While Waiting Out the Pandemic

“Against the corporate excess of Bayern, Dortmund felt like a rock and roll underdog that provided the best fan experience of any club in Europe.  Cheap tickets. Cheap beer. Standing. Pyro. Choreography. Incessant chanting no matter the score. The experience was so focused on the supporters that thousands of foreign fans flew to Dortmund every weekend to marvel at what football might have been for them had their own clubs not sold their soul.” 
– James Montague, 1313: Among the Ultras

Montague is describing the dream, right?

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That is exactly the type of crowd experience that we soccer nerds want for our club.

It’s hard enough to pull this off in the best of times, when there are actually games being played and audiences in attendance.  Without masks. With loud cheering and screaming.

Right now, however, even if the league and the city allow limited fans back into the seats, we are not going to see that same experience created. 

I personally do not sit with the Backline, the section behind the goal filled with Nashville SC supporter groups. I understand the pull and excitement that it provides. My personal experience tells me that a soccer theater that focuses on the supporter is perhaps the best way to draw in new fans, to make the local game more relevant than any other soccer experience.

In my column last week, I mentioned David Goldblatt’s excellent new book The Age of Football.  Of his many keen observations, one of Goldblatt’s more interesting insights is that one of the more troubling aspects of globalism and football (well, if you are trying to build a new fan base in numerous non-Premier Leagues around the world) is that you find yourself competing for allegiance with a team an ocean away from you.  And if you are going to win a battle with the Premier League for fans, you need to offer something special; Nashville SC, it could be argued, was doing that. 

We certainly don’t need the pandemic shutting down one of the more fantastic features that we have to offer.

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I spoke to Backline capo and all around loud cheer guy Stephen Robinson this week about his thoughts on how to keep momentum when NSC, especially, has been shut out of playing to this point. Robinson is a fixture in the supporters section, standing on a scaffold in front of the group to lead them in chants throughout the match. He’s also the vice-president of the Roadies, the first supporters group for the team.

As Robinson sees it, the pandemic came at the worst possible moment.  We are competing for two types of fans, in his mind: those who are relatively new to soccer and those who are very into global football but may not yet be convinced by MLS.  In his mind—and it’s difficult to disagree with this—if we can create that huge atmosphere mentioned above, we can convert both groups.

Indeed, if we turn to Sweden, we see something familiar. The Swedish league is clearly not the strongest on talent.  In 2010, Mats Enquist, the CEO of the league, conducted a countrywide survey of fans and discovered that the fans were far more concerned about the atmosphere for the fan than of the level of play.  They wanted the best quality possible, granted, but they knew they couldn’t compete with many other European leagues on that level.  They could, however, help the fans create an unforgettable experience.

Here, locally, the team and the Backline were clearly on their way to establish something this season. With a crowd of 59,059 strong at that first game, some of the front office’s strategies, and  the massive response by the supporters’ section, hype and momentum was building.  Further, while the team had not yet won, they look very good on the pitch in both games (and the Portland game looks even better in retrospect). 

While the pandemic cannot completely shut out the momentum that was built, it did make it very difficult to build upon it. 

I asked Stephen what had been going on to keep the momentum going to move forward.  While he is clearly frustrated with the difficulty the situation has caused, his immediate response was, quite frankly, a touching and important one.  “As a community,” he noted, “we are trying to take care of each other.  That is, when someone needs something, financial or otherwise because of the pandemic, people are stepping up for each other.”  That’s important because calling fellow supporters “family” is one thing; living it is quite another. And the living it is the most important.

Ultimately, however, Stephen sounds frustrated with how difficult it’s been. But, here’s the upside: you know that scene in Zero Dark Thirty where there is a CIA meeting? Mark Strong walks in and chastises the group, reminding them that there is no secret cell, no group outside of the ones in that room to solve the problem. 

Well, you get that sense from Stephen.  The Backline is the (non-team) collective to build the hype.  If it’s not doing it, no one else is.  He, and all of them, are looking for ideas.  Feel free to pitch in, Stephen says; he’s looking for ideas.

Atmosphere is not something external to us; it is what we do, what we create.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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