One of the most unique aspects of the supporter clubs built around the core of Major League Soccer franchises is not just their autonomy, but their passionate push to stay authentic and true their members, in many cases resisting financial and promotional support from anyone in and around the business side of soccer. While that type of support may increase numbers and visibility, most of the groups feel it could compromise their ability to act as passionate yet independent groups apart from the business of the club. They don’t like a player or a coach or even a promotion, they can let the world know without fear of repercussion. Now that does not mean that the support clubs are rogue outfits; they usually work really well with the clubs and become a very valuable voice for soccer in their communities. However overt commercialism can become an issue.
In other sports the marriage of groups is a little more closely tied. The Seahawks 12th Man for example works pretty closely with the club for promo purposes. The popular New York Mets group, The Seven Line, has taken to selling orange t-shirts far and wide and will look to the home team for some direction. In the NFL many fan clubs start by being team generated, but are still organized in and around their passionate leaders.
However we may be seeing a slight change in MLS fandom as evidenced this past week when the Philadelphia Union’s largest group, the Sons of Ben, cut a deal with renowned Philadelphia sports apparel retailer Mitchell & Ness for a line of apparel. The merchandise line includes t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and scarves that play off of displays the club has used at Talen Energy Stadium. Among the themes are a 50-50 split of the Union and Sons of Ben logos, and the famed “Join or Die” dissected snake motif created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754 all designed by the supporters and with the support, and the marks, of the Union. It is the first time an MLS supporters’ club has teamed up with a commercial clothing company and the first time a supporters’ club logo has been co-branded with a team logo on officially licensed apparel.
Now for the mainstream or casual follower, the move may seem to be a no brainer. The line will get Sons of Ben a wider potential base, help them cut through the clutter in recruiting in a crowded Philadelphia market, and even provide the group with some ancillary revenue. There are careful restrictions for now on where the merch will be sold; online, at the stadium and at M and N’s Center City location, but the visibility will surely get the ultra-creative and passionate supporters even more recognition with casual fans, a boost for both the work they do and for soccer in Philly in general.
Will there be pushback from other supporters clubs? Many across the league make a vocal point of wanting to be as independent as possible from the teams they support, and bristle whenever their support gets used for commercial gain that isn’t theirs. However for MLS branding to grow, their needs to be a calculated bigger push outside the current audience. It has to be measured and controlled to keep everyone on board, but it is a revenue stream that still can be tapped deeper, and cool tees with slogans are a great way to go. As MLS expands, this will be one to watch. If the apparel takes off, other will follow.
It is a smart, measured response that Mr. Franklin himself surely would appreciate.