Major League Soccer Supporters' Summit - a recap and my thoughts

Some of the group playing PoolBall

So I had hoped to head to MLS Cup down in LA and be on the sidelines to take pictures of the RSL victory, but it simply wasn't meant to be. First RSL lost to the Galaxy in the Western Conference final, and then second because of high demand for photo slots (dang David Beckham and his global appeal) I was only able to shot the Saturday practice sessions. There would be a silver lining to the weekend in the form of the Supporters' Summit, a chance to meet and talk with fans of MLS that represented almost every team in the league. It also allowed me to put away my blogger/photog hat for a couple days and focus on the fan experience.

The weekend really kicked off Friday evening as supporters gathered in the hotel bar before the official "Meet & Greet" session, it was incredible to hear people talking about the issues that many fans may think only they are dealing with, and sharing their passion for their teams. The topics ranged from away travel, balanced schedule, playoffs, YSA, relationships with front offices, how to grow supporter groups, fights and vandalism, to everything else you could ever imagine. One thing is clear the hundreds of people who traveled either across town or thousands of miles to attend these events are passionate for the sport, the league and their teams.

The official start to the weekend was the "Meet & Greet" which was sponsored by Budweiser and was an incredible event with "PoolBall" (a combo of pool and soccer), raffles, silent auctions, food, drinks and probably about 3-400 passionate soccer fans. After some time of just mingling Bud offered up a chance to explain their brewing process as one of their master brewers showed us some of the ingredients used to make various Bud products, nothing like smelling hops and tasting grains to connect consumers with a deeper knowledge of a product. I was amazed that there were so many home brewers in the group. It was a great demo and while Bud may not be my choice of beer, it demonstrated their passion for their product and their dedication to supporting MLS, I thank them for both of those things.

more after the jump:

Saturday morning got kicked off with the leaders of various supporter groups gathering to discuss issues and to establish some standard points of conversation for the later meeting with MLS and team officials. I didn't attend this event as it was taking place as the Saturday morning team practice sessions that I was taking pictures at. (you can see some of my pictures on my google+ site).

The afternoon saw a supporters soccer match which was action packed as well and a lot of fun, but there was also the meeting between the leadership of supporter groups and various MLS and team officials to discuss various issues. It was an interesting meeting to be sitting in the background on, as I have explained before the line between fan and business is often one that blurs for me as I cover Real Salt Lake and MLS in general as I have great passion for both team and league, as well as a fairly good business understanding (which sometimes means little with MLS and the nuances of the single entity league.

So to hear supporters push items like guaranteed seat availability for travelling fans, while the MLS officials were focused on YSA and swearing shows that while both sides have strong feelings on issues, often the sides are looking from very different perspectives. I do think that regular communications between MLS, the teams, and the various supporter groups will be very important moving forward.

I do think that perhaps MLS takes it a bit for granted what the supporter groups bring to the equation as far as growth for MLS, now I don't think that means that the growth has to come as supporter groups get better, but if you watch the ads that every team plays to get fans to matches or to sell season tickets you will almost always see the supporter groups featured. If you survey fans as to what makes the want to come back to MLS matches you will see a large portion mention the environment and atmosphere of the matches and that is in large part what the supporters bring each and every match. I know that MLS over the years have tried different marketing efforts to grow the league, but the reality is that now they understand that one of the most important keys to growth is the supporters groups. How this relationship develops over the next couple years will be very important to how much growth the league sees.

Saturday evening was a hodge podge of events, with some folks heading out clubbing around LA, others hung out at the hotel bar, some went out to dinner, and even a small group spend a portion of their night on the shuttle bus, which became the party bus. It didn't matter what activities you chose to take part in, it was all a lot of fun getting to make a lot of new friends who share a passion for MLS.

On Sunday morning despite the rain, wind, and overall cruddy conditions several hundred MLS supporters showed up early to listen to and then partake in a Q&A with Comish Don Garber, and then with Sr VP of Player Relations Todd Durbin and EVP of Competition Nelson Rodriguez. I will be going over their comments, and the conversation with fans in a separate post about the announced changes and my thoughts about them (more positive than most would expect).

Then it was a trip to try to find some better rain gear before the match, but the local store shelves got picked clean quickly as it was one of the worst rain storms Southern California had seen in some time. It was then back to the stadium to check out the very wet but still fun MLS Cup Supporters Fest which featured a number of league sponsors with tents and give a ways, I got soaked to be honest but it was a lot of fun leading up to the actual match.

That was the first match in about 3 years that I was fully able to be just another fan in the stands at, and it was a great time with a very loud, very full Home Depot Crowd. While the match was a bit sloppy due to the pitch conditions it was still one where there were some great chances for both teams but in the end it was the LA Galaxy who were able to lift the MLS Cup on their home pitch.

A great weekend, and I would like to thank Evan and his folks from MLS, the Angel City Brigade, the Black Army 1850, and all the other supporters who showed up to support both their teams and the league.

OFF MY SOAPBOX

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