The banner read: YOU HAVE WRECKED OUR CLUB KSE & HINCHEY OUT!
Reactions have run the gamut between "Silly" and "Awesome Display of Fan Passion."
The banner incident is a bit quizzical to me, because it's both.
I think Rapids fans are some of the most intelligent fans in sport. Rapids fans also think of themselves as being particularly discerning soccer fans as well. I've been interviewing people and that seems to be the consensus. But the banner itself seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the Rapids and is kind of an imitation, or a parody, of European football culture.
You've probably seen it, even if you don't follow Manchester United (Glazers), Liverpool (Hicks and Gillette), Chelsea (Abramovich) or Arsenal (KSE), problems between fans and ownership spill over into mainstream news. Even if you follow a club outside of the top four (Cardiff City, Portsmouth, Hull City), you have probably at some point heard some kind of call for the overthrow of the ownership group for one reason or another. (Ed note: You forgot Palace after the Pulis incident, Ben!)
When I see a banner like that, from a club that's barely old enough to vote, and whose beginnings were steeped in a massive corporate single-entity enterprise (where two companies owned nearly all the teams), it rings a bit hollow to me. It seems totally ignorant of what the history of the club actually is, and instead seems like an imitation of what soccer fans are supposed to do when they are upset from a totally different sports culture and history.
I want to break out the banner into its two constituent parts, then talk about each one.
Let me also state, for the record, that this is my own reaction to the banner. I haven't interviewed, nor do I know, the person who paid for the banner to be flown. I haven't spoken to anyone in the Front Office about their reaction to the banner. This is my own personal reaction, and you can take it or leave it.
Part One: "YOU HAVE WRECKED OUR CLUB"
Let's put it out there: the Rapids were not a super club before KSE took ownership. They were still not a super club when they won the title in 2010 and they still are not a super club today. So it's a little hard for me to see how the club has been "wrecked."
To that, someone might try to get smart and reply, "well, we have always been mediocre and KSE and Hinchey have just continued our mediocrity." 1) That accedes me the point that the club hasn't been wrecked. 2) That's not the argument the banner makes. Then we agree.
We don't have a storied history to fall back on. We're still just entering the point where those first Rapids fans who came to games in their early twenties or late teens are raising their own kids as Rapids fans (which is awesome to see, by the way). We're still in that first "passing of the torch."
No matter what the league might pretend or promote, no club in MLS has a huge amount of history (former NASL clubs may chirp disagreement, but their extra 20 or so years in NASL doesn't give them all that much comparatively). The league is just too young and structured in a top-down single-entity format which doesn't contribute to the kind of humble origin stories you find in Europe. There's no group of factory workers who banded together to found a football club, nor a group of farmers who scraped together enough money to clear out space for a field. Not in this league.
This isn't Manchester United. This isn't Liverpool. This isn't Crystal Palace. This isn't even the Denver Broncos. But that isn't necessarily all a bad thing. This is soccer in the United States, and as such, with our disadvantage in history comes an advantage in access.
The front offices by and large in MLS are at this moment more accessible somewhat by necessity. Some of us tend to forget that we are still in a "Golden Age" of the sport in terms of access, where we have access to not only the players, but to the entire club. We are still at a moment in our history where the Front Office isn't flooded with letters or emails or phone calls, so you can actually get a response from someone. There isn't a line out the door for Season Tickets, so management has to have an active interest in expanding and maintaining a strong supporter base.
In fact, some fans have actually written to the club President and gotten responses. So in terms of what you can do to be heard, a banner is probably the most expensive way to not say very much besides the fact that you are frustrated.
I mean, it just seems like an email or a phone call would have sufficed. But we'll get more into why it wouldn't, for some folks, later.
Part Two: "KSE AND HINCHEY OUT"
Usually, the logic for those calls for the overthrow of management and ownership by the fans goes something like: "We had a good club before you, now we don't have a club that performs up to our expectations, therefore you need to go."
The fans can call back to sometimes over a century of history, where ownership changed hands multiple times but the support for the club passed from generation to generation. Ownership could have gone from a small group of local investors, to larger interests, and then sometimes then to getting bought out by a massive international firm looking to get into the football business. The fans, however, remained faithful from year to year.
But who is it, exactly, that will take over the Rapids?
If not KSE, then who?
Anybody else? The Vegaras? Uncle Phil? A megalomaniac Russian oil magnate or Qatari sheikh? Where is our interested and energetic group of local investors who want to swoop in and save the day?
Anyone else got a couple hundred million dollars they could stand to part with? Anyone want to pass around a massive hat to start a supporters' trust? Is that even allowed in MLS?
The Rapids aren't awash in suitors like Manchester United or Arsenal. There is no Usmanov beating our doors down should fans successfully chase KSE out of town, pitchforks and torches waving. If Chivas USA's hiatus is any indication, do you think that there really would be any kind of bidding war for the Colorado Rapids?
Blaming ownership is relatively easy for the same reason it's easy to hate Paul Bravo. You don't see Stan Kroenke everywhere talking about how pissed off he is about the current record, like you see the players or the coaches. There's so much we don't know about KSE or how it works that it becomes the repository for everything wrong with the Rapids. Or even if we do know a little, that little bit of information then seems to expand to vast conspiracy theories involving land deals and... well, I don't know, aliens?
This is simple psychology and it goes on with fans around the world.
Perhaps the concern was "Well, we need to let them know how angry we are!"
The people in the Front Office, the technical staff and the First Team all knew that the fans were angry before the banner. Taking all of this into account, when that banner flew across the sky, I thought, "Who do we think we are?"
Part Three: Where I admit that the banner is silly but entirely inevitable.
However, I also thought that this kind of thing was inevitable. The kind of stink rising from Dick's Sporting Goods Park is enough to attract those kinds of buzzards.
It's a stink from not only losing games, that's one thing, but in not displaying any kind of system or showing an on field product that is in any way a further development of an attacking possession-oriented style. There was no display of the kind of football the club has been preaching and Colorado fans have been expecting for the past three years. And to be so close in 2013 to achieving something that looked like a coherent and unique style of play only to watch the entire thing collapse in 2014... it's more than disheartening. It's devastating.
The Rapids have fallen behind the curve in terms of results where clubs like the Galaxy, RSL, Sporting and Seattle storm on. Granted, there are worse clubs, and every club has some fluctuations from season to season. The Rapids aren't as bad as say, Chivas USA. But the competition isn't getting easier. It's getting harder every single year, and every single year, with the exception of very few every now and again, the Rapids have shown themselves as behind where they want to be in terms of table position, playoff performance and perhaps even most importantly, in terms of displaying a lasting soccer identity on the pitch with which fans resonate.
And it's getting harder every year to compete for space within the attention of the fans of the league or the league itself. Who wants to write about the Rapids? What can be said about them? What's the compelling storyline or the narrative? Inconsistency? Who wants to read about that? Who wants to write about that? (This blog, obviously, excluded.)
The expectation, for three years, has been improvement towards establishing an identity that Colorado fans can be proud of, where the First Team consistently contends for and ultimately wins trophies. Where when people talk about the Rapids, they talk about a specific brand of soccer that embodies what Colorado is about. That's the expectation that not only fans have told me, but people in the Rapids Front Office have told me. In that sense, our expectations are the same.
In the meanwhile, what Colorado Rapids fans and employees alike have experienced is two years of getting pounded into the grass by other clubs while trophies soar out of our reach or in some cases are wrenched from our own trophy case. Rapids fans have to see not just bad results, heartbreaking results, but humiliating results. Embarrassing results. Not just this year, which has been particularly nasty, but in 2012 as well.
The Rapids aren't just getting beaten on the pitch, they are getting beaten down, and it's not been pretty football. It's not been pretty anything.
It's not simply that the Rapids aren't performing up to fan expectations on the field, which can verge on the insane, but the club isn't even performing up to their own expectations. And not only that, but this is a terrible time to not be able to demonstrate your identity on the field. The Rapids know who they want to be, and the fans of the club know who we want them to be, but this feeling of taking two steps forward and then three steps back wears on everyone's patience.
The club inks a jersey sponsor. The club signs Homegrown Players who actually contribute to the first team. The club signs a DP. The club climbs to the highest points total in its history.
The club loses its technical staff at the end of 2013. The club hires a head coach with no previous coaching experience (albeit a loyal club servant). The First Team, after a promising but rough start to the season, collapses mid-season into the worst winless streak in club history.
Two steps forward, three steps back. It's been a rough ride. No one's expectations have been met by this season. And now when the Rapids are mentioned in the media, it's talking about some kind of minor scandal or embarrassment. Why? Because that must be the narrative we are working with: Colorado getting embarrassed. It's lazy, but it gets enough clicks to make it worth it before we move on to talking about other clubs.
The banner flying across the sky didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. The fans are angry, and they have every right to be. A fan who feels anger to the level where they want to fly a banner across the sky (regardless of how silly it sounds) is in my opinion reacting correctly to the kind of season we've just had. Passion cuts both ways, and if you want to have a passionate fan base, as I'm sure the Rapids do, then you have to be ready for a reaction that defies common sense.
The same passion that compels fans to spend their time and money making a giant tifo can also compel them into hiring an airplane to fly a banner before a match. It's unthinking. Emotional. Passion beyond reason or sensibility. It's what makes fans fans.
I don't think that a way forward involves a debate between those who want to see KSE AND HINCHEY OUT and others who... don't. I think that's ultimately a fruitless debate. One, because as I've highlighted, it's based on a misunderstanding and two, it's not something fans have any control over.
The debate ought to be, in my view, about different ways of actually moving forward with next season. That conversation needs to happen among the fans themselves and between the fans and the front office, and between the technical staff and the players.
It's not going to be pleasant, but it's got to happen, and it's got to continue happening. Because it really sucks to keep having to do this.