MLS plays down the passion thing

By Paul Gardner

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.

5 comments about "MLS plays down the passion thing ".
  1. Kent James, July 6, 2015 at 11:10 a.m.

    Paul, I'm surprised you failed to note that 'fan' is a shortened form of 'fanatic', which might suggest that passion is an important part of the equation. After being passionate about the injustices suffered by my favorite professional wrestlers while I was in elementary school (before I had heard of soccer, and before I learned the matches were staged), and then being caught up in the Tobacco Road rivalries of ACC basketball in my teens, I began to put sporting events in perspective, and not live or die with the teams I supported. I now appreciate a good game more than I care who wins or loses (with some exceptions, the US national teams being one). But as much as I've reduced my passion, I have to admit that passionate fans add to the entertainment factor of sport. Few things compare to the feeling of unity when everyone in a packed stadium roars their approval. On the other hand, watching a Champions League match played in an empty stadium a number of years ago vividly demonstrated the importance of fans; while the quality of the soccer was high, the silence made the game almost awkward... And though I rarely by team merchandise, having the fans decked out in team colors does add to the intensity of their support, and that does have a measurable impact on both players and referees (the latter being an unfortunate (for the visitors anyway) side effect). So yes, it is important to keep things in perspective, and some things (violence, disrespect for opposing fans, players, referees) should not be tolerated, but passion is an important part of the modern game. So the marketing guys and the MLS are getting this one mostly right (though I agree that they should stop references to hatred and violence; these are unnecessary and unwelcome passions).

  2. Brian Something, July 6, 2015 at 11:18 a.m.

    They are still trying to find a sponsor for the word. MLS hype machinists can't use a word without it.

    I'm sure the league will soon be pushing "The passion of MLS fans sponsored by Nyquil."

  3. Gus Keri, July 6, 2015 at 5:38 p.m.

    I didn't get the point. Is the use of words like fiery, intense, electric and fervent, instead of passionate, less likely to cause trouble? Is Fiery fan less likely to throw bottle than passionate one?

  4. Footballer Forever, July 7, 2015 at 10:37 p.m.

    Oh my goodness. After reading all the babbling article I took a guess this one had to be Paul , get off my lawn, Gardner. Geez, old man. You sure are one individual who always has issues in more ways than one. Drop dead, old man. Your pathetic support of football or "soccer" before you throw a fit like you tend to do.

  5. Rick Estupinan, July 9, 2015 at 2:36 p.m.

    PG,it's time for you to go back to England.I hope fans over there hit you in the mouth every time you use the word soccer instead of Football.And by the way yes,there is a rivalry between the Timbers and Sounders,and Timbers against Vancouver,their fans are very passionate about it,and I like,so much that I am considering moving to Seattle from where I live here in Las Vegas.

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