When I was the press officer for the North American Soccer League (the second division of North American Pro Soccer) we had several minor incidents of fan misbehavior. One such incident that took place in April 2012 during a game between the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies happened in St Petersburg at Al Lang Stadium largely because of poor stadium security. We had similar issues in an April 2013 game between Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The Rowdies who play at Al Lang but do not manage the facility have been trying very hard to improve the venue. The Rowdies have a class organization, arguably the best one I dealt with in my four year tenure at NASL. So I know they would have made every effort to prevent these continued issues. But they can only control so much.
On July 6th, Orlando City SC which is currently in the third division of American Soccer, USL PRO but is joining Major League Soccer (first division) next season visited St Pete for the second leg of the I-4 derby an annual meeting between the two professional teams on the I-4 corridor. Orlando will be first MLS team in Florida since the Fusion FC (based in Fort Lauderdale) and Tampa Bay Mutiny (based in Tampa) were contracted following the 2001 season. MLS has continued to hold its annual scouting combine in Fort Lauderdale, but besides that and the David Beckham Miami rumblings, the league has been absent from the state for over a decade.
Last year when these two teams played in late March at Al Lang Stadium and I was still the Communications Director for the NASL we had a few minor incidents. That alone should have prompted the St Petersburg Baseball Commission to beef up security for this clash. Anyhow some ugly incidents ensued at the match, four Orlando fans were arrested and game ended with Orlando winning 3-2. Should be the end of the story, right? Wrong.
The media had a field day with this story. As I wrote for Soccerly yesterday, the incidents seemed to be sensationalized due at least partly to bias/prejudice among some in the press. Some media outlets like Bay News 9 owned by Brighthouse seemed to just report on the incidents and move on. But other media outlets turned it into a week-long soap opera. Then the Orlando City team and Disney where the club plays its home cracked down on Orlando fans. Things that were previously advertised as a reason to buy tickets suddenly became unacceptable behavior. The club sanctioned at least temporarily the very types of fan expression they had long encouraged.
As someone who works in soccer and does not really follow other sports, I did not have much perspective on the way American football, NASCAR, Baseball, etc are covered by the press. But many people told me, incidents, arrests etc at other sporting events are not covered in this way. After doing some research I found that to be absolutely the case.
The big question remains why did some in the media particularly in a period of soccer-mania coinciding with the World Cup choose this course? What made these incidents more spectacular than drunken fights at American Football games or even an everyday bar brawl. Is the specter of soccer somehow being un-american or the threat it presents to some sports editors around the country ever present? Or was the sensationalism agenda driven to accomplish another goal?
Another question remains: Did Disney who for this season, and this season only service as the home venue for Orlando City SC urge the crackdown on fans? Many supporters had already participated in a movement called #nomousebeer campaign because craft beers and supporting local breweries are part of the lifeblood of being a soccer supporter in the United States, and at Disney craft brews don’t exist. I was at the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge in February 2013 and witnessed several incidents of misunderstanding between Disney staff and the supporters of both Tampa Bay and Orlando City. I trust that since then Disney staff have come to understand that having a pro soccer fans is different than youth soccer or little league baseball parents. But still problems have persisted.
Disney’s “family friendly” attitude was never going to reconcile with the culture of soccer supporters. But something that must be considered is why Orlando City SC would serve to placate Disney when they are building so much momentum for the MLS move, much of it based around supporters groups? So maybe more than Disney was at play here, perhaps it was MLS itself? That is an interesting topic, but perhaps one saved for another day and another venue.
Getting back to the original point, I sense that the media still does not know what to make of the soccer supporters culture which is different than what we see in other sports in the US. These are not “fan clubs” per se like you see in American sports, but more along the lines of European and South American groups that sing and chant all game long. It might serve as culture shock to some of more conservative elements in our society, but young people especially those in urban areas are flocking to these groups and that is part of the reason soccer is becoming so popular in large parts of the country, Central Florida included.