Marching. Standing. Chanting. Singing. Waving the flag.
In a tradition imported from Europe, the most dedicated soccer fans, organized groups of ultra-supporters, has developed an American flare in MLS. It’s now a growing trend in the NWSL among fans of the women’s game.
The 10-team NWSL has expanded this year to a 24 game schedule, and with a league partnership with A&E Networks and Lifetime television – things are looking up for the development of the NWSL. The league looks likely to sustainably maintain America’s appetite for the women’s game between international tournaments.
Supporters’ groups are an important step in that process. A successful American soccer franchise demands dedicated and persistent supporters.
Perhaps the largest NWSL supporters’ group is the Rose City Riveters, super fans of the Portland Thorns FC. Like their MLS counterparts, the Timbers Army, they are known for being large, loud and creative. Although official numbers are fluid and hard to come by, the Riveters have an impressive 2400 likes on Facebook, and 5,200 followers on Twitter – numbers far surpassing other NWSL groups.
The Riveters are also gaining some notoriety for their Tifo displays. Tifo is an Italian term, but comes from European sports fans, mostly in soccer, choreographing large scale displays inside the stadium on game day. Tifo can take the form of massive banners, over-sized characters, or colorful coordinated placards. The Riveters pulled off an impressive Tifo in the Thorns home opener with a shield theme. The Thorns received the NWSL Shield – awarded for best regular season record in 2016 – before the match. According to Timbers.com, “The custom shield images ranged from a House Stark direwolf sigil from the HBO show Game of Thrones, to a PBS’ logo, to the Ghostbusters logo, to Batman, Captain America, Hello Kitty and much more.”
Although much of the supporters’ group’s reason for existence is about supercharging the game day experience, it also provides a community for its members year round on social media.
Social media is especially important to both official and unofficial supporters groups, as it allows them to talk about the team, organize for upcoming games, recruit new members, and publicize events.
One group with an especially savvy social media presence is also one of most established, the Chicago Red Stars’ club, Chicago Local 134, established in 2009. The group is named for their original stadium section with a nod to the city’s union history. Though not massive in numbers (around 500 on Facebook, 1,400 on Twitter), the group has a creative social media presence – Snapchat filters, an Instagram takeover hashtag (#local134gameday) and Spotify playlists.
The Kansas City Blue Crew – attached to FC Kansas City – is another active NWSL supporters group, both on social media and in the stands. They also exhibit another common characteristic of the groups – inclusivity. A banner at a recent game read “No Hate, No Fear, All are welcome here!” Chicago Local 134 exhibits a similarly welcoming theme with a diversity statement on their main page – “We welcome all fans to join us without regard to race, gender, age, color, national origin, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
Charity drives and community development are also a part of the groups’ function. The Riveters team up with the Timbers Army on charity drives for home matches, starting this year with a sock drive for area homeless and runaway children. The Seattle Reign’s supporters, the Royal Guard, promote the #SeattleLove hashtag collaborative, cross-promoting all area sports teams, for men and women, from the NFL to roller derby and ultimate frisbee.
Other groups are popping up and developing throughout the NWSL – Boston Breakers has the Boston Armada, Sky Blue FC has Cloud 9, and the Orlando Pride also has a developing supporters group scene.
What all of the groups have in common is enthusiasm. Tailgating before the game, marching to the stadium, waving the flag and beating the drum, chants and songs – this is the bread and butter of supporters’ groups.
Americans are following the European model and adapting supporters groups in new and creative ways. The NWSL is following the MLS model, with supporters groups becoming an increasingly creative and engaging part of the gameday experience in both leagues.
Everyone in a supporters’ groups stands for the whole game. As the groups grow in size and creativity, everyone stands to gain.
Image courtesy Rose City Riveters.
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