By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 12, 2016) US Soccer Players – Last Saturday, approximately 10,000 Liverpool fans rose from their seats in the 77th minute of an English Premier League match against Sunderland at Anfield and walked out of the famous stadium. Their departure with 13 minutes left to go in the game sent a message to the owners of their beloved club that a planned rise in ticket prices for next season was unacceptable. It was a protest, in a world where protests rarely lead directly to change.
Surprisingly, Liverpool’s owners listened. In a stunning reversal, Fenway Sports Group announced that they were freezing ticket prices for the next two seasons. In an open letter to fans signed by principal owner John W. Henry, chairman Tom Werner, and president Mike Gordon, the club backtracked on their previous ticket price hikes, apologized for any distress, and outlined a commitment to keeping their ticket revenue at current levels to counter fan claims of greediness. The letter is responsive and detailed. While it occasionally expresses a bit of exasperation on the part of management, it did the job of assuaging the concerns of thousands of Liverpool fans in one fell swoop.
The price hike, the walkout, and the Liverpool response all show how difficult it is running a professional sports team that’s also part of the public trust. Fenway Sports Group possesses the shares necessary to call themselves the “owners” of Liverpool Football Club. Certainly, the team needs investment and direction in the world where the old methods of operation will no longer work. But it’s the people of Liverpool who can most rightfully claim ownership of the club in the ways that really count.
FSG counts among their self-identified virtues a deep understanding of those dynamics. They are present in Boston, where the group is the steward of a beloved civic institution called the Boston Red Sox and they are present in Liverpool with Liverpool FC. While it’s undoubtedly better for business not to anger your core customer base, FSG also possesses the language to communicate that for them, doing the right thing isn’t just about the bottom line. That won’t stop fans from calling FSG “greedy” or lumping them in with any number of modern day soccer club owners who show no regard at all for the displeasure of the fans. However, it does put the American ownership group into a slightly different category.
Maybe one day, American soccer clubs will reach the same level of reverence. For the most part, American sports franchises are the personal playthings of extremely rich people with the façade of civic institutions. The sense of responsibility necessary to prevent them from taking their team to another city for a sweeter stadium deal simply does not exist. The business comes first. If the business isn’t good, they feel justified in taking their business elsewhere.
MLS teams lack the history that turns owners into caretakers. It’s a nice sentiment, one that some investor/operators lean on when necessary, but it’s a limited audience. If the fans of an MLS team walkout, how the team and league responds is primarily a business decision. It’s a business decision made by a North American league operating at a fraction of the costs of Liverpool.
That said, creating the illusion that the owners of MLS clubs hold their fans in the same high regard that FSG does the Liverpool faithful is important. It’s what will sustain teams when they’re struggling on the field. Further, it’s what makes sports truly special. Without a bond between team and community that goes beyond the superficial, MLS is nothing more than a fly-by-night minor league. For MLS to truly succeed, everything has to feel real.
Real enough that if one day MLS fans want to stage a mass walkout over a ticket hike, the ownership responds as a caretaker rather than an investor/operator. A professional sports enterprise is little more than a logo, a series of contracts and obligations, and maybe a building, but we all know that’s not the point.
The banners that fans held aloft at Anfield before the walkout on Saturday that read “Football Without Fans Is Nothing” is right. Fenway Sports Group learned that lesson the hard way. Maybe MLS can learn the same lesson without all the pain.
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