Without the frenzied cheers and boos from the stands, that Major League Soccer match or NBA Final or American League showdown really would be only a game. But sports fans are far from just a madding crowd with a mob mentality. As Victor Wishna explains in “A Fan’s Notes,” they—that is, we—contain multitudes.
If you’ve been to even one Sporting KC home game at Children’s Mercy Park, then you’ve seen them, and heard them.
There, in the rows behind the north goal, beneath the banner that welcomes opponents to “The Blue Hell,” sit the 2,000 comrades of the KC Cauldron. Well, they never actually sit—they stand, and mostly they dance and cheer and chant. They literally toot their own horns and bang on their drums all day, from before kickoff until well past the final whistle, especially after a victory, of which—so far this year—there’ve been quite a few. Sporting KC once again sits atop the table, best in the west.
The so-called Cauldron is a concoction that dates back to the team’s old Wizards days at Arrowhead Stadium. But really, it’s a witch’s brew of more than a dozen “supporters groups”—grassroots organizations defined by a specific geographic connection, ethnic affinity, philanthropic mission, or preferred game-day style.
There’s the King City Yard Birds, the Fountain City Ultras, and the Northland Noise. The Wichita Wanderers, Omaha Boys, and Lawrence’s Mass Street Mob bring in fans from further afield. La Barra KC and Ladies of SKC focus on an inclusive game-day experience, while the Wedge offers a family-friendly fan experience in section one-fifteen. Besides standing together at matches, each group organizes its own tailgates, as well as weekday lunches or pick-up games or charity events, like the Brookside Elite’s “Beer Pong for Babies,” a fundraiser for the March of Dimes.
Last year, Major League Soccer even published online field guides to help spot the supporters groups of each team in their natural habitats. The section on Sporting KC reads: “In addition to vibrant blue plumage, all genders adorn themselves in distinctive scarves, and males often sport copious facial hair. Several notable specimens–Sombrero Guy, Sporting Jesus and others–are immediately identifiable to even the casual observer.” It goes on to describe other defining characteristics, and, of course, the flocks’ distinctive songs and calls.
Shhhhh. I think we can here them now…
Unlike with the other major American sports, soccer fan bases have long been formally multifaceted. The first distinct supporters groups appeared in Brazil in the 1930s. Many developed across South America and Europe along political or ethnic lines and often got a bad rap—deservedly so. The term “supporters group” was used interchangeably with “hooligan firm”—a delightfully British way of saying crime gang. A certain amount of bullying and vandalism was expected at matches, sometimes leading to violent confrontations.
But beholders of the beautiful game have evolved, and while incidents of racism and political strife still plague the sport, fan groups have actually become a catalyst for social change.
The Union of European Football Associations—oh, that means “soccer teams”—even commissioned a study on “improving governance in football,” and concluded that, quote, “supporter organizations have…been at the forefront of campaigns against discrimination and violence” and “can play a particularly important role in delivering the social value of sport…including encouraging democracy and active citizenship, and developing volunteering and better community cohesion.”
As a result, European club owners have begun to include supporters groups in a range of team decisions. And over here, MLS has largely followed suit, with fan-focused efforts that put the NFL and NBA to shame.
When Sporting KC’s current owners took over, they consulted longtime leaders of the Cauldron and its subsidiaries about the design for the new stadium. Through social media and behind-the-scenes meetings, ownership still involves the fans in decisions that create goodwill and lead to a better product on the field.
So beyond the nonstop noise and kooky antics, soccer fans, especially in KC, are hardly fanatical—I’d say, they’ve found a winning formula: a fusion of diverse constituencies with their own special interests who come together for a common cause, with a vision of success and the understanding that partnership makes for good governance and a better, more enriching experience for everyone.
What a fascinating concept.