Please welcome Kris Landis to the staff. Kris will turn his eye off the field to some of the stuff that happens outside the touchline.
It's an interesting dynamic between hardcore supporters of a soccer club and their more "casual" counterparts. Soccer moms, local sports fans with no particular feelings of loyalty towards a club, college kids just out to spend a Saturday doing something fun, all of these groups are considered with skepticism, sometimes outright hostility. It's always seemed strange to me. And let's not even dare mention the people who are there to see the big names that MLS has brought in in the last decade. They're pariahs, the lowest-of-the-low.
But someone has to fill the stadium, right? I don't think anyone would argue that the Nordecke is a passionate bunch, vocal and vital the atmosphere at Columbus Crew Stadium, but when the rest of the stadium is barren, it's little consolation. So why then, are these "casual" fans looked down upon by so many? Shouldn't the goal be to turn these casuals in to full fledged supporters? I presume that the team would want that. I'm sure the supporters groups would love increased membership. So, then, the question is, how do we as supporters help "convert", for lack of a better term, these casual fans in to full on die-hards?
The aim of this (hopefully) regular column will be to start to answer that question. I intend to talk to various "casual" fans I know around town. I want to know what they think of the Club, its fans, its performance, how it's covered by the media. In short, I want to find out what exactly DOES the local soccer mom bringing her 8 year old to Crew Stadium really know about The Columbus Crew Soccer Club? Easiest way to do that, I figure, is to start asking some questions.
My manager at my restaurant gig volunteered to be my guinea pig, so to speak. He's a little skittish about having his full name out in the big wide world of the internet, so I'm going to call him J. J is what I call a "Columbus Sports Fan". You know the type. Die hard Buckeye fan, loves the Blue Jackets, and is avid about either the Browns or Bengals (in J's case, it's the Browns). You see them all the time, even at Crew Stadium. They're usually wearing OSU gear. They seem to be, amongst some circles at least, particularly disliked.
J and I talked while the restaurant was particularly dead. I told him not to do any "studying up" to sound more knowledgeable about the Crew. That would defeat the point. To start I asked him, in his mind, how big of a Crew fan he is, on the scale of 1-10.
"One being low?"
"I would probably say... three?" That's about where I would place him, as well. I decided to see how well he recognized some of the players on the team, as well as some names, both home-grown and imported from around Major League Soccer. All I wanted to know is if he had heard of them.
"Don't know who that is."
"Know who that is."
"Know who that is."
"Do not know who that is."
"Sounds familiar." (This one surprised me.)
"Know who that is."
"Know who that is."
So, the takeaway from this is pretty obvious. J is familiar with the "big names", particularly the ones from the USMNT. In fact, he's considerably more knowledgeable about the National Team than he is about the Crew. He greatly enjoyed watching the World Cup, (and having known him for a decade, I can tell you that with each World Cup his interest has grown) and "big time games" like USA vs. Mexico really catch his attention. The chance to see "big name" players seems to be what interests him most about going to Crew games. I asked him:
"Which would be more likely to make you buy a ticket to a game, a promotion like dollar beer dollar brat night, or playing against a team like Toronto FC, who now have Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore?"
His response was immediate and emphatic.
"Oh, the Toronto one. That sounds awesome."
There is a reason the team advertises those big names, even if Black and Gold supporters are busy painting anti-TFC tifos.
I asked him how many games he gets to, on average. He was relocated to Toledo for a few years, to one of our sister-restaurants, and has been back over a year. His response surprised me. He had been to none since coming back. Was it an interest thing, I asked?
"No, I'm totally interested. It's just, you know, with work and stuff, it's just never..."
I asked him how he keeps up with the team, where he gets his news.
"You." He laughs.
I ask if he ever sees it on TV, local news, or in the newspaper. He replies no, though he does sometimes see things from bars that are supporters, he says. He mentions Jimmy V's in Grandview, near where he lives. I assume this means he saw some ad about the team's much maligned, and sometimes hard to find, "pub tour" last year for away matches.
I don't think that the issue of lacking local coverage will surprise many supporters. Not everyone is a newspaper reader. The Dispatch do a fine job, but local news outlets are still lacking. How can supporters influence this? Well, that's a bit beyond me. Though I do think that J mentioning his local pub is a promising avenue. Granted, the Supporters groups each have their own associated hangouts, fine establishments all, but I think an increased Crew presence at "non-soccer" bars would be a good thing. A scarf here, a stack of schedules there, who knows?
The repeating theme throughout the conversation was that J was interested in following the team, but not excited about it. To him there wasn't enough excitement to tip the scale towards going to Crew Stadium on a Saturday night, as opposed to, well, just about anything else Columbus had on offer. Now big name players coming to town? That's exciting, at least to J. A big name signing for the Club would be even more so. But then he threw something interesting at me. I asked what would be more likely to make him commit to coming to games more (as in, more than just once in a blue moon), a big name signing or the team being a legit contender. I was expecting him to say a big name signing. But he went the other way. The team being a title challenger would get his butt in a seat at the Stadium, and I imagine many other "Columbus Sports Fans" like J.
This, however, begs the question, where was he last year for our playoff game? If you were there you remember the scene well, I'm sure. Columbus Crew Stadium was what you'd expect for late fall, cold, windy, all in all unpleasant. But it was also empty, which prompted more than a few mutterings from Crew fans (and local sports broadcasters) about the lack of support for the Club. If being a contender would get butts in seats, where were those butts when it mattered? Well, it seems, at least from talking to J, that they didn't know we were contenders.
Yep. J wasn't even sure we made the playoffs last year. (And yes, I kept him informed about the teams progress last year. In fact I couldn't shut up about it.)
So the issue is clear. How we, as diehards, see the team is vastly different from how non-supporters see it. The question is how do we bridge that gap? Improved local news coverage is, by and large, out of our hands as supporters. I mean, blowing up Dom Tiberi's twitter gets old after a while, and hasn't really done much good. I think that "educating", for lack of a better term, the casual fans about our club and players is really the way to go. Instead of heckling the fans there to see a Lampard or Keane, we should be talking up the likes of Wil Trapp or Justin Meram. Telling someone who doesn't follow MLS, but keeps up with the USMNT that Parkhurst totally shut down Jozy this weekend may not seem like all that big of a deal, but it may stick in their mind. In the stands or out in "civilian" life, the mission remains the same. Spread the Massive Gospel to all those who need to hear it. It may just make a full fledged supporter out of a casual fan, like J.
Comments, questions and criticism is welcomed. I can be reached at Krislandis@gmail.com or @krislandis on Twitter. Thanks for reading the first (and hopefully not last!) edition of this column!