growing pains

“Be careful what you ask for.”

the US fanbase has grown by leaps and bounds, but the growth has its downsides.

That’s probably what many European and South American supporters would say to us American soccer fans right about now. Other popular American sports fans would probably do the same too, if only they were capable of putting down their anti-soccer biases for a few minutes.

Long the American soccer fan has bemoaned the lack of a sustained presence of an electrifying game day experience to which many of our fellow North American sports can lay claim. We never could manage to get the numbers or display the passion demonstrated by our counterparts, or at least not both at the same time. The idea of a vibrant American soccer fan culture seemed to be just as pie in the sky as the chances of on field success for the national team.

But as has been well documented, the last six or seven years has seen a sharp transformation of the supporter culture landscape in this country. Tifos are hung and chants are sung like “proper” footballing fans would expect. And it’s not just during crucial national team World Cup qualifiers or MLS Cups that bars fill and stadiums pack, but also for various MLS and NASL sides. And on a regular basis, too. The country’s largest supporters group, the American Outlaws, continues to see rapid growth, as do those of many clubs around the country.

It’s everything we could have asked for even as recently as ten years ago, and probably more.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some serious growing pains in the process. And the upcoming US-Mexico World Cup qualifier in Columbus on September 10th seems a perfect example of such problems.

Once again, the US will host their most hated rivals to the south at Columbus Crew Stadium. The venue — one of the smaller stadiums that US Soccer has to choose from at just over 23,000 seats — has proven a safe haven for the Yanks against El Trí. In the nine matches the US has played Mexico at Crew Stadium, they’ve never lost, with six wins and three draws. Unlike venues in larger metropolitan areas where immigrant populations tend to be higher, Columbus tends to offer a predominantly pro-American crowd. And just as has been seen around the country, the atmosphere over the last few matches has improved by leaps and bounds. Outside of the Mexico games, other matches like the critical qualifier last September against Jamaica also produced one of the most electrifying experiences I’ve ever witnessed in person.

While all of that is great and dandy (and really, it is), what nobody has really readied themselves for are the repercussions of all this much-desired growth.

Columbus Crew Stadium, no matter how fantastic an atmosphere the place can provide, ultimately has a finite amount of space. And as mentioned earlier, the US supporter base continues to grow on an exponential scale. So we end up with this massive increase in demand for tickets to such important clashes as US-Mexico, but a supply that’s not increased a single seat. Aside from being a dream scenario for macroeconomic professors across the country to use in next year’s classes, this supply-demand issue has birthed nothing but not-so-pleasant dilemmas for supporters.

didn't anyone remember how packed crew stadium was for the jamaica game?
didn’t anyone remember how packed crew stadium was for the jamaica game?

But to be honest, we supporters really only have ourselves to blame. We’re the ones who have been spreading the Gospel of Soccer, coaxing our non-soccer friends out to the stadiums and bars to see what they’ve been missing. And while results on the field haven’t hurt, it’s been our voice and energy that’s driven ticket demand to the sky-high levels at which it currently sits. We wanted this kind of environment, and we got it. Yet we all seemed absolutely gobsmacked that getting tickets to the most anticipated match in the World Cup qualifying campaign would be so difficult, despite the fact that infinitely more people now want in on it.

That said, the powers that be haven’t adjusted their approach either. And the lack of action on that end has complicated matters even further

Despite US Soccer announcing way back on March 21st that Crew Stadium would be hosting the pivotal Mexico clash, first word on how one could purchase tickets didn’t come at all until July 2nd… from the American Outlaws. Through a series of tweets, AO announced they would begin their pre-sale that evening on a first-come-first-serve basis, and that they wouldn’t sell out that night. Predictably, word spread like wildfire as frenzied fans attempted to lock down their tickets. And according to the initial follow-up emails, purchases would be either confirmed or denied on 7/11.

US Soccer remained completely silent on the matter of ticket distribution themselves until their official announcement on July 5th. The press release noted that there would be two additional pre-sales before the general sale was to begin on July 19th, on top of any exclusive pre-sales for Crew season ticket holders and the already mentioned AO sale. However, they also included a twist in the press release: in an effort to avoid tickets landing in the hands of scalpers, the general sale would be conducted as a random lottery with no guarantee of securing tickets.

So aside from dragging their feet on announcing anything and the American Outlaws beating US Soccer to the punch, why is this such a problem?

While the lottery idea may have proven very unpopular, I don’t have a problem with it as it is probably the fairest way of going about the matter. What really grinds my gears are the signs of serious disorganization peeking through the cracks between those announcements.

The first of those signs came on 7/11, when many were to find out if we were lucky enough to nab tickets in the AO sale. But instead of receiving this confirmation, purchasers received the following message via email:

“The demand for this game was much higher than was anticipated (myself included). USS… didn’t set aside enough sections initially for all of us to be accommodated. The way I understand it, USS is trying to expand the supporter section. USS now says that the process of expanding sections and weedingout scalpers will push them delivering our final number of allotted tickets to “the middle of next week”, so likely Wednesday July 17th.”

We can easily draw a few conclusions from that statement. First, AO clearly jumped the gun on holding a pre-sale before they knew the exact amount of tickets they would be allotted. Second, US Soccer allowed that to happen before even they knew how many tickets they would dole out. Third, both groups somehow severely underestimated how strong demand would be for the match. But the fourth and biggest issue with the announcement was that the confirmation date was a week after the next pre-sale was to begin.

With many fans worried they wouldn’t get AO tickets, that practically begged for them to also try to get their mittens on some of those tickets, too. Which means that — potentially — some people could end up with extra tickets on their hands that would be prime for selling on StubHub… or exactly what US Soccer didn’t want. (PS: It’s happening anyway.) There’s also word of US Soccer, AO and the Crew working together to prevent people from buying tickets though multiple channels, with purchases possibly being cancelled if that’s found to be the case.

the ticket distribution process has left many of the crew’s most loyal supporters feeling like they’re nothing more than an afterthought to US soccer.

Further signs coming to the fore seem to underline the disorganization surrounding the entire event. The Crew Supporters Union, the largest of the Columbus Crew’s supporters groups, were allocated far fewer tickets than they had anticipated. Only their season ticket holders would be guaranteed tickets, with the rest of their members subjected to a lottery to see who would receive their left over tickets. Non-SG season ticket holders were also given the short end of the stick, as by the time they had access to buy tickets, only seats in the stadiums upper decks were available. And the general consensus is that tickets originally meant for both groups were being swallowed up by the huge number of ticket requests from the AO pre-sale. Whether that’s true or not, we’ll likely never know. Oh, and parking passes have been marked up to at least $20 a car, twice the cost for your average Crew game.

Long story short, the process of procuring tickets for one of the most highly anticipated US soccer matches in recent history has been a confusing, convoluted nightmare.

How did US Soccer and AO not know that demand for tickets to the game would be astronomical? Why didn’t all of the parties involved sit down months ago to figure out exact ticket allocation numbers? And what was the logic behind giving the most ardent of local supporters the shaft? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, but it seems pretty unbelievable that nobody thought to ask them or questions like them at any point prior to the first of July. And even if they spent more time on it than I’m giving them credit for, communicating that information to the fans in a clear and concise manner doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.

All in all, life will go on though, even for those of us who don’t land the highly prized pieces of paper that will grant you access to Columbus Crew Stadium on 9/10. Rest assured, there will be more games against Mexico for us all to go to down the road. And in the mean time, these growing pains we’re currently suffering: they’re just the price we have to pay for progress. All we can hope for moving forward is that all of us learned something in the process.

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