SXSports is one of the newest facets of SXSW, the now-30-year-old conference in Austin. So far, in keeping with the tech-y spirit of concurrent SXSW Interactive, it's often showcased how technology enhances the fan experience.
But this last Friday, Mar. 11, things got a little more primal thanks to a squad of MLS fans, who made up a panel focusing specifically on supporter culture around the league. Representatives from three of the best-known supporters' groups in MLS -- Empire Supporters' Club, the Cauldron, and Sons of Ben -- showed up to talk in detail about the basic elements enhancing the fan experience. Goodbye, in-the-weeds app talk, hello, discussion of the paint and fabric of tifo displays, the beer and barbecue of a tailgate, and the lung power required to fill a stadium with noise for a 90-minute match.
The panel, titled “Understanding Supporter Culture in MLS,” featured Real Salt Lake TV analyst and former MLS player Brian Dunseth interviewing Jennifer Muller of Empire Supporters Club (the original supporters group for the then-MetroStars and now Red Bulls), Sean Dane of the Cauldron (Sporting KC’s massive supporters' group), and Corey Furlan of the Sons of Ben (who turn out for the Philadelphia Union).
Origin stories dominated the early part of the panel. Furlan recounted the legendary story of how the Sons of Ben formed in early 2007, originally made up of eight soccer fans who wanted to bring MLS to Philadelphia. The group grew within a year into a 3000-strong team of guerrilla marketers who eventually got their wish.
Meanwhile Dane said his fandom goes back to the days in which the Wizards were playing at Arrowhead Stadium, and he noticed “a group of fans in the corner who were having a lot more fun than everybody else.” They were bound together with a credo that Dane soon adopted as a full-fledged Cauldron member: “I am going to make a difference in this game.”
As Muller pointed out, “Fans in other sports might say ‘we’ won, and I think, ‘Well, you weren’t out on the field,’ but with soccer, I can use ‘we.’ I feel like we’re the heart of the team.”
Dunseth, as a former player, quickly agreed. “When it’s the 85th minute, and you’re dog-tired, and your legs are heavy, and you see and hear what the supporters are doing to cheer the team on, it helps so much," he said. "It makes a huge difference.”
The conversation also highlighted the preparations that go into creating game-day atmosphere. Furlan detailed supporters arriving to the stadium at least six hours before a game, entering the stadium well before kickoff for preparations that include covering every inch of a 70-yard-long railing with hand-painted signs. The panel also defined and demystified tifo, discussing its role in setting atmosphere, as well as cultivating the sense of humor that is key in soccer fandom.