No further proof of the impact of fan sites needs to be found than the gesture made recently by Chicago general manager Peter Wilt. He paid to fly Chris Bergin, a message board regular, from his home in England to the United States to see the Fire play against D.C. United June 17.
Bergin, who goes by the name "Sir Shootalot" when making online posts, latched on to Chicago as his favorite MLS team and has been using the Web to drum up support for the Fire overseas. Bergin, who edits the MLS section of an England-based Web site called teamtalk.com, says he has been contacted by about 2,000 Fire fans and nearly 10,000 MLS fans in the United Kingdom.
Regardless of the accuracy of those figures, Bergin's story illustrates the Internet's remarkable power in bringing MLS to an international audience.
Wilt is one of the more avid Web surfers among MLS brass, but all the teams hear the cybertalk.
"I look at what the fans are saying every day," says Miami general manager Doug Hamilton. "It doesn't necessarily influence any specific decisions I make, but it's a good way of keeping up with what some of the more dedicated fans are thinking."
Hard-core voices. Wilt and Hamilton believe that the Internet does not yet give a comprehensive view of fan opinion, however.
"The chat room shows you the hard-core fan and is not representative of the typical fan," Wilt says. "I try to keep that in mind when I read things. The opinions shared there sometimes reflect the larger picture, and sometimes they don't."
Colorado general manager Dan Counce says he rarely has time to read all of his e-mails, much less scour the message boards, but he acknowledges the Web's usefulness. He expects members of his community relations department to monitor what is being said online and inform him of important issues.
Most teams rely on surveys done with good old pencil and paper by fans who attend games for their analysis of public opinion, but there are times when the Internet catches things a survey cannot.
In the week leading up to the Rapids' home game against Los Angeles June 10, chat rooms revealed a growing belief that Galaxy forward Luis Hernandez would miss the game because he was playing with Mexico in a U.S. Cup match four days prior. Counce said the Web's silent but speedy alarm allowed his public relations staff to get word out to the mainstream media to clarify Hernandez would be playing.
Rongen creates own page. Some MLS figures, like D.C. United coach Thomas Rongen, choose to ignore the banter that occurs online. Rongen says his assistant, Frank Yallop, uses the Internet to aid his pregame analysis of each opponent, but that the majority of that report comes from videotape.
"I've never entered a chat room in my life," Rongen said. "I don't have time for it really, and from what I hear, they can become quite a soap opera."
Yet when Fuxito.com approached Rongen about launching his own site (www.thomasrongen.com), he could not think of any reason not to venture into the cyberworld. In the process, Rongen has been able to taste of the ever-changing flavors of Web gossip. Rongen's site permits users to ask him questions.
"They've covered a whole variety of issues, from 'what's it like to go through the Ajax system,' to 'how does youth development here compare to Holland,' to 'you guys are having a nightmare, you should go back to Holland,' to 'thanks for last season, you did a great job,'" Rongen says. "You get the good, the bad and the ugly, which is to be expected."
Rongen has been able to respond to all the inquiries, saying he takes about 30 to 45 minutes per week to do so.
"It's a great thing, really," Rongen said. "It's the closest thing to freedom of speech you'll find. I read some comments about players that I don't agree with, but that's what soccer is about. We all think differently about the game and we all have different philosophies."
Wilt says fans influence on clubs through the Internet is significant, noting that suggestions posted online have been important contributors to the Fire's ongoing discussions about building a new stadium and improving Soldier Field. Counce says phone calls to the Rapids office still speak louder than Internet postings and allow for two-way communication.
"We all know that the Internet is going to keep growing and become a bigger player in the scheme of communication," Counce said. "I think it's just hard to tell right now exactly what kind of player it will be and how it will get there."
by Soccer America associate editor Will Kuhns