Just what is the nature of the relationship between a supporters collective—like Nashville SC’s Backline—and the football team/organization they support? Or rather, what should it be?
It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in different forms and in different contexts. As I have noted in this column several times, I have been quite taken with James Montague’s 1312: Among the Ultras, a global exploration of ultra supporters and their collective groups. Montague looks at a wide variety of relationships—from ultra groups that are more political organization than supporters group to supporters collective that function as an arm of the club itself—and shares his understanding. Because his is an investigation, Montague never fully explains his own position on how these groups should support their clubs. Outside of looking askance at some of the extreme politics, his sole tell is when he notes that the relationship with LAFC and The 3252 might be so cozy that the supporters do not operate outside of the desires of the club itself.
While the relationship between LAFC and The 3252 isn’t important to my thinking (although I believe the club is actually very receptive to the ideas of the supporters and invites them to push back), the general question is one in which we all have investment, whether members of the Backline or not. Given that the individuals who make up The Backline are by definition most likely to be those most dedicated to the club, they have opinions about almost every aspect of the club from jersey colors and designs to coaching staff to potential players to game formations.
So, just how much should the team “converse” with the Backline? And when should The Backline speak back to the club? In what tone? In what format?
I ask this question now, given the small dustup that occurred last week on twitter (note: I see no reason to reproduce it here). To be brief, a tweet came out under the official Backline account which offered a humorous, and snarky, comment about the fact that NSC’s goals have been coming from center-backs rather than more our touted strikers.
Honestly, I was initially a little taken aback by the comment but ultimately came to the position that it was a slightly humorous account of something we’ve all been saying to each other. My colleague and editor, Ben Wright, however, called the Backline out in his response, questioning whether such a statement should be made by the official voice of the Backline.
As I said, my first inclination was to think it was a misstep by the person responsible for the Backline’s social media accounts. The more I thought about it, however, and the more I listened to others discuss it, the more my attitude has changed and, through the help of a brief conversation with Backline Vice President Jason Moles, deepened.
Moles points out that, firstly, the club does have a communication process with the Backline. When NSC needs to get information out quickly to the hardcore fans, they communicate with the Backline leadership, who directs it to all of the members. As for communication going in the other direction, from the Backline to the club, that’s a little more complicated. Of course, the supporters collective should be able to communicate displeasure sometimes, but just who, or what, is the “voice” representing, and what is the tone of that voice?
On one axis, Moles notes that the voice of The Backline must integrate and meld a great number of perspectives. Recall that The Backline is made up of a number of individual supporters groups and that those groups are made up of a number of members, and, to complicate things more, many people (like Moles himself) belong to multiple supporters groups. As a result, if you are to speak for The Backline as a collective, you would have to be very careful to think broadly about just who you are speaking for.
On another axis, Moles notes that the “voice” of the Backline is going to be different based on the outlet. While Instagram has a playful side to it and Facebook more of an “older” voice, The Backline of twitter is almost by definition going to have more of an edge, more of an argumentative style to it. Moles trusts that most readers understand those differences, and that it is the Twitter voice of the Backline that will more likely be the place where displeasure (even light, humorous displeasure) is expressed. Twitter provides a space for gut reactions, hot takes, and moments of expression. It is not a place for unqualified love. While there are certainly lines that shouldn’t be crossed, it is a forum for expression, a forum for fans to have their say.
Are there other, more organized ways for the Backline to express thoughts? Absolutely. And when they are upset about changes in ticket pricing, or seating, or whatever comes down the road, the Backline is the most effective way to have those thoughts communicated to the club in an organized manner. Will there be times when the “official” Backline twitter feed makes a snarky comment? Again, absolutely. And rightly so.
This line of thinking seems reasonable to me. The Backline is a collection of supporters and while supporters are going to stand by the club through thick and thin, that doesn’t mean they are going to do so quietly or without giving their thoughts.
There is that famous passage from Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch in which he notes that the fans, rather than the players or managers, are the ones who will never leave the team. Players come and go, managers are fired, owners sell and buy. The fans are forever. “The only difference between me and them,“ Hornby writes, “is that I have put in more hours, more years, more decades than them.”
Ultimately, that will always be the case with every club. The fans, the fanatics, will be here for lifetimes.
They deserve a say.