NE Revolution Fan Protests Fall on Deaf Ears
Remember that old philosophy question: "If a tree falls in a forest and there's nobody to hear it, does it make a sound?" A perfect example occurred at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA this past Sunday. The only reason I heard about the protest mounted by the supporters group known as "The Fort," that sits behind the goal line at every New England Revolution game, is that my own personal crew of Revolution supporters were watching it happen from their seats behind the Revolution bench. Members of "The Fort," who stand and sing during every Revolution game, and taunt all opposing goalkeepers with a chant that used to end with "You suck" when he took a goal kick. Over the past year or so, they have embellished it, with an expletive that the front office has viewed as offensive. Thus began the final straw in a 16-year battle between a passionate group of supporters and the front office and security team for the New England Revolution.
On Sunday night, during the first 16 minutes of the Revolutions's most humiliating performance and loss so far during a tough season, The Fort, which usually is cheering and chanting and beating drums, sat silently in black tee shirts emblazoned with "Support the Fort." After the 16 minutes of silence, representing the 16 seasons of the New England Revolution that they believe they have been abused and disrespected by the front office, The Fort members marched out of the stadium. And the silence was deafening. There was no mention of the protest by the TV commentators (I was watching from home). The camera men capturing the game studiously avoided shots of the empty Fort area. There is no mention of the protest on the official New England Revolution sites. The game itself didn't give the fans a lot to cheer about, but it was particularly quiet when The Fort members left -- although in Gillette, the average attendance of roughly 11,000 fans on a good night could all be screaming their lungs out and it still doesn't create the kind of soccer atmosphere the sport is known for overseas and even in other MLS venues.
One can see both sides of the issue. The Fort represents the most passionate fans who are there despite the weather, despite the club's record, singing and chanting their hearts out game after game. They want to be recognized and respected, and when their members were ejected for refusing to stop the offensive chant, they decided they had to mount a public protest.
On the other hand, the Revolution front office is trying to attract as many fans as possible to the cavernous Gillette stadium, which is about as appropriate a venue for a soccer game as Grand Central Station would be for a small private wedding. They often draw families by staging special nights for youth soccer teams and leagues. There are many children in the stadium at all games. My own children began attending games with my husband and me when they were pre-schoolers. So it's understandable that the management needs to be sensitive about the language at the stadium. All sports stadiums ask fans to be sensitive about their language around young children and families.
As a member of family that has supported this team since it was in windy Foxboro stadium, I have my own personal views of The Fort. I appreciate that they are loyal to the team and I like the fact that they try to bring a true soccer fan experience to the non-soccer-specific stadium we are forced to use for our MLS team. What they don't bring, though, is any sort of community building with the rest of us fans, and instead often disdain those of us who choose to sit on the sidelines as "soccer Moms" or people that don't care about soccer at all. They complain about being ignored or disrespected by the front office and want more recognition for their loyalty and passion. They aren't recognizing that there are loyal and passionate fans in other sections as well.
Clearly this group is frustrated, but from a communications standpoint, they need to determine what goal they are trying to achieve and build a plan to achieve it.
If the goal is to support freedom of speech, be grownups and recognize that editing your offensive chant doesn't dillute its effectiveness of harrassing the opposing keeper. I sat with a group of Fulham supporters at an away match against Chelsea and they were brutal to the Chelsea players and team, with very pointed chants, songs and barbs, with nary a swear word. It wasn't necessary to make the point. The offensive chant is more juvenile than amusing. Just let it go.
If the goal is to make a real statement to management, mount a true communications campaign. Talk to some of the local writers, radio and TV personalities who have expressed interest in soccer and state your case. Become a good source of views about the sport and look for angles they will want to cover about your group and the team.
If the goal is to have more influence, work on swelling your numbers by embracing the true fans that don't sit in The Fort. Use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media tools to find the broader fan base and bring them in, rather than distancing yourself from them. Stand at the gates and hand out flyers to the rest of the fans to rally support. That's how you build community and galvanize a fan base. This won't happen by remaining an exclusive insiders group or doing an in-the-stadium protest that no one else will even learn about. It's how you create the kind of atmosphere throughout the stadium that attendees would enjoy.