It's often said that the lifeblood of a soccer club is its supporters. Without them a club is nothing. The most easily recognised aspect of fans' importance lies in their support of the club: motivating the players with their enthusiasm, cheering and song. They give their clubs personality and culture.
In a more basic sense, supporters enable the club to exist. They provide a revenue stream with which the club pays its players. From ticket and merchandise sales, to sponsorship dollars paid by companies hoping to capitalise on the legions of devotees already known for brand loyalty, fans are a club’s most valuable capital. Without them, they could never pay the bills.
But is this dependence two-way; can supporters exist without clubs?
When it comes to European clubs and their analogous supporters groups -- many with century-long relationships -- determining which came first is quite the chicken or the egg debate. Were there fans of football before the club, or were fans drawn to a side already assembled? While someone undoubtedly knows the answer to that question when it comes to Europe, I don't. However, the great thing about being in America at this point in our country's football evolution -- where most clubs and their supporters' histories only stretch back a little over a decade -- is that we've been able to watch that answer unfold before us.
So, in the US at least, which came first: the soccer club or the supporters groups?
Looking around American soccer landscape, many supporters groups share similar founding dates to those of their clubs. That makes sense: it's easy to hypothesize a new team will have new fans sprout up at the same time as their founding. Consider the recent founding of USL Pro side Orlando City SC and their supporters group, The Ruckus.
At the club's founding press conference back in 2010, Lori Detwiler-Conlee and her husband Dan found themselves to be the only "supporters” in attendance. Surrounded by journalists, club partners and staff, the dismal fan turnout was a disappointment. The pair had long been excited about the prospects of professional soccer in Central Florida. Undeterred, Lori and Dan still pushed ahead with organizing an official supporters. Initially, their efforts were the basics: word of mouth and internet forums. However, they also had the foresight to reach out to then-GM Steve Donner to get the club involved too. And thanks to combined efforts such as live recruitment events, when a crowd of around fifty gathered for the first exhibition match against the Philadelphia Union, it was clear they were on to something.
Luckily, the Lions have continued to see value in the relationship that Lori and Dan built between supporters and themselves. The Ruckus have also capitalized on the opportunity, being granted permission for unique props like a 1300 watt smoke machine and a 22-foot tall inflatable tifo - both “world firsts" according to Lori. A supporters' liaison has also been assigned by the club to work directly with the Ruckus. Current collaborative projects include a shuttle to and from local pubs for home matches, and organized bus trips for away dates.
So while examples of that sort are common on this side of the pond, it wouldn’t that big of a stretch to expect some groups might even predate the clubs they support, too. While soccer's popularity skyrocketed over the last decade, the various American pro leagues have been scrambling to keep up with the growing demand in the remaining major markets. There must have been some groups that beat the leagues to the punch, right?
Look at the Philadelphia's Sons of Ben. Gathering at a bar in 2007 - three years before the Union first kicked off in the city - three Philly-based soccer enthusiasts, Bryan James, Andy Dillon, and Dave Flagler decided it was time to let MLS know that there was a genuine, sincere interest in having a club in Philadelphia. With the league in a period of rapid expansion, rumours of a competing bid from St. Louis and the failure of a previous bid in Southern New, the trio founded SoB to let the league know Philly was the city most deserving of the league's next franchise. Grassroots efforts ranging from discussions on BigSoccer.com message boards, attending the matches of local minor league indoor side, the Kixx, to organizing group outings at New York Red Bull matches to sing in unison about Philadelphia (an irritation that spawned their current rivalry). Each events goal was the same: catch Don Garber and company's attention. Another energetic/grating outing at MLS Cup 2007 in D.C. further catapulted the team into the sport's domestic eye. If nothing else, these efforts caught the eye of the late, great Steven Wells, whose ensuing pieces for FourFourTwo and The Guardian shed a national spotlight on the "supporters supporting nothing".
In just a little under a year from their initial meeting in the bar, the original trios continued efforts and the increased exposure saw the Sons of Ben’s paying membership surge over a thousand. So by the time MLS finally announced the Philadelphia expansion in February of 2008, they received an unsurprising, yet deserved, nod at the press conference for helping to convince the league leadership to award the franchise to Philly.
Much like their counterparts in Orlando, the Sons of Ben have continued to reap the rewards of being first to the table, too. According to current SoB president Matt Ansbro, the group has maintained "constant communication with the team, [meeting] with them as often as possible, and continue to have open and frank discussions." This has seen them wield influence over decisions such as the Union's match day experience, to having a say in the design of the River End of PPL Park where the group resides. Additionally, their commitment to philanthropy has helped the team quickly integrate themselves with the impoverished Chester community - a documentary film chronicling their efforts isn't too far off in the distance.
As you might expect, the success experienced by the Sons of Ben in helping their city to land a professional soccer franchise has caught the attention of other supporters around the country aiming for similar goals.
Take for instance the Brickyard Battalion, a supporters group from Indianapolis that - as you might expect - is without a team to call their own. And just as with the Ruckus and SoB, the Battalion's beginnings were humble. Founding members Brett Corbit and Derek Richey originally got their start by creating a Facebook page for an imaginary club, Racing Indy FC. Word spread, and fellow Hoosier footie fanatics Justin Weise and Danniel Eccles independently created their own Facebook pages: one for a real supporters group for said imaginary team, and the other for a movement to bring pro soccer to Indiana. When the quartet's paths inevitably crossed, they too realized they were on to something. According to Derek, now the group president, it was at this point that "we all realised how many soccer fans there are in Indy. We thought an MLS or NASL team could grow and flourish here."
The Battalion's membership, replicating their predecessors in Philadelphia, swelled as the word has continued to spread. The only opposition for Indianapolis to get a team, it seemed, was to find the right investors to partner the movement. Fruitless meetings organized by Corbit and Richey with potential financiers seemed to lead only to dead ends. But unbeknownst to them, their spirit and growth had caught the eye of former Chicago Fire GM Peter Wilt. Along with an investment team of local soccer-loving businessmen, Wilt saw in the Brickyard Battalion not only the demand for a team in Indianapolis, but also a passionate community willing to organize even without a team to unite them. Partnering that kind of momentum with a willing and able ownership group, Wilt thinks he has what he needs to make a serious run at a NASL franchise by 2014. Recent publicity in the Indianapolis and national press, also mirroring the Sons of Ben's success, has seen interest continue to balloon.
As you might expect, Richey and the Battalion are thrilled with the progress. But they're not letting their recent rise in exposure go to their heads. However, with no team to root for in the immediate future, what's next? "To get all of our members signed up, excited and bought in to the process of building a team," said Richey. "We'll be doing a member drive soon and getting local businesses to help sponsor it. The goal is to keep the passion growing." All told, the Brickyard Battalion seem to be following a successful blueprint.
So what does this all mean? While it may be difficult to ascertain in Europe, in America at least, the supporters group most definitely can come before the club.
Remember, it's the nature of the American soccer that makes this possible. Popularity is booming. Television coverage is expanding. Attendances are up. Expansion is in the air. And as demand for the professional game grows, major cities without a professional team to call their own will grapple for the next opening. But if Orlando and Philadelphia have taught us anything, it's that if you can build sizable, energetic support and get some recognition, you'll likely find yourselves with a leg up on the competition.
And if you're successful in helping your city land a franchise - be it in USL, NASL or MLS - it's likely you'll have a lot more say in its culture than you would have after its inception. Getting to mould a club's personality, playing a part in how things the club will treat its fans: that's what they call "the icing on the cake".
Just ask any member of the Ruckus, the Sons of Ben and (hopefully soon) the Brickyard Battalion: the perks of getting in before the party started are sweet indeed. And for the clubs, the loyalty earned for rewarding them will go a long way to ensuring their long term viability and success.Read more from DJ at Wrong Side of the Pond at follow him on Twitter @wrongsideofpond