Tuesday, July 12, 2011

RBNY Must Be Certain To Support The Supporters

by Dick Mac

Responsibility for operating a sporting venue is a huge undertaking. I am not an operations guy, and could never handle these headaches.

Red Bull New York (RBNY) has hired Chris Heck as the new President of Operations, which means he will run Red Bull Arena (RBA). Mr. Heck is most recently an NBA guy.

This is the first changing of the guard at RBA, and I am concerned about it.

RBA has some problems. There are fewer problems for the players and staff than for the paying customer, so I think the problems get lost in the self-congratulations of successfully building a FIFA-approved, world-class stadium in an industrial wasteland.

Paramount to me (no shock to my friends or readers) is the parking and transportation problem. There is enough privately-owned parking in the immediate vicinity to handle the crowd only if RBA is less than two-thirds full. Any more than that and the rest of the fans spend a ridiculous amount of time getting to the more remote parking lots and an even more ridiculous amount of time walking to the gates.

Mr. Heck insists he will increase attendance by making the match day experience memorable. I will note that he does not say it will be a positive memory, just that it will be memorable.

Before he embarks on changing the world at Harrison, New Jersey, I would like to see him attend ten home matches matches by parking in the most remote parking lot, walking his family down Rodgers Blvd., and through the acres of wasteland that fronts the stadium, then at the end of this exercise hold a press conference explaining with a straight-face that RBA is a great place to bring the family.

Since the team seems to be in denial about the difficulty of fans to get to and from the stadium, Mr. Heck's mission to increase attendance could fail. If he ignores the transit/parking issue, he will have to find other reasons why people aren't coming. And this is where I become fearful.

Remember the NBA removing long-time Knicks fans and season-ticket holders from the stands at Madison Square Garden because they held signs that were not supportive of Isaiah Thomas? It wasn't that long ago. Mr. Heck worked for those people, now he works for RBNY and MLS.

There is a notion among sports management types that fans are the problem, that fan behavior is the problem, that long-time fans who are passionate about the game are the problem. There is an amazing notion among sports management types that certain behavior must be curtailed so that some mysterious fans who've never been to the stadium will magically appear at the gates, clutching handfuls of greenbacks because the riff-raff has been dealt-with.

I remember a few years back when a long-time fan, a friend of mine, was awarded the Fan Of The Year award. When Giants Stadium filled-up with housewives trying to see David Beckham remove his shirt, he was ejected and banned for life.

I know women come to see David Beckham take his shirt off, and it's OK with me. My wife is one of them. She couldn't tell you a Jack Jewsbury from a Brek Shea, but I need to have extra tickets when Los Angeles comes to town.

In general, the story goes like this: my friend attends every match and sits in middle-priced seats with his season tickets. He cheers with the crowd, he boos with the crowd, he sings with the supporters groups, he has a good time. Those around him know him, he is a good guy, and a good neighbor at the stadium.

On Naked David Beckham Day when RBNY sells triple the number of tickets as usual, a suburban housewife was seated near him with her angelic children (children who it seems have never been exposed to other human beings). The crowd was boisterous and loud, the chants were going on and on, fans were rising and sitting and yelling and (heaven forbid) cursing. Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children, who has never been to the stadium before, complains to security that my friend is being vulgar. My friend then successfully hurls an expletive her way and it hits the bulls-eye: perfect shot, right on the money. He knows he should not have done this, but no big deal really. Come to find out, it is a big deal. He is escorted from the stadium, his name taken, told his season ticket revoked, and that he is banned for life. This is the team's fan of the year!

It is unlikely that Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children ever attended another match; she probably didn't even attend Naked David Beckham Day the next season because, well, she has now seen Naked David Beckham, has no interest in the sport or the team, and never planned to come back anyhow.

Perhaps you think this is an isolated incident. Perhaps you would be wrong.

RBNY and MLS have a fixation on this "family-friendly" concept that pretends a sporting event is akin to enjoying a couple of pieces of white bread, lightly toasted with a little butter and marmalade. Should a splash of hot coffee land atop the bread, then the entire experience is ruined and, well, somebody will pay.

RBNY and MLS also run a sporting venue at which they sell beer, so coffee often splashes on the toast. You can even get hard liquor if you pay for certain access.

Unfortunately for MLS and RBNY and their "family-friendly" notion, American families really don't look or act like an Eisenhower-era television show. They are actual living organisms and they are all different from each other. Most families know that a little coffee sometimes splashes on the toast.

The few insane people who cannot handle a little coffee splashed on the toast get all the attention, and ruin the matchday experience of the people in the stadium who are having fun. In the above example, the woman who complained about my friend was the person in the situation that had no clue what was going on around her. People like her should be kept out of sporting events. They rarely attend sporting events anyhow, so any team that caters to them is doing themselves, their shareholders, and their long-time fans a disservice. If Mr. Heck is being hired to further implement this fictional "family-friendly" concept, then we are doomed.

"Things," you say to me, "have changed since the team opened their own facility."

"Yes," I say, "to a degree."

It is true that the sections behind the south goal are reserved to accommodate supporters groups and that fans are told when they purchase reduced-price tickets in those sections that it is "standing and singing."

It appears that it is not fully explained, however, that this means everybody in the section really will be standing and really will be singing.

My understanding is that when somebody purchases these tickets, the salesperson tells the customer this, and those words are printed on the ticket. This is hearsay, but I know the team, and I know supporters, so it seems plausible.

It seems, however, that some fans interpret this to actually mean: "I Am Purchasing Reduced-Price Tickets For My Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children Who Expect To Watch The Match Unmolested As If They Are In A Luxury Suite."

What happens is that Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children is upset to learn she in the midst of a passionate soccer crowd, an actual supporters group, and her family's comfort matters to nobody. Those brazen supporters are actually standing and actually singing, and on top of that they are waving flags, and having fun. It's true: her comfort matters to nobody in that section.

Well, nobody except the security guard who believes that Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children is being treated poorly, and the supporters (who are in that section during every match) need to be punished. Said security person then takes matters into his own hands, re-interprets the unwritten policy and instead of moving Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children to another section, decides that longtime, season-ticket-holders from the supporters group are in the wrong.

What follows isn't pretty and the general attitude towards supporters groups is not positive.

Supporters group members take the brunt of the conflict resolution and Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children leaves the match at the end of the day, having disrupted the accepted and agreed-upon culture of the stadium, never to return again, because she never intended to return again anyhow.

Nothing is done to protect the supporters groups.

It is the job of the President of Operations to protect the supporters groups from such hostility and intrusion, as much as it is his responsibility to protect Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children (who has no intention of ever attending another match again).

Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children is not coming back because she has nominal interest in the sport, not because a supporter with a viking helmet waved a flag in the supporters section.

Mr. Heck's understanding of the role of the supporters groups, his efforts to get to know them, his desire to accommodate them, and his ability to protect them from less desirable elements such as the Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children who will never purchase another ticket, will define much about the near-term future operations of RBA.

If the supporters groups are alienated, or their hard-earned relationship with the front office is diminished by a new operations manager, there will be a slide in attendance that no group of Suburban Housewives With Angelic Children will ever make-up.

The local police do not understand the role of the supporters groups. The local citizenry does not understand the role of the supporters groups. Many casual fans do not understand the role of the supporters groups.

It is the job of the front office, including the operations team, to educate local police, the surrounding community, and less dedicated fans about the importance of supporters clubs to club soccer. No other sport has such a culture (certainly not the NBA with its culture of movie stars at center court), and it is imperative that Mr. Heck find a way to manage the relationship among his operations team, the front office, other fans, and our amazing supporters groups.

RBNY has the most erudite supporters groups in the league, and they are known in Europe as very smart, and very passionate. They are an asset, not a problem. They must be treasured and nurtured, not punished and restricted.

I want Mr. Heck to succeed; but I do not want him to undermine the very solid standing of the supporters groups in the hope of attracting an additional Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children, or two.

We can all co-exist, and it is the job of the front office, especially during this changing of the guard, to ensure we are all protected from the whims of new managers in a depressed economy, and the vagaries of a Suburban Housewife With Angelic Children.

I am not a suburban housewife, but I do have an angelic child who is in her fourth year as a season-ticket holder. I am not a huge fan of all of the supporters' chants now that I have my angelic child with me. She finally deciphered the real words to the Y-S-A chant, and we lived through it; she wasn't mortified and I wasn't totally embarrassed. I laugh about it now, after three years of shielding her from it. It's nothing worse than she will hear throughout her childhood at the playground or in the yard at Catholic school.

She had her first visit to one of the supporters group restaurants and she had a blast. I have secretly made her an honorary member (but don't tell anybody). She loves the excitement of the supporters groups, and at seven years old, she knows from exciting.

We like the supporters groups. They are not a problem.

Parking? Access to the stadium? Dangerously crowded concourses? Those are problems. See yesterday's blog entry!

Supporters groups? Not a problem.

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