Toward the end of last month, a decidedly curious press release sprang forth from MLS headquarters.
The topic was the upcoming week of Rivalry Games. The scheduled games -- the likes of New York City FC vs. New York Red Bulls, Dallas vs. Houston and Portland vs. Seattle -- were described with appropriate hype as “fiery” matchups and “intense” matches, to be played in “electric” stadium environments in front of “fervent” supporters.
Four adjectives designed to raise your emotions were used -- fiery, intense, electric, fervent. Pretty standard PR hype? Yes -- and no. What is unusual about this press release is the adjective that was not used.
Passionate. Where has that gone? Let’s start at the beginning. Where did that adjective come from? There were no such creatures as passionate fans when I was growing up. In those days (admittedly rather ancient times) we had loyal fans and devoted fans and colorful fans and noisy fans and raucous fans and various other ways of describing the noise they made. But passionate? I don’t recall that we were called passionate -- nor that we ever considered ourselves passionate. Not about soccer, anyway.
It seems to me that we can thank the marketing brains for the linking of soccer fandom with passion. By the 1970s soccer was already established as the world’s No. 1 sport. But it was never really marketed. Why would it need to be -- it already had a huge global following. The sport marketed itself, it was said, and that was a comforting thought.
But it seemed to the marketeers that the sport was asleep, that it was failing to realize its vast potential. They were right, of course. They have since done an incredible job of enriching the sport, of glamorizing it, of spreading its popularity -- quite possibly, they have made soccer the most pervasive human activity that we have ever seen.
Riches that would have astounded Croesus have enveloped the sport, allowing it to reach that apex of big business activity, a lurid bribery and corruption scandal. If we were not aware that the undoubted triumphs of marketing come with a dark side, we are now.
Which gets us back to passion. Marketing deals with hype, ratcheting everything up a notch or two. Exaggeration. For fans to be simply loyal or devoted was nowhere near sexy enough. So, whether they liked it or not, they became passionate. And, let’s face it, most of them do like it. It’s exciting and colorful - even if it does entail spending wads of money on soppy scarves and gaudy shirts, not to mention vastly increased ticket prices.
The passionate fan has become the center piece of soccer marketing. The image appealed to MLS sponsors, and it also captured MLS itself. Commissioner Don Garber has led the way, repeatedly making glowing references to the league’s passionate fans.
And now, suddenly, passionate has apparently vanished from the MLS vocabulary. A vision arises of MLS employees frantically culling their Thesauruses, searching for replacements. So far, we have fiery and intense and electric and fervent.
This looks like a considered move by MLS, by Garber, who is said to be concerned that the passion thing is getting out of control, that fans are singing nasty songs and chanting objectionable chants and yelling obscene yells. The uproar during the recent Seattle-Portland Open Cup game -- garbage thrown on the field, the referee needing a police escort -- jabbed home a painful reminder that passion can, as Seattle’s Adrian Hanauer admitted, “go overboard.”
And there are times, plenty of them, when it can be deliberately pushed overboard. The TV guys are, inevitably, good at that -- one of the rivalry telecasts featured two commentators trying to convince us that “these two teams really hate each other.” Yes, hate is a passion too.
If Garber has indeed decided that MLS should retract its claws on the passion front, then he has made a wise decision. Whether he can also convince sponsors to be less passionate about passion is another matter. But finding other, less inflammatory, keys to soccer fans’ purchasing powers ought not to be too difficult -- that sort of creativity is exactly what the marketeers are so good at.