Monday, October 26, 2009

I've Been A Bit Busy...

I don’t think I would have believed it had I not seen the replays, or heard about the wackiness from this match after reading the reports. It was apparent after reading this that Sunderland was the best team on the pitch this day, but at the same point, soccer can be a quirky, cruel game at times. The best team doesn’t always win, and sometimes the game ends in a draw, which may not be deserved. However, there are times when the margin between winning and losing is razor thin, and in this instance, it was a most unlikely fan prop that affected the outcome. To think that professional footballers are distracted by a beach ball enough to miss the actual soccer ball is something I thought I’d never have to consider, but suddenly there it is.

That is one of the many aspects to the beauty of this game, you are never completely sure what you might see in a 90 plus minute timeframe. For those of us that have caught the fever, it’s a really easy thing to sell, which is why many of us spend our early morning hours watching games from across the world to see what incredible things might happen. It doesn’t take much to sell us on the prospect of the future for Portland and MLS, we can say we’ve seen it and are already preparing for whatever may happen. Many of my fellow Timbers Army members have already secured our tickets for the 2010 season and beyond, based simply on the optimism of the future and what MLS will bring to the city. We don’t know what players will be here, the coaches, the team color and crest, and what PGE Park will look like for the upcoming 2011 opening for MLS, but we have faith and hope. Those are two very powerful emotions to have at our disposal, and so we wait expectantly for 2011 to arrive.

The road there is paved with good intentions and a lot of crazy obstacles capable for distraction. The USL First Division’s future is cloudy at best, as a schism has developed between select clubs and the USL management, who some insiders consider “draconian” in their control over member franchises. It wasn’t that long ago that the USL was being looked at as the soccer league most likely to survive competition with MLS. Here in 2009, the combined efforts of MLS conservatively monitoring and controlling the financial future of their league while providing potential jobs for all races and genders interested is providing a stable foundation for the future. As we’ve talked about here before, the USL is having all sorts of issues trying to figure out what their future holds, and the first shots have already been fired in this mess.

If this was the only issue going on, I could see finding a strategy and just try to mitigate the mess until 2011 comes along. However, the baseball issue in Beaverton still is looming about, and the future of baseball still has some impact on what soccer does, because until their future is determined, the construction schedule and go-forward plans for soccer are tentative at best. The city and Beaverton mayor Denny Doyle is excited about the prospect of baseball coming to the Westside, and are prepared to move forward with their plans even with no determined site. Opponents, meanwhile, have started mounting their campaign to put the whole idea up to a vote, concerned about the long-term debt this project would bring to the area. The longer this issue goes on, the more uncertainty there is surrounding MLS and Portland. While the deals for soccer and baseball are being considered separately, there are still a lot of co-dependencies that must be solved before the future brightens up.

This hasn’t stopped the Timbers from moving forward with their efforts to rebrand the team as MLS, and reach out to fans to promote the new team. The Timbers have hired Nemo Designs to create a marketing campaign designed to get the word out about MLS to those fans who may not know anything about soccer, the Timbers, MLS, or what is happening in 2011. They are embracing some rather interesting marketing ideas, based on the buzz created from the Internet and other social networking sites, like Twitter and Facebook. While Nemo understands the Timbers Army and what they bring to the table, they are looking to seize the non-soccer fans or general sports fan to help fill the stadium.

I get the fact that the Timbers need more than just the hardcore fans in order to sell this idea long term, and the fan experience needs to be inclusive for everybody. The Timbers realize people like me are going to show up week in and out without much prompting because we are already hooked on the product, and so they don’t need to do much to keep me interested. Creating a buzz requires a concentrated, coordinated branding where you see the logo in various spots, building to a big campaign as the season approaches, and the targets are usually in non-traditional places. In the article, the marketing ideas vary from foosball tables to roving advertisements on MAX to the possibility of a reality show centered on the team.

For traditional fans like myself, I shudder to think about some of these ideas because it seems to go against things that I’ve witnessed up until now. The Timbers brand has been built up to now on various word of mouth campaigns, some limited advertisement, and the work of the Timbers Army to draw folks to various matches. The results are evident, as the Timbers’ average attendance increased by 13 percent in 2009. People are showing up to watch this team, because they are talented, the games are entertaining, and the Timbers had a good winning season.

There are other reasons for the spike as well, as people come to PGE Park for the atmosphere, the cheap beer, and the scene to be seen right now. With increased media attention, there have been folks that have latched onto the Timbers momentum, and have been showing up in droves. These newer fans may not understand the traditions, the songs, the atmosphere, but they want to be part of what’s going on. This reality has caused some tension between the groups of fans, which I will label the veterans and the tourists.

Veterans have been here from the very beginnings, when the seats were plentiful and the tradition was just being built. They encouraged friends, co-workers, and strangers to come watch soccer in Portland, and worked tirelessly to get the word out about this team. Many of these people have spent countless hours and dollars in supporting the team, from traveling all over for road games, creating banners, signs and chant sheets, and completing various community projects with the intent to get the word out about the team. These people care about the history and tradition of their team, and really get frustrated with those that don’t understand what it took to get here or simply don’t care to get it.

Tourists simply want to show up to have a good time, and have heard through the grapevine that the Timbers are the place to be for various reasons. Whether it’s for the cheap beer, crazy antics, or cute members of the crowd, they show up in droves. They may not understand the chants, what to do with the cutup papers, or what the songs are all about; they want to come and have fun. I don’t know their reasoning here, but it could be everything from wanting to be part of the bandwagon, to wanting to belong to the community but not sure how, to just simply wanting to be there to be seen. There might be some of these people who want to get it more, but they might be scared off by the veterans, who get frustrated or impatient with those that don’t follow the team in the same way they do.

It’s a constant struggle, and things aren’t going to change anytime soon. I’d love to have some of the newer fans want to know more about the traditions of the TA, but I can’t force them to honor it despite my efforts. The Timbers Army has set itself up as a “leaderless collection” of fans, but after being here for years, I know the key members of this team because you learn quickly who the movers and shakers are within this group. Some people don’t mind doing the heavy lifting, and many ideas have died a quick death because they weren’t embraced by this core of folks. I didn’t learn this overnight, it was important to me to learn about what was going on within this group because I wanted to. So I asked around, and the rest is history.

It’s perhaps this struggle that epitomizes what the TA is going through right now, and something that I wrestle with internally. I resent people riding on the coattails of the success of the TA, becoming a bandwagon fan when it’s cool to join up. They may or may not care about history or tradition, they want to hang out and yell with everything else. I guess I can understand that to an extent, but at the same point, I learned more about the culture and attitude of this wonderfully dysfunctional group, and felt like I’ve gained so much more by simply caring about the team, the crest, the history. I became a true fan, and less of a customer just looking for the hip thing to drop some disposable income.

There will be a lot of discussion about this whole dynamic, and I’m not sure there is an easy way to solve this. I know the current Timbers organization really wants to build their brand for the future, which may mean some traditions has to go away or be altered, and that thought has begun to apply to some attitudes about the future. I want this idea to succeed in a grand level and have others see what Portland and the Timbers are all about, but I’m also very concerned about making sure the tradition and history remain as much as possible.

In talking about this issue, I wish I could come up with a way to solve all sides of this concern, but for now, I think there’s a few things that can be done to resolve the tensions. Veterans need to understand that things in the future might not be the exact way they are now, but change sometimes is a good thing. However, it’s important to share your thoughts about things so that certain traditions can be honored if possible. Unlike our rivals to the north, we don’t want to just wipe the slate clean and consider the 2011 Timbers as a brand new team without an identity. Tourists need to realize that there are people that really care about the team and how things are done, and if you want to know more, you are encouraged to ask. If you want to be part of this, expect that some people are going to ask you to contribute in some way, and that shouldn’t be a problem if you want to stand in the fan group. Moreover, to everyone, support the club and the efforts as best as you can. You might not agree with every idea that comes down the line, but if you care about your club, you support them no matter what, and you can take a sense of pride in what they do, win or lose.

POST SCRIPT (October 26, 2009)

I’ve read the words written above and sat on posting them for almost a week, and I still believe in the concept of them, even if it’s not exactly how others feel. I think most of the issues happening now could be solved with communication and understanding, but then again, the gift of civilized discourse is a lost art in our current world. It’s no longer important to be right as much as it’s important to be remembered with a pithy catch phrase or worshiped within a group of similar minded followers. We live in an incredibly smart, but fragmented world in terms of beliefs, and people don’t seem to respect differences as much as they have previously.

There’s no better evidence of the fragments surrounding Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Timbers and Beavers, who is trying to solve bigger problems than those being dealt with in our fan group. Columnists have been trying to figure out why there is so much hate for Paulson, and in Sunday’s Oregonian, the question is asked again because the writer openly says that Paulson and Portland should be a good fit. I couldn’t agree more that Paulson is an asset to this town, despite all of the things being said about him.

I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like for someone in the public eye to be as vilified as Paulson is anytime his name appears in print, as he tries to move forward the plans for both the Timbers and Beavers. Comments range from soccer being completely gay to Paulson having a silver spoon to genuine frustration about Paulson’s father, who may or may not be involved with the economic crisis that actually is impacting the plans for soccer and baseball here. It’s true that Paulson’s dad is a part owner of the team, and it’s true that Merritt has had some missteps in the press. However, the anti-tax, anti-sport, anti-Paulson crowd would make you think that Merritt is pure evil incarnate.

It’s no secret that I’m an advocate of this plan, as I’m with any stadium plan that helps cities and teams. Cities get a chance to revitalize areas within their area, keep the teams from nomadically moving about, and they form a partnership with the team towards the future. Teams, meanwhile, get the benefit of having someone own their facility, while contribute to the long term benefits within the stadium area. While there are some opponents that claim that stadiums aren’t good economic engines, even the most intelligent economists can agree that there are streams that teams generate that don’t get directly counted in economic impact studies. They tend to focus on direct revenue streams that the team directly benefits from, but doesn’t look at other factors, like people going to restaurants or pubs to watch games, team merchandise purchased from another vendor, and things like that.

But admittedly, like my discussion about tourists, I’m tired of hearing the opposing voices, simply because a majority of them can’t be reached no matter what. There will be some opposing Paulson simply out of a selfish desire to keep Portland the way it is, instead of thinking progressively. And for such a progressive city, we think entirely too small-townish in our desire to keep things “weird”. We love our farmer’s markets, we have zombie pub crawls and a Lovecraft film fest, and animals here get taken care of better than some people, but mess with our process and things come crashing to a halt. There is such a desire to keep things quirky and different that even the most obvious changes to help have to be pulled apart and scrutinized to the minutest of details. And many ideas, even those with obvious merit, can’t survive such an intense process. I’m never going to advocate removal of the constituent’s voice in making decisions, but when your electorate can’t even agree on the most simple things, does it really make sense to slow down things to make sure the voices all get heard?

The people in the know can't wait for us to arrive, it's about time to put up or shut up, Portland.
We can prove the naysayers wrong, and just hope that something else falls into our lap, or step up and keep quality sports entertainment in town for a reasonable cost for everyone. It's your call.

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