Fan engagement and the match-day experience has been a concern for sometime.
This is at least to those of us who follow A-League teams that appear to struggle with the whole subject and as a result have seen falling attendances, boycotts and a level of disunity that should be the last thing a club wants or has to deal with.
Last night I attended the MLS fixture between Portland and Colorado at Providence Park, with a capacity of just over 25,000. The city of Portland has a population of just over 600,000 and a possible drawing power of over two million when the whole Portland area is considered.
Given those kind of numbers, there are some obvious similarities with some of our A-League club sides.
First observation was that the game was sold out and that outside the ground there were people asking to buy tickets – not necessarily scalpers either. Speaking to several locals, they said that most games are sold out, just occasionally a midweek fixture has empty seats for all the usual reasons.
Neither of the sides taking part are currently in play off contention although Portland played their first 12 games of the season away from home while ground improvements were completed giving an increase in ground capacity and a very attractive four tier grandstand.
In addition, the side just beat LAFC in the US equivalent of the FFA cup so fans appeared quite optimistic.
As to be expected the bars and food outlets in the vicinity were doing a brisk trade and the mood was bright and happy as fans made their way to the concourse.
The first thing I noticed when trying to enter the stadium was that you were not required to enter via a specific gate which meant no long queues, at least at the time we were trying to enter.
Once inside, I could see there was a concourse that allowed freedom of movement into all the public areas which is the norm and not even segregated when either one of the two northwest derbies take place.
What did slightly shock me was the greetings my wife and I received. First up there were club officials on the external concourse answering questions, giving directions and welcoming us to the match.
Then onto security and having waited in line for three hours to enter the country in Seattle a few days earlier I made sure we arrived in plenty of time to deal with any likely issues.
“Welcome to Providence Park” we were greeted with by the two bag searchers and then through a body scanner to be greeted by a third security person who said “I hope you enjoy the entertainment tonight”.
All this was said with a degree of sincerity and smiling faces.
All around the inside concourse were food and refreshment outlets of all kinds. Food ranged from traditional hot dogs to dumplings, sandwiches, felafels, and much more; suffice to say, much more than lukewarm pies and soggy french fries.
As for drinks – well Portland has the highest number of micro breweries of any city apparently and that was reflected by the number of outlets inside the ground and all selling full strength beer.
If you really wanted a Bud Light or Coors, you could find them but the choices were good even though they had to be supped in a plastic cup as is the case across the globe at sports events.
Up into the seated area and helpful staff showed us where we were to be seated and wished us a happy evening at the ground.
“The Timber Army” – Portland’s active support was already in place and tuning up. The bays housing the active support were probably slightly larger than anywhere in the A League with the possible exception of the first Sydney derby held at ANZ.
There was a well defined area for the Capos of which there were four – two females and two males. As the clock wound down towards kick off time there were the usual introductions and then a rousing rendition of the national anthem that included scarf waving at certain points but all in a respectful manner.
Formalities over, the Timber Army were quickly into gear with a range of songs and chants, some with familiar tunes and some with obvious lyrics and many of them engaged with fans right around the ground.
The capos each had different roles but they kept going for the full 90 minutes. I inquired among fans around me as to whether all songs are “G rated” and was assured there were a few that would not get through a censor but they didn’t always come out clearly on television so are tolerated.
Just like many other grounds there was a propensity to stand up and that went for two thirds of the fans that I could see and in all honesty was much better and less cramped than the typical stadium seat provided.
The evening was a colourful affair, lots of flags, banners etc including many rainbow flags right in the heart of the active support. My wife suggested that would be great to see in the RBB but in how many decades time?
When the Timbers scored, a massive lumberjack went through a ritualised cutting of a giant piece of timber with an enormous chainsaw and then the smoke bombs went off. Where were the police and security?
Nowhere in sight as the lighting of flares was all controlled sending up a curtain of yellow and green smoke across the front of the timber army. I doubt that anyone behind the goal could see that Colorado had in fact equalised almost from the kick off and although the ground did go quiet for about thirty seconds, the party was soon back in full swing.
Throughout the evening, we only saw two police officers inside the ground and they were not arresting anyone. Outside there were a few police vehicles and officers ensuring that people exited safely and that the traffic in the area was under control.
Security although high in number had badges on referring to them as event staff and I have never seen friendlier and more welcoming security staff – they appeared to be fans; of the event if not the team.
Everyone appeared to have a good time. The game finished 2-2 with a penalty, a send off and a great strike for the Colorado equaliser. I got to see Tim Howard perform in goal one more time – as consummate a professional as you will ever see.
The teams have a real mixture of players with talent coming from Central and South America as well as Europe and some home grown talent too. The standard of football is pretty good. There were fluffed lines and a few forgettable moments but overall it was great value for money and provided a lot of “food for thought”.
We may not want to replicate everything other leagues offer, we want to be unique but at the same time we want a product that engages with fans, clubs that make you feel wanted, noisy boisterous active support that does not cross boundaries of behaviour and decency and that doesn’t mean it has to be bland and boring either.
We want minimal policing and security that don’t see the job as an arm wrestle or automatically confrontational, nor do we really want to experience the “wannabee” police officers. I fear we have a long journey ahead of us unless the leadership group changes course sometime soon.