In Pacific Northwest soccer, this is a rivalry week. The winner of this Sunday’s match takes the lead in the Cascadia Cup and helps secure their playoff berth.
Just as interesting is a conflict brewing further south between the San Jose Earthquakes front office and the 1906 Ultras supporters group. This match is about brand control, the game day product and leadership.
Note: I have no love for either the Earthquakes or the 1906 Ultras. I chose to write about this topic as an interesting study in the relationship between brand and influencer and what happens when that relationship goes bad.
In the last few months, the San Jose Earthquakes front office has been rescinding some of the supporter group’s privileges like away game travel, tifo (large banners and displays), profanity and general freedom. This isn’t entirely without some cause, as there have been instances of violence in the last year involving San Jose fans. The lack of freedom for the Ultras has negatively impacted the game-day experience according to the average fan. The same fan that the Quakes and MLS are trying to attract.
Unfortunately for both sides, the battle has taken to social media channels and soccer journals instead of one-on-one discussions. Message to the Earthquakes: fighting your customer in the press is never a good idea.
Conflict between supporters and the front office is nothing new. In towns like Columbus, Portland and Seattle, all with strong supporter cultures, the front offices quickly realized that the game day experience went beyond the product on the field. They found ways to communicate with the supporters groups, resolve issues and create a great game day experience. To make that happen the supporter groups had to step up and show real leadership and demonstrate that they could take responsibility for activities in the stands and around the stadiums.
When there are incidents of violence, disrespect or intimidation, supporter groups can’t use the excuse “it was just a few fans.” Supporter groups have an extraordinary amount of cultural influence over fan behavior and need to exercise it.
The 1906 Ultras need to take responsibility for the game day experience as much as the front office. They need to self-police, they need to identify a few leaders who can speak for fans and negotiate effectively and they need to create a culture of responsibility.
For the most part the 1906 Ultras that I’ve met were fun, respectful and passionate. But they carry a cultural history that includes antagonism and aggression. For instance, take their logo which is reminiscent of the characters from Bill Buford’s book Among The Thugs and extending to their tifo, which at times focuses more on insulting other supporter groups than celebrating the San Jose Earthquakes. The 1906 Ultras can’t win until they take responsibility, focus on supporting the team and the local soccer community and create a culture that is about the joy of soccer and not the antagonism of their enemies.
The front office can’t win this battle as long as they believe that they own their brand outright. In any organization your brand is shared between you and your customers.
If the front office realizes that the 1906 Ultras are critical to the Earthquake’s success and deal honestly and fairly and the Ultras continue to self police fans actions, then both organizations will win — at least until they play the Timbers.