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'We’re Supposed to Be At Home...'

The Rapids really could build that fortress, however big changes in policy are required.

Sporting KC Fans at DSG Park, Sat Aug 29th, 2015
Sporting KC Fans at DSG Park, Sat Aug 29th, 2015

On Saturday the Colorado Rapids beat Sporting Kansas City 2-1 with an on-field performance that was one of, if not, the best of the season. Many complimentary words have already been written & even the most skeptical fan has to admit that the team got this one right. However the point of this article is that there was one area that Sporting KC well & truly beat us on Saturday…

For the match, the best part of 1,000 Sporting KC fans, each one dressed in one of the various shades of blue their club has sported over the years, packed an extended visiting supporters area that comprised of Sections 100, 101 & 102. It was a sea of away team colors, with each traveling fan doing their bit to support their team by standing, singing & chanting for the entire game. It was quite simply an away support that our club can only dream of right now. And I’ve got to remind you that this is not some world famous European giant or a Mexican club that has a huge local following, this was a regular MLS team from America’s Midwest.

By contrast the home sections looked their usual mix of the odd bit of Burgundy, with multiple other colors against a backdrop of large numbers of empty gray seats. The diehard supporters in the north end Terrace did their best, but the painful truth is that they were outnumbered by about 3 to 1 by the away support. Tim Hinchey & his front office cohorts might talk about ‘building a fortress’ but the reality is that DSG Park is nowhere near one.

The easy thing to do is to blame the supporters groups for the lack of atmosphere of which the obvious target is Centennial 38. Since the 2013 season, C38 has purchased 600 tickets in the north end Terrace & an additional 444 tickets in Section 108 at heavily discounted prices. It was recently revealed that the group is selling less than half that inventory as season tickets & is relying on individual gameday sales to have a fighting chance of not losing large amounts of money on the arrangement.

Selling 1,044 seats to a supporters group makes sense for the Rapids as they can claim an immediate increase in the number of season ticket members for the club & only need to have meetings with a few leaders to wrap the renewals up each year. The more cynical of us will also see the possibilities of reducing the number of ticket reps the front office needs to employ & the advantages of having a supporters group which will never truly bite the hand that feeds it the discount deals.

So after the deals are done, the supporters group is left holding hundreds of tickets per game which it doesn’t need & having to organize an amateur ticketing operation on a shoestring budget while the club continues to operate its professional box office with associated marketing spend. The supporters group members also lose their direct relationship with a ticket rep, meaning that one of the biggest opportunities for the club to connect with its fans is immediately lost. It also takes the supporters group’s focus away from the unique things it can bring to the club such as tailgates, tifo, songs, chants & other genuine pieces of soccer culture. On the face of it, the arrangement does not make that much sense if you are trying to increase the supporters base.

The oft quoted reasons that C38 agreed to buy the tickets was to keep the prices low & to allow supporters to continue to have special privileges in the Terrace such as being able to have flags on 6ft poles, drums & do tifo at games. I don’t blame the C38 leadership for doing what they needed to do to get the best deal for their members. It’s just that when you take a step back from all this, you can see the situation that has been mandated by the front office is absurd.

The right to show a positive sign of support for the team, such as waiving a flag on 6ft pole, should not depend on which particular supporters group you happen to be in. The right to organize a tifo display should not be conditional on belonging to a supporters group that has to buy hundreds of tickets it doesn’t need just so the front office can make the numbers look good. Sure, there should be some kind of guideline acceptance if you want to do these things, and procedures for approval where appropriate, but the club should be allowing every fan to show his or her support to the fullest, not just the select few who happen to be in the correct ticket deal.

Another supporters group, the Stout Street Bulldogs, who at most other MLS clubs would be simply accepted as ‘official’ on the evidence of their gameday activities, has been told that they won’t be officially recognized unless they buy 100 season tickets, at full price in a single transaction. This means that they would have to play ticket rep, which is something that group’s members do not want. Even if they somehow manage to sell most of the 100 season tickets, they would be looking at least $1,000 losses after the group’s processing fees are taking into account & because they wouldn’t be able to charge higher prices than tickets in neighboring sections. Apparently the discounts start if you purchase 500 season tickets, which is not a realistic target for them right now, despite the fact that they are growing. So unless the group finds a donor or one of its members wins the lottery, they’re going to have to remain unofficial for the time being as the leadership is not prepared to commit financial suicide. The Bulldogs are not alone as other interested groups of fans have had similar barriers put in their way. Quite simply this is strangling & alienating the very fans who are willing to go out and advocate for the Rapids & the people who could be the key pieces of building the fortress. The current policy is quite simply ridiculous.

For next season, a season ticket in the South Stands is going to be $25 / game which, while not being totally outrageous, is hardly a bargain to watch a team that’s not packed with star players from a bleacher section with no roof. If you happen to walk up to the box office on a gameday, you are met with a $38 charge. Many will pay it once, but will vow never to bother with the drive out to the stadium again. This is a huge turnoff to potential fans & is a particularly strange decision as most games have plenty of seats available in the South Stands. Both C38 & Stout Street Bulldogs understand that an individual ticket for a bleacher supporters section at DSG Park should be priced in the $20-25 range, hence why they are having to get far more involved in ticketing than should ever be necessary.

A look around the league reveals some more enlightened policies. At LA Galaxy, the equivalent north end bleachers are priced at $21.50 / game for 2016. If you choose the supporters section & promise not to complain about the standing, flags, drums & chanting, you can get a season ticket for $19.50 / game. It doesn’t matter which group you belong to, you just buy your ticket straight from your friendly ticket rep at the club, pick up your flag & take your spot to watch the likes of Keane, Gerrard & Dos Santos do their thing.

Staying in California, San Jose are charging $22 / game for a proper seat behind the goal with a roof next year. If you choose the supporters section right behind the goal, this drops to $17 / game. The club then lists all its supporters groups on its website & encourages you to join the one that suits you. Jumping to the East Coast, Philadelphia Union charges $20 / game for season tickets in the ‘River End’ behind the goal & this price drops to $18 / game if you claim you are a part of the Sons of Ben, who are the Union’s only supporters group.

A reason for current situation at DSG Park touched upon earlier was that it potentially saves the club from employing extra ticket reps to service the tickets that a supporters group buys. There are other measures that the club could take if it wants to reduce its overheads in the ticketing department. Many MLS clubs are processing their renewals completely online to cut down on labor costs. If you want fans to buy online & possibly pay everything upfront, the most tried & tested method is to offer a discount that’s only available up until a deadline, usually a few months before the start of the season. The diehard fans don’t need multiple sales calls to get them to renew as most of them have already made up their mind already based on their experiences at games the previous season. The idea is to get the fans to contact the club to renew, not the other way round.

If DSG Park is to start becoming a fortress, we need to include every single fan or group who shows an interest in the cause. Our stadium is nowhere near sold out for most games, despite the ‘tickets distributed’ numbers which for some games are laughable. As a start, the front office should simply go ahead & designate the North End Terrace, South Stands Sections 117 / 118 and perhaps even East Side Sections 105 & 108 as supporters sections & sign them accordingly in the stadium. Season tickets & regular game tickets should be sold with advice that standing, cheering & waving flags in those areas is encouraged & that if you don’t like that sort of thing, there are many other alternatives. Corporate groups & youth soccer clubs should be seated out of the supporters sections as well.

The front office also needs to get serious about marketing this sort of supporters’ experience. They need to set the tone as to what ‘bleeding burgundy’ truly means & inspire the potential Rapids fan base with what DSG Park could really be if everyone got involved. The conversation from them needs to shift away from ‘business metrics’ & quoting numbers that are at odds the large amounts of gray seats visible during games. There also needs to be an acceptance that an engaged fan base cannot be simply ‘turned on’ - it’s going to take a few years of building support to reverse the years we’ve been falling behind due to making poor decisions regarding this issue.

The big question is, does the current front office have the willingness & the capabilities to truly do something substantial about the atmosphere at DSG Park? Having a winning team on the field is one ingredient, but we desperately need them to address the off field situation too.