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An interview with Section 8 Chairman Dan Martin

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Scarf subscriptions, game-day prep, and the infamous Editorial among the topics as we sit down with the ISA chair

The Independent Supporter Association (ISA) is a nonprofit group committed to support and promotion of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, serving as a sort of connective tissue between independent fans, supporters groups and the club. The groups and independent supporters that make up the ISA have a tremendous impact on the game day experience for all fans at Toyota Park. The ISA's mission statement is ". . . to unite all Chicago Fire fans, to create a dominant in-stadium force unseen in any American team sport and to establish a home-field advantage whenever the Chicago Fire play."  Better known as Section 8 Chicago (S8C) the ISA is committed to impassioned support for the Fire on and off the pitch.

For the second year in a row I been privileged to conduct an interview with the Chair of the ISA. In the transcript that follows, we talk about the year ahead for the section, its goals and perspectives. Moving forward, the prospects appear bright for the Fire faithful.

Leadership of the ISA is volunteer-based, so each leader in the organization makes a commitment of time that is admirable. Dan Martin was elected Chair of the ISA in January 2015. Dan is a member of Whiskey Brothers '05. Previously he held the position of Director of Communications for the ISA from 2010-2012. Last fall Dan left a career in publishing to pursue his Masters of Science in Technical Communications. HTIOT is thankful for his time.

Anthony Seymour: Thank you very much for taking time out to answer some questions for me on behalf of Hot Time in Old Town.  Can you begin by telling me a little bit about your goals as the new chair of Section 8 Chicago and how they relate to the mission of the ISA?

Dan Martin: My goal is to facilitate greater levels of support and involvement from all Fire fans, which is pretty much exactly the mission of the ISA. Sorry for the basic-ass answer, but that’s really it!

AS: One of the new initiatives that has popped up for Section 8 this season has been the new "Scarf Subscription" program. Would you briefly explain the program?  Is there anything else new for 2015 from the ISA?

DM: Sure, for anyone who was/is an indie record geek it might sound somewhat familiar — record labels would often offer 7-inch record subscription plans where people would pay a set amount and then each month every subscriber would get a new record in the mail. It’s sort of like that — pay a flat rate up front and you’ll get 5 new scarf designs and an overall savings over buying each one individually.

AS: During the campaign for ISA Chair one topic of debate was about what role the ISA should play in relation to discontent with club ownership. How would you describe the ISA's relationship with the front office? How do you see the ISA's relationship with the front office moving forward?

DM: I would describe the ISA’s relationship with the front office as very good and remaining that way for the foreseeable future.

AS: We are now creeping up on almost 2 years since "the Letter" was sent out to the fanbase.  Do you think fan frustration at ownership has begun to cool yet?

DM: I assume you mean "the Editorial" — I don’t think fan frustration over the editorial has cooled completely. I thought the apology offered by Atul Khosla at the S8C AGM in January was half-assed at best because the editorial was posted on the club’s official website for nearly a year and was defended in local media by club officials. It was also subject to the attention of national media and criticism from fans of clubs around the league. To apologize only to a smallish group of Fire fans and not provide a retraction or similar apology in a public place is insufficient to mend the negative effects of its publication.

AS: Yeah, dumb mistake on my part. I meant the "Editorial". I guess it felt like I was being talked (down) to directly which is why it stuck in my head as a letter.

For the next question, A lot of supporters clubs throughout the league are now facing increased security measures by the introduction of a new security provider. Could you tell me a little about this change? What is s8c's relationship with Monterey Security, and will these changes impact the Harlem End?

DM: I don’t think there is a new security provider, at least in all club situations, but there is a new MLS Vice President for Operations and Security, Ray Whitworth. I can’t speak a lot to the changes because the league has been very slow to release information about any new policies — which is the bulk of the problem… see the uproar surrounding the sanctions applied to Angel City Brigade in LA. That said, S8C’s relationship with Monterrey Security has improved in recent years and I don’t think we’ll see an immediate impact in the way things work in the stadium.

A.S.: The Fire had a pretty forgettable 2014 season. After such terrible results, and a poor start to 2015, how do you get fans in the Harlem End motivated to re-engage with the Chicago Fire?

DM: That’s a tough question. We can only do so much, you know? Some people need no motivation, which is good because we can count on them. Others, it’s hard to say. I’ve never thought it’s the ISA’s job to get people motivated, at least not officially, but rather to be a facilitator for the actions and projects of those who are motivated.

AS: I asked this question last year to the previous chair but I think it is still pertinent. What is your current marketing strategy to draw in new fans to the section?

DM: The new director of marketing, Eva Hall, is also a marketer in her day job, so it’s great to have someone with that experience heading up our efforts. We’re trying to use tactics she’s learned "in real life" to appeal to folks who haven’t been to a game as well as those who might have taken a step back in the past couple of years. One of the things Eva does is promote bands/shows/concerts, so some of our efforts might look a little bit like that. She has also been producing great graphics for our events. In addition, we’re trying to expand/solidify our reach among friendly pubs in Chicagoland and foster word-of-mouth growth.

AS: Can you give a status update on Sector Latino? They had a good showing at the home opener. Is there position secure in the far corner?

DM: As far as I know they’re set in section 101. I attended their open meeting earlier this year and everything seemed to be going well. In my previous role as communications director I never got a chance to meet many SL regulars so it was good to finally put faces to names and meet some new people. They’ve been making a push for more of their members to buy season tickets, which is great to see because in the long run it will do a lot to solidify their place in the club. They’re also planning several organized away trips this season — I’m very glad to see that because I’ve long admired SL for the passion they bring home or away.

AS:  The 2014 home kit design sort of created an uproar the Chicago Fire community.  The 3rd kit design contest choices was not the most popular design either. How do you think the Fire did with the new 2015 away kit?

DM: I saw a mock-up of the new secondary shirts not long after the New Year and I liked it immediately, and it looked even better when revealed in full. It bodes well for next year’s primary kit re-design, hopefully including the return of the iconic white chest stripe.

AS: A lot of fans do not realize the amount of work that goes into creating a game day experience.  From tailgate to tifo, bus ride to capo stand can you briefly describe the work that goes into preparing for a match?

DM: My advice for anyone looking to get involved in the workings of the ISA has been "It’ll take as much work as you can put into it" meaning it’s a lot of work and it really isn’t ever done. I don’t know if I can make a brief description of gameday preparation and still do justice to the efforts of all the people who volunteer to make things happen, both among the 8 of us on the ISA board and the dozens of non-board members who love the club enough to pitch in however they can.

AS:  On opening day it was apparent in the section that there was a significant sized group counter-cheering instead of following the lead from the Capo stand.  Clearly this cheering comes from a place of passion and support. However, what is your perspective on counter-cheers in the section?  Is it helpful or disruptive?

DM: I didn’t witness this so I can’t say what happened, what do you mean by "counter-cheering"? Is that cheering for the opposing team, or just not following the capos? If the latter, my perspective is that sometimes people get bored or have some kind of personal gripe with whatever those leading the chants are doing in the stand. Sometimes chants start organically in the section without the capo’s involvement, so if a chant is good enough that others want to join in and help it grow, this is a good thing. If it’s people doing something against what the capo is doing just to be antagonistic, or if no one is joining in, that’s not as good. I think for the most part it’s best to follow the capos because the section sounds better and is louder when people are unified.

AS: How does the ISA handle conflicts and supporters disagreements in the section? Is this even the role of the ISA or is that a Fire and security issue?

DM: We’ve worked with Monterrey over the past few years to be more self-policing and I think it’s paid off with fewer ejections. There is no set way to deal with an issue but anyone concerned can always find a board member, either directly or by asking around, and we can help defuse whatever situation is happening. In cases of violence or other dangers, security is always the go-to.

AS:  A longtime supporter once said to me that the goal should be to get the crowd roaring louder that a jet engine.  What are some ways that Section 8 can get the rest of the stadium make noise like section 8?

DM: I like occasionally wandering around the stadium and observing fans in other sections, and I’ve noticed that those fans react best to the simpler chants, including those with clapping. We’ve worked with the front office to get some of our chants included in gameday programs, so that can help, but really nothing helps get the stadium going like goals.

AS: This question comes from HTIOT Editor-In-Chief Sean Spence. Pitch to me the advantages of a supporters' alliance - like Section 8 - over the traditional mammoth supporters group. (i.e., "Why are we just better, again?")

DM: There are many different models of supporter groups across the league, from free associations like ours to highly-regimented for-profit enterprises elsewhere. I don’t think any is inherently "better" overall, just some might appeal to supporters more than another. I think the openness here is good because it allows for all styles — want to charge for membership and make a few bucks for beer? You can do it. Want to have a loosely-knit group of friends to party and goof off at games? Sure thing. Want to be very serious about one particular aspect of supporting the Fire? You got it! This variability of styles and opinions only makes us stronger, from my point of view.

Hot Time would like to thank Dan for his time, as well as his candid answers!