from high-revenue teams is sent to low-revenue teams, everyone gets rich and healthy. The richer teams may not enjoy it, but it isn’t really about them. After all, they’ll live. It’s not impressive to win if you’ve got nobody to play.
If you’re a soccer league with a promotion/relegation system, things get quite hairy on this front. Some teams will be in the league more often than others, and leaving the league via relegation means getting cut off from a hell of a lot of money. Sometimes clubs get so harshly stung by the loss of revenue- and players who immediately left to latch on to someone that isn’t relegated- that they get relegated again the next season, and maybe even the one after that as well. England provides parachute payments to freshly relegated clubs to make up for this in part, although this merely serves to move the gulf a little further south, into the muck of the next tier down.
A large part of that revenue sharing comes from television deals. While at least in the US- I have no idea how it works in other larger nations- teams independently strike up local TV deals to air their games regionally (and this is a big part of baseball’s money gulf), the bread and butter of a league’s TV situation are the deals to air games nationwide. In smaller countries, the bulk of Europe included, it’s really not practical to have local TV deals anyway- and if you’re making overseas broadcast deals, ‘regional’ games aren’t really a thing. When nationwide deals are done, it’s a given that it’s going to involve every team in the league, and the networks will get predetermined games and/or flex in key matchups as the season goes.
Unless you’re Spain.
For some time now, La Liga has been operating under two TV deals: one for Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, and one for the other 18 clubs. The Real/Barca deal, which only has to be split two ways, is worth three times the non-Real/Barca deal, which must be split 18 ways. The rules in Spain allow teams to negotiate their own deals, leading to the big two essentially teaming up for the purposes of taking all the money for themselves and fighting it out amongst each other while the remainder of the league is forced to beg for scraps. That, however, is slated to change. Under a deal before the Spanish government, the league would switch to a model more akin to the norm: 50% of the money generated from league TV deals would be split evenly among the clubs, 25% would be split according to ratings, and 25% would be split according to how teams finish in the table.
Ah yes. The league-table provision of revenue sharing. That creates inequalities of its own. The exact parameters of this can vary from place to place, but generally under this system, each position in the table is assigned a dollar amount- each successive position awarding more money- and where you finish determines how much you get. Most competitions feature some form of this system, and the money adds up as the competitions pile up; this, for instance, is the prize fund for England’s FA Cup this year. If you consistently finish well, you soak up more of the money.
If you get relegated, well… the deal also covers the second tier of the Spanish pyramid, the Segunda Division. 90% of the total money from the deal will go to La Liga; 10% will head to the Segunda Division. Getting relegated is still as bad an idea as ever if you want to stay financially healthy.
How much can be done about that, really, is a bit of a dilemma. Obviously, the best funding and the most attention is going to go to the best teams, but a healthy pyramid should see health at all levels, from champions to mid-table to yo-yo clubs on down to the grassroots projects. Getting relegated hurts, but you don’t want the club to be placed in immediate mortal peril for the experience. But then, how much money is out there to get people to watch lower-level clubs on TV?
At least finishing third won’t be such a disaster anymore.