One beautiful aspect that sets soccer apart from other sports is the rampant, close-knit supporter culture.
As soccer leagues across the country grow, so do the groups of supporters that do what they can to grow their club both on and off the field. One of the most helpful ways for supporter groups to organize and grow is through the Independent Supporters Council, which brings together supporters representing MLS, NASL, USL, and NPSL.
This year's annual ISC meeting was held in Chicago, where supporter groups from around the country congregated to review what they have done and where they want to go. Former Section 8 chair Dan Martin took time to discuss how hosting the event went and what the group hopes to accomplish moving forward.
Hot Time: In general, how did the weekend go with so many supporters clubs in town? Did everyone leave more energized and optimistic about growing supporter culture in America?
Dan Martin: The weekend went well, I think. It's a little tough to judge because of differing attendees and the short amount of time, but we were able to share a lot of ideas and experiences, many of which end up being similar place to place, and come to agreements on some high-level issues or causes that we've championed in the past, such as Show Racism the Red Card. Some of the best and most valuable discussions happen away from the round table, too. (Never underestimate the power of supporters hanging out with a few drinks in hand to get the stories flowing.)
HT: What are some of the big goals moving forward for the ISC? Has the expansion of MLS helped ISC or is it difficult to get so many new groups involved?
DM: Improving conditions for travel to away matches is always a central concern and that's going to continue. There was also a determination to improve the organization's external communications in the new year, as well as a few more choice items I'm going to decline to reveal in anticipation of official communication/promotion from the ISC.
Not all groups or all cities are represented at these meetings for a variety of reasons, so getting new groups involved is always of interest. This meeting was particularly interesting because of the presence of a handful of NASL/USL representatives, which hadn't happened before.
HT: For people unfamiliar with ISC, what is the benefit of organizing all the supporters groups? Would you recommend fans check out their local club's supporter group?
DM: Different clubs and groups can have very different scenes surrounding them, so while I wouldn't advise the average fan to blindly join a group, I would definitely suggest at least hanging around the periphery and getting to know the feel of the group before joining. I'd also suggest people consider forming their own group, if they're interested.
I think supporters can learn from one another, first and foremost, whether it involves finding a better scarf supplier, setting up a new framework for scheduling buses for road trips, how to set up a non- or not-for-profit incorporation for your group, or any number of other topics. MLS has been around long enough that people have been working on this stuff for a while across the league. No two groups are the same, so being able to hear about what's worked and what hasn't in particular situations (without wasting time or energy on trial & error) can be very useful.
Additionally, as shown with the Stand With ACB actions taken at the beginning of the 2015 season: when fans stick up for each other, especially across club lines, league officials will take notice and act.
HT: What is the biggest issue with supporter culture in America right now?
DM: That's a very interesting question. Outside of the closer regional rivalries, we haven't seen a whole lot of large-scale travel to matches, by that I mean consistent visiting crowds in the thousands. As a result, some teams are better or worse at handling large numbers of visitors, whether that means getting people into the stadium in an organized fashion, how they are separated from home fans in the stadium (if at all), and how ticket allocation is handled. I think travel in all its facets will continue to be an issue that supporters will have to take the lead on as the popularity of the league grows. Beyond travel, I think league accountability is a big issue, because dealing with a lot of individual issues are left up to the teams, rather than acknowledged/directed by the league itself.
HT: How is Section 8 viewed nationally? Is Chicago considered one of the better supporter groups in the country?
DM: I don't know if value judgments like "better" are very useful here, but I think S8C is definitely ahead of the curve in several areas. For example, when these meetings began (this is the 5th annual under the ISC banner, previous supporter summits were league-organized and much less fan-driven) S8C was one of the only, if not the only, supporter association that was incorporated as a not-for-profit. At the start of these meetings each representative described their organizational structure, and I don't think there were any that were not 501(c) corporations. That's a big change over just a few years.
For people interested on learning more about Section 8, visit www.sc8.org.