Supporters Groups are a common sight dotting the soccer landscape. They are one of the most ubiquitous things found in the game no matter the league, the continent, or the crest players on the pitch.
But who is tasked with supporting the Supporters Groups in the US?
That duty falls to the Independent Supporters Council (ISC). ISC is an organization founded in 2009 to – according to their mission statement, “advocate for the fair treatment of home and away supporters, promote supporters culture, and oppose both racism and bias inside stadiums in North America”. Members include supporters groups from MLS, USL, NASL, NPSL, and NWSL.
Four of the NWSL teams have supporters groups in the ISC: Cloud 9 from Sky Blue FC, Rose City Riveters from the Portland Thorns, Chicago Local 134 from the Chicago Red Stars, and Triangle Soccer Fanatics from the North Carolina Courage.
The ISC had their annual meeting in Atlanta, GA from January 27-28.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Jen Muller from Cloud 9 and Gab Rosas from the Rose City Riveters to talk about the meeting, the ISC, and supporters culture overall and in the NWSL.
Backline Soccer: A question that a lot of new soccer fans often ask is what is “supporters culture” and how does it differ from just being the fan of a club?
Gabby Rosas: It’s sort of the next step. You can love the club and not be in the SG. The SG is more/less organized, passionate fans who want to cheer on the team home and away to the point they are personally invested in each match and each season.
Jennifer Muller: Exactly. Supporters are the people that help create the atmosphere you hear and see at games. We do everything from make banners and tifo displays to play drums and sing for the full 90 minutes.
BS: One thing people might not understand is the difference between an independent supporters group and one that is run by the club. Can you each give your take on why being independent is important?
GR: I think of the groups run by a FO (the club) as more of a “fan club”… they usually try to set up player meet & greets and are a bit more focused on getting autographs and photo ops. A supporters group, as Jen said earlier, makes the noise and displays at the match. I think they are on different levels.
JM: Exactly, that’s not to say we can’t work closely with the team, which we do with Sky Blue. But it’s important to remain independent. It’s just the business of pro sports that front offices have turnover. People come and go, but supporters are the constant.
BS: Do you think active supporters culture and not just fans of the team is important to the health and longevity of that league?
GR: I think that’s a slippery slope. The problem woso has had in this country has been trying to be too targeted with hitting certain demographics.
GR: I think women’s soccer has always had supporters, but I think that the league getting past year 3 has shown people that this is worth the investment.
JM: But I think an active and strong supporter culture can help break that cycle of appealing just to that certain demographic.
GR: Sure. I agree with that.
BS: Let’s switch gears from the NWSL to something a bit larger. Both of you went to the Independent Supporters Council meeting in Atlanta. Why is being in the ISC important to each of you and your supporters groups?
GR: I think the ISC, like a lot of other collective bargaining groups, provides a lot of support both in networking and structure. It is great to have access to a large network of SGs across the country to find out how they do things or learn about their successes. The structure can provide assistance as the NWSL SG culture grows and SGs interact with more Front Offices or even the league.
JM: For smaller clubs like Cloud 9, the information shared at the meetings and throughout the year is invaluable to us. I also see our involvement as a way to help open the NWSL up to a larger audience among soccer supporters in the US.
GR: That’s an excellent point!
JM: Maybe a supporters group of a team from another league sees our involvement and realizes that we’re trying to build a real supporters culture here. They might be more inclined to check out a game that’s local to them.
BS: How have the groups from more established clubs reacted to having NWSL groups there? One of you being attached to an MLS club in Portland, the other not being attached to one in New Jersey, I do wonder if there are any differences.
JM: Though we’re not attached to an MLS club, I came into the ISC as a board member for the Empire Supporters Club, which is an SG of the New York Red Bulls. So I already had contacts on the MLS side. Which has made things a bit easier. This was the first year we had more than one NWSL rep at the meetings so it gave us an opportunity to address the rest of the members and basically explain the league and where supporter culture is at the moment. I’d say the response was positive. We were welcomed and wanted at the meetings.
JM: And we were encouraged to reach out to those that are not members to encourage them to join the ISC.
GR: I agree, the reaction was positive. I think a lot of MLS SG organizations are familiar with being in either start-up mode or in a position where you are looking to grow.
JM: Right. And they are very willing to share their knowledge for those of us just starting out.
GR: Totally. Best practices, some roadblocks they have come across themselves.
BS: Right now there are four supporter groups in Cloud 9 from Sky Blue FC, Rose City Riveters from the Portland Thorns, Chicago Local 134 from the Chicago Red Stars, and Triangle Soccer Fanatics from the North Carolina Courage. Do you see more adding in the future?
GR: Very near future.
JM: Yes. We’ve started reaching out to the other groups already.
BS: Over the last four years of the NWSL what do you each think have been the biggest challenges for your supporters groups overall? You come from different markets so I’m wondering what challenges you might face that are different and the same.
GR: Ohhhhh. That’s a tough one
JM: Yeah, this may take a while.
GR: I think the Riveters have done a good job of becoming our own thing. I think, at first, there was some worry that folks would see us as the “lady timbers army” or something. Having such a large organization with us means we have to constantly work to find our own direction.
JM: One of the biggest challenges is introducing the concept of supporter culture to fans that might not be used to it. Teams that have MLS (and now NASL) ties are already starting with an established base of fans, whether it’s the supporters club itself or at least fans with knowledge of the supporter culture. The unaffiliated teams such as ours are starting from the ground up. There’s a decent amount of fan crossover with Sky Blue and the three MLS clubs that are in proximity (the two NY teams and Philly). But when we first started to really get organized in 2015 there were (and still are) a lot of people that didn’t know what to make of us. Last year we saw a big boost and that had a lot to do with the team being behind us 100%. We probably work a bit closer with our front office than in a place like Portland because we need to lean on each other to succeed. Sky Blue knows that if we grow as a club that will only help them in the long run by creating a better atmosphere and bringing in more fans. And if we can do our part in bringing in those fans (sometimes quite literally with our rideshare program), we’ll continue to have a team to support.
BS: Why should someone join a supporters group in the NWSL?
GR: I think you should join to make friends, expand your network. When you join, you meet folks who have a shared interest. Oh, and it is tons of fun to stand and chant for your team.
GR: Even if you aren’t one for being loud at matches, you can join and help bring awareness to woso in other ways.
JM: Even though soccer is a lot more popular now than when I was younger, people still find themselves without ‘soccer friends’. You’ll hear people say they want to go to games but they have no one to go with. When you join a supporters group, you basically get instant soccer friends. You can count on us to be at every home game. You can find people to have actual conversations with about soccer and not just talk about who their favorite players are.
JM: Gabby, that’s a good point. You don’t need to be in the section and making noise to be a part of a supporters club. Yes, our main focus is on game day, but we’re also a sort of social club.
GR: Yea, we’re a social club and we also want to give back to the community.
JM: Yes! Getting involved in community service and charitable efforts is something that many clubs do.
GR: Yea, I think there are a lot of ways to contribute to a SG aside from gameday operations.
GR: Are you a season ticket holder that sits in another section? That’s okay. If you’re buying SG merch, you’re helping to grow the group and enable it to do more.
JM: Yup. We have members that live out of the state and can’t even make it to games. But they still pay their dues because they want to contribute.
BS: Favorite team to play against because of the fun you have with/against the other supporters group?
GR: KC is both my favorite and I hate it because they have our number.
BS: Who is a player from your team who has shown their support back to you most.
GR: Oh. Man. Um. Can I say all of them?
JM: Yeah, they’ve all been great, but I’ll say Kim DeCesare. She hitched a ride with a few of our members to a game in Washington. She put the adventure on the Sky Blue Snapchat. But really they all give us a shout out at one point or another.
JM: And they acknowledge us on our road trips, which is important.
JM: That was the epic 7-hour tailgate in the rain with the Spirit Squadron.
GR: Yea, the players in the NWSL are fantastic about showing support right back
BS: OK this should be easier. Maybe. Favorite tailgate pregame food?
GR: We don’t have traditional tailgates in Portland, though. We have a taco place across the street from the stadium.
JM: We’re still working on upping our tailgate game, which should start happening this year. Last year I was pretty consistent with my Jerk Style Chicken Wrap from Wawa.
BS: Favorite sign or tifo your supporters group has made?
GR: I’m still in love with the Super Heroes tifo from 2013. It was magical.
JM: This wasn’t a banner made for stadium-wide display. In the off-season last year, Christy Holly start using “Onwards & Upwards” in his tweets. So we took that and made a huge banner that we hung above the locker room. So only the players and staff would see it.
JM: Before the last game of the season we were able to take a group photo with the team under the banner.
BS: Final question before we let people know where to find you. If Captain American and Captain Canada battled in a 5 v 5 with teammates, who would you want them to pick?
GR: Tobin, Menges, Horan, Betos up top
JM: KO, Kai, Galton, Killion. It’s the Chaos and Order team.
BS: If someone would like more info or to get in touch with your supporters groups, where can they reach you online?
Thanks to both Jen and Gabby for taking the time to speak with me.