In this space on Friday, Robert Jonas discussed the nature of modern sports and the lack of "clubs" in MLS, boiling down the fan-team relationship into one of pure economics.  Teams have owners who sell a product.  Fans, or supporters if you like, either buy that product or they don't.  When the team is struggling on the field or management fails to address the problems, fans only recourse is to not buy tickets.  The word "club" is not applicable to MLS franchises because they fail to meet the basic definition.

Using the traditional definition shared by many teams in a variety of sports, a club is an sporting organization where the community invests their efforts toward a common goal. In soccer, this means a team that is local owned and operated by the same people that participate and follow the progress of that team. Those that invest in the club are given the right to provide input to the club’s management team, and even elect those officials that run the club on a daily basis. The club then returns that investment through entertainment and value.

On Saturday, Tom Dunmore of Pitch Invasion posted a response of sorts, arguing that fans are indeed supporting "clubs' if their community and cultural efforts impose an influence on said organization, and if that influence is meant to improve the common good.

Tom's thought is that our sports teams are "clubs" if the spirit of camaraderie amongst the fans makes it so and if that camaraderie allows for some control in the direction of the team (as with the recent TFC protest). While Robert leaned heavily towards the idea that professional sports is simply a business-consumer proposition in the present, Tom has a more nuanced take, resting largely on the gray area of "horizontal relationships."  These relationships make the club something more than just a business, extend it into the realm of cultural institution.

But the same is not true horizontally in Toronto Football Club as a cultural institution: that is, the very protests Jonas mentions show that fans have clubbed together for the sake of the sporting organisation in question (Toronto Football Club) in a way that meets Jonas’ definition of a “community [that] invests their efforts toward a common goal.” It is true that the fans do not own this club in a formal sense: but nor can they simply be divorced from it in terms of what Toronto FC is. Cultural capital is important, too.

They're both right, in their own ways, and I find myself nodding along while reading both pieces.  Robert's cold calculation that sports is strictly business, and the fans only dollars to be harvested, is a hard reality to ignore.  Sports teams, particularly in the United States but also abroad as the times have changed, are assets to be bought and sold among the uber-rich; running them is a business proposition that does not always involve investing in on-field success.  Fans are too often just replaceable customers, to be catered to insofar as it separates them from their money. Tom's more romantic notion that community is part of the reason we "join" ("clubbed together"), making his approach to the word "club" not only legitimate, but attractive.

Can we not consider that football fans associating to support a common cause in ways uncommon to regular consumer transactions – singing, tifo, protests, fundraising, travelling thousands of miles in support of the team – creates clubs as community institutions in a cultural sense, regardless of formal ownership?

Largely, we're arguing semantics.  To which construct should the word "club" be applied?  The actual organization that operates the team, or everything that surrounds it, up to and including individual fans in the absence of membership dues and voting rights?  For Tom, the club is not limited to the players on the field or the executives in the box; the club is also anyone willing to give their time and effort to the team, be it in the form of simple attendance, tifos, chants, singing, etc.  Membership in the club is a matter of participation, and the fact teams are not locally owned cooperatives isn't of primary concern.  For Robert, the club is the team and the team alone; membership is limited to those few individuals who have a financial stake.  This makes the word "club" an anachronism in an MLS context.

Whichever viewpoint you ascribe to, Tom's club-as-community ideal or Robert's there-is-no-club reality, there is no black-and-white answer to the question.  One man's club is another man's franchise.

I wonder, with that thought in mind, if the perspectives of Robert and Tom are not somewhat down to their distinctly different backgrounds.  Robert is American, Tom is English.  At the risk of being simple, it's very possible that Robert's more calculating take is a product of his experience with American sports, while Tom's is built on a British ethos absorbed prior to his move to the States.  Professional sports in the United States has always, since baseball players were first paid to play their game in the 1870s, been a business and a business first.  Rich men, the entrepreneurs of their day, took on the risk of running teams.  Notions of a spiritual community ownership only lasted for as long as the owner's whim allowed it to; even before the more modern examples of the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns, American teams have been franchises, moving at will around the country in search of a more favorable economic situation.

In almost every case, the fans left behind were powerless to stop the move despite public opinion (save for that of the planned destination) leaning solidly to their side.  Americans view the operation of sports teams as part of the public trust, but that doesn't mean they're permanently tied to the community in which they started; the "fairness" of the situation is a matter of perception.  Is it fair that the man or men taking the risk be forced to remain in a money-losing proposition simply due to history?  Conversely, is it fair that owners have the right to coldly dismiss the loyalty of a community in search of (more) profit?

That cultural divide is why MK Dons is so reviled in England as a team that moved from one locality to another, ripping up the roots of the "club" in the process.  Rather than have teams move from place to place, never mind that every town of any reasonable size in Britain has a club of its own making options few and far between, football clubs in the old country are left to wither and die if they're unable to sustain themselves.  The idea, and hence the vitriol aimed in MK Dons' direction, is that the community is the club and vice-versa; one cannot exist without the other.  In the British view (which extends beyond Britain's borders, of course), the public trust isn't a contrivance, but a reality.  Football clubs in England are not mobile businesses, they're civic institutions, and their modern millionaire/billionaire owners simply custodians.

America has it's own civic institutions in the world of sports, and in a few cases the weight of history and continued support gives them the same sense of immobility.  While the sense is real (one cannot imagine the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, or Pittsburgh Steelers relocating, of example), the fact remains that these "clubs" are as franchises.  If push came to shove, every one of them could be moved.  The fans of those teams may be immune, in terms emotional investment, to the possibility, but there are millions of Americans who are not, or who appreciate the ever-present danger, no matter the degree.  Even without direct experience (and perhaps Robert has some, being from the Bay Area, also known as the home of Travelin' Al Davis), a cultural appreciation of the nature of big time professional sports pushes us towards a cynical view, as Robert expressed.

As a consumer, you can vote with your wallet, or try to organize supporter group protests like were seen in Toronto and Seattle, but the fact remains that MLS, like all modern professional sports, is all about the business of making money.

We need look no further for evidence of America's teams-as-chess-pieces history than this year's World Series.  Both of the participants started life elsewhere: the Rangers as the Washington Senators, the San Francisco Giants as the New York Giants. MLS has already seen one relocation, with the possibility of more to come, and it's not beyond the realm of good taste for American soccer fans to discuss which teams should be moved and to which cities. It seems our desensitization to franchise relocation has bred a pragmatic approach to the health of professional soccer in the United States. As long as it's not our own teams being tossed out as relocation candidates, we're more than willing to present the possibility that relocation is acceptable or even necessary.

I'm sure that Tom Dunmore (and I hope he'll comment here; I don't want to appear to be speaking for him) has an intellectual appreciation of our very American attitude towards sports-as-business. I'm positive he understands that at any point, the Fire (his team) could be uprooted from the community and taken elsewhere should the ownership/league deem it in their best interest. It's likely he has reconciled the possibility with his support and the "club as community" ideal that he expressed in his excellent piece. His opinion that MLS teams are still "clubs", despite failing to meet the strictest definition of that word, can exist while fully cognizant of that reality.

But I think it's also likely that Tom, like Johnny Moore in Robert's piece, is more inclined to his viewpoint because of his cultural background.

The question isn't which is correct, but how American soccer fans can form the "clubs" of Tom's type while carrying the emotional baggage that comes with Robert's attitude that what we have aren't clubs at all.  We certainly cannot separate ourselves from the history of franchise movement, nor can we ignore that MLS has a mandate to place their teams in where they can be successful.  DC United fans are even now, in the wake of (more) scary comments from Kevin Payne, facing the cold reality that nothing is assured, that community ties to a team are only as strong as the stadium situation, and that their decade-and-a-half support means nothing in the end.

It's imperative that MLS avoid moving their teams because doing so only weakens the game's hold on our communities and reinforces cultural cynicism.  Time creates the bonds that allows our teams, despite their legal and culturally acceptable mobility, to become integral parts of our communities.  If MLS teams are to ever break the cynicism felt by the American and move towards the sense of "club" felt by the Englishman, they must stay rooted to their communities for years, growing into institutions in them and repaying emotional investment generations over.
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