Let's talk about the elephant in the room: something toxic is happening in the fan culture of the Colorado Rapids Soccer Club.
What could have been written off easily as just a disagreement between fans online (I'm one of them, just as guilty as anyone else) isn't just that. I think if the Rapids Front Office were hoping to write it off as that are going to be very, very shocked to see that their numbers for Season Tickets will have declined, and I predict by some ways (though I hope I'm wrong about that). Fans who have been loyal to the club since 1996 are turning away, even if not in "droves" just the mere fact that lifelong fans are turning away from the club should send up red flags to the Front Office.
I can't believe that they are unaware of the situation, but I also don't know if they know what to do about it, or if they know what the real problem is. So here's my attempt at diagnosing the developing problem in Colorado's fan culture. Maybe this might be applicable to your own club, who knows? Join me after the jump for more words than you wanted to read today in any article relating to the culture surrounding sports.
The MLS is fast approaching it's 20th birthday, and you've got some clubs who have been in the league since its birth. The Rapids have been one of those steadfast flagship clubs along with a handful of others who weathered the storms of changing rules, venues, ownerships, and leaderships. The fans who have been with the club since then have endured the unenviable anxiety of having to not only question whether or not there was going to be a soccer season in Colorado next year, but also at the very beginning, to worry whether or not professional soccer would survive after so many false starts and half-measures and leagues that disappeared as quickly as they came.
The Rapids have a complicated relationship with their history: for years a club of mid to low table results finally became a title contender in 2010. We can argue about why (I don't think those arguments are the problem, incidentally, that's normal sports fan culture) and we can argue about who was responsible for what (that's not the problem either), but the fact remains: in 2010 the Colorado Rapids were crowned MLS Champion for the first time in their history--their first major league title.
Then 2011 happened. The lofty dreams of the Colorado Rapids fans that their team was finally breaking into the upper crust of MLS clubs amounted to a measly 3 more points than the previous season, and an embarrassing spanking from a resurgent Sporting Kansas City to dump our club from the playoffs (which we had to play into in a wild card match against the Columbus Crew). It's funny that Wizards of yesteryear should be the ones to shrug the Rapids off, which we will get to in a little bit. But there it is. We did not repeat as Champions. Didn't even come close.
Even more embarrassing was the failed Champion's League campaign, which it seemed that the club was completely throwing all their resources behind but ended in a kerfuffle when Gary Smith sent not only his second team squad but his Assistant Coach Steve Guppy to Metapan in a move that embarrassed the Rapids Front Office by showing off a bit of the "dirty laundry". Some recall that as the "Miracle at Metapan" but the thing about Miracles is that they aren't common, and they are usually the exact opposite of what is supposed to happen.
And in the end, the 'Miracle at Metapan' didn't do anything for the Rapids. We still got dumped out of the Group Stage of the CONCACAF Champions league. Seriously, the Group Stage. When our dreams were set on getting to the final. Supposedly, this was us "taking the tournament seriously". Or at least, that's what we were lead to believe. The players certainly believed it was a trophy worth having, so what gives? Who is responsible for this?
If you'll recall, I wrote an article that year in which I pretty much laid all the blame at Paul Bravo's feet for this and everything else that went wrong in the Smith era. Eventually, after some conversations I had with staff, players, and just reading some of the press, I saw that there was plenty of stuff to go around in the CONCACAF debacle--and make no mistake, it was a debacle.
But that's just it: that's history. And that's just the official version of the history. You can't make enough room in the space of a single article for the different kinds of stories you hear. Fans claim to know something, maybe they heard a rumor or maybe someone "close to the team" told them a different story. Different Gods and Monsters in each story, to be sure, and to be equally sure: that's part of the history too. In fan culture, the Apocrypha can itself become Gospel.
And what I think that the Front Office has done is to have a break with that history, much the same way Sporting Kansas City has "broken" with their history and moved on to become a major club contender for prizes like the Supporter's Shield. SKC had always been a good team (the Rapids have too) but having to play in that baseball outfield? It didn't speak much to the potential of the club. The kind of dramatic rebirth that the Sporks experienced at LIVESTRONG Park was something that I think every Front Office of every old-guard club stood up and paid attention to. Remember how I said it was funny how the Sporks crushed our repeat hopes? Yeah, that's why. We saw what a club can get from a rebirth and new direction.
Doesn't hurt having an old club servant Peter Vermes at the helm to see the first team through the transition either... but we'll get into how there's a difference there with the Rapids as well later.
But the Rapids fans got new marketing promotions. A new slogan: #OneClub. We got a house-cleaning as well. Front Office staples like Jeff Plush and Charlie Wright were shuffled around, and Gary Smith and his entire staff was sent packing. We got a fresh faced new Club President in Tim Hinchey (who had just joined the organization earlier in 2011 as the Chief Marketing Officer). The only familiar faces that the club had left in the Front Office were some of the sales reps, production staff, and Paul Bravo.
Yes, Paul Bravo. The enemy of all that is good and free and decent in the Rapids club. The super-villain in this drama.
But we're going to talk more about him later. He does have a part to play in all this, but the role I think he plays according to the fan psyche is much bigger (and kind of sadder) than the role he has actually played at the club.
And boy did the new-look front office have big plans for fans both near (like the stalwart supporters in Class VI, the Pid Army, and the Bobbies) and far (like myself): we were getting a brand new coach with a playing philosophy that was a complete departure from the old philosophy. We were going to get some new players, and a more positive attitude towards spending.
(Incidentally, the Rapids have actually delivered a bit more on the spending side. The investment in the club -- from a player-salary and acquisition perspective -- has gone up in a measurable way.)
We were going to enjoy a much better relationship overall with the FO, epitomized by what I thought was a wonderful symbol of that relationship: putting the names of fans into the fabric of the kits. Great ideas. But in some way, they all involved a break with the past and a change in direction.
In order to make a break with the past, like Sporting Kansas City did but without the rebranding, the Rapids had to make new contract with the fans, whether stated or unstated. The contract basically reads (if it were ever written down): if we make a break with our past, we must deliver on a better future in a measurable way, right away.
And that, unfortunately for the Rapids Front Office and Technical Staff, meant good results.
If you're going to clean house, you must (repeat: MUST) win more games than the previous house did or else you are going to have some kind of exodus of fans and possibly a toxic fan culture. That's just what happens. You win or people won't come out to see you anymore. They will change the channel.
It doesn't necessarily mean a toxic fan culture though.
A toxic fan culture is one where the club cannot do anything without having it be objected to by fans. A toxic fan culture is where fans constantly tear and rip at each other not at facts or at figures, but at the very notion that they even are fans in the first place. Two or more camps get set up and everything is an act of war. The "real fans" on the other side who want to weather the storm and see how the new direction turns out, and the other "real fans" who are absolutely certain that the new direction is headed directly off a cliff. That the club is subject to the vague but surely malevolent will of someone. Again, who the someone is doesn't really matter: Oscar Pareja, Paul Bravo, Tim Hinchey... your friendly season ticket rep. The names don't matter, but the feeling does. Or you think Oscar is the way to go and the Front Office is doing a bang-on job, or some variation of all those sides.
Each has evidence to back up their cases, and in some cases some claim access to yet another tome of Apocrypha which gives them the real scoop on things. Disagreements themselves are normal though, even really difficult disagreements. Annoying, but normal. That's fan culture. But the most frustrating thing is that fans have ceased debating whether or not a player transaction was wise or not or whether or not a new jersey looks spiffy. Fans now debate their own identity as fans.
You don't like the new jersey and think it's a pathetic attempt by the club to focus on something else besides poor results? Real fan.
You do like the new jersey? Fake fan. Plastic.
You think Pareja is an idiot and should be fired? Real fan.
You think Pareja should be given a chance at another season? Fake fan. Practically wax.
Whew. Big topic, but I promise that's coming. Just wait and see.
Yes, this is part of fan culture, but I am not calling this normal; I am calling this toxic. It's a culture which eventually destroys itself if not managed properly.
A fan who watches on TV (myself) isn't as much a "real fan" as someone who goes to some games. Someone who goes to some games isn't as much a "real fan" as someone who goes to all of them. Someone who stands in the stands isn't as good as someone who sits at midfield, and vice-versa. It's not about fans disagreeing about things, or taking offense at things, it's about tearing down fans themselves. Am I guilty of this? Probably. I've thrown the word "plastic" around a few times, and caught myself doing it. And I thought to myself "why am I doing that?"
That's how you know you're in a toxic fan culture. You do the things you don't want to, hurtful things, but you do them simply because it's what the culture demands.
Personally, I'm trying to get better at it.
The fact is, there are a lot of people out there, people who may have been close fans of the club for years, who feel absolutely abandoned by this club. The "break with history" was a break with them. The break with Gary Smith (warranted or not) was regarded more or less by some as a declaration of war upon the fans. Instead of creating "One Club" this break has in effect created two: one which is attempting to press on to what they see as a bright future, and one which is trying to drag it back to a golden age in the not too distant past.
Now, do I think the current FO is absolutely responsible for the toxic fan culture? No. This process has been ongoing for years. It's been inculcated for years and the perceived conflict between Gary Smith and Paul Bravo (with the subsequent drama that played out in the Denver Post) was just a match thrown on a powder keg. But the current FO is responsible for taking care of it now and I think they could be doing better.
But me saying "you could do better" means nothing without actually giving some suggestions. So here you go, never let it be said that old Bulldog Ben never did anything for you.
I've said it since the beginning of the season: manage expectations. If you know that change doesn't happen overnight, don't sell people on the idea that it does. If you make that unwritten contract with fans, you have to fulfill that contract. Fans don't and shouldn't be expected to know the difference. Especially these fans. These Rapids fans, some of whom have been here from the beginning, who want to feel like their history is being continued and not destroyed. Right now, I think, many of them feel left behind by the club--in a history, mythologized or not, that has been broken with and not picked up.
So here's a few things I think the Colorado Rapids Soccer Club can do to turn the tide which I think is becoming (if it isn't already) a major problem in its fan culture:
The Rapids Organization as a whole, from the top down has to accept their history, not deny it. That this history is important to fans, and that fans need to feel engaged on this basis. As painful as it may be to admit, the FO has to admit that some things in the Smith Era worked, even if they won't work for what the club wants to do now. Or they need to be honest about why things in the Smith Era won't work, or didn't work. And there are fans who really cling to that history, whether right or wrong. They've got to feel included or else they are going to feel left behind and likely will leave the club.
The Front Office needs to honestly stand up and be seen standing up for its fans in cases of lifetime bans and the mishandling of security incidents by Argus. Seriously, Burgundy Wave does not get up in arms very much about this kind of thing but when we do, it should turn their heads. We understand the relationship with Argus is a complicated one, but Rapids fans, especially the one who are part of a necessary "die-hard" culture that a real soccer club thrives upon, need to be defended just as much as the families who bring their kids to the show. There's got to be a better way.
The Front Office needs to do more to ground figures like Paul Bravo in the history of the Rapids. This is pretty crucial, and maybe the most controversial part of this whole cockamamie list of helpful suggestions so it's going to require the most words to explain.
Did you know that the guy has been involved with the Rapids in their top three most successful (by PPG) regular season campaigns? 1999, 2010, 2011. Most successful, of course, being a relative term. But he was there for those, and I don't hear a lot about that. In fact, more often than not, I feel like the popular perception is that Bravo wasn't involved with the team until mid-to-late 2011. Another alternative view is that Gary Smith was so successful at fighting Paul Bravo that he succeeded in spite of how terrible Paul Bravo is (this is actually the theory that I bought hook, line, and sinker in the fallout of post 2011). The fact is, Bravo joined the club in 2009 and is oddly enough one of the more experienced Technical Directors that MLS has.
His shirt hangs in the Gallery of Honor. You'd think that would be enough to convince people that he has been an important figure at the club or at least that his intentions aren't malevolent towards the club, but it clearly hasn't. The Front Office (including Bravo himself) needs to make sure people get why he's a part of our history and clearly delineate his role in our future as a club.
That's the sad thing, guys. Besides Pablo Mastroeni, Paul Bravo is one of the few guys left within the Rapids organization that actually connects us to our past and our future. And the saddest part is? He's the guy who is made to be the "bad guy" in all this. I'm not going to go through all the various theories (some more plausible than others) penned by fans as to why this club has such a terrible record, or that they club has gone so far astray, but all of them, almost without variation, include Bravo to one degree or another. I've written some of them!
And the First Team needs to win a lot of games. Like, a lot of them. Until then, fans won't just leave, but they won't come back. And the toxic fan culture will perpetuate. People won't want to go to games because they don't like the show, they don't like how they're treated at the show, and people won't go because they don't want to be around "fake" fans. Why go to a place where there's people you don't like? Winning games makes fans feel good, and not only that but it makes us feel vindicated. Especially in a down year, any win at this point is a moment where each fan can say "See, there's the team I support. That's a step in the right direction." Hard to see that when you're losing.
And fans? I've got simple points for you. Lest you think I'm being too one-sided:
Don't be a dick, even if it feels like it's what you have to do.
Use facts whenever possible.
Remember that every fan has an important part to play in the club regardless of whether or not they agree with you.
And write 3000+ word articles to beat people into submission when all else fails. joking! only joking!
The Front Office and First Team, the entire Rapids organization, can stop this if they work together to turn the club around both in terms of on field performance and results and in terms of supporting a healthy fan culture. At least, from my perspective as a blogger and fan of the club. I may be wrong in that I don't have enough information to support my case, but I challenge anyone to tell my that my suggestions would actually hurt the club and not help.
If that's not #OneClub, I don't know what is.