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Reflections on the ISC Conference
Monday, 20 February 2012

by Chris Smink

Last weekend, I had the honor of serving as the Texian Army delegate at the Independent Supporters Council (ISC) conference in Portland, Oregon and taking part in the finalizing and ratification of the ISC Charter.

As I try to get the word out about the ISC and its goals I think its important to reflect upon the experience and talk a bit about what the organization is, what it is not, and how I see the ISC helping us grow supporter culture in Houston. And let me start by saying, the views I'm expressing here do not necessarily reflect those of Texian Army or the Board of Directors. Truth be told, this would probably be more appropriate on a personal blog - but alas, I've never bothered to create one.

I think the fact that supporter representatives of 16 of 19 MLS teams were all able to get together in one room to tackle issues that supporters face was a monumental feat in and of itself. I'll be frank: there were representatives of groups in that room who do not like each other. There was definitely banter throughout the weekend - yours truly exchanged jabs with a couple of the reps (sup Paul?). But the spirit of the gathering was one of fraternity and cooperation. I can honestly say I left Portland with new friends for life and I would buy any of those guys a beer in any city after any result. Even San Jose Paul. Yeah, they wear colors that are not orange. But this was a gathering of folks who get it.

On the experience itself

I cannot say enough good things about what excellent hosts the Timbers Army were for this historic event. Not only did they cover travel expenses to get one delegate from each MLS team out there, upon arrival, we were presented with welcome bags containing a brewpub map, gift certifcates for free amenities, and couple bottles of Portland's finest adult beverages. I'd especially like to recognize Abram Goldman-Armstrong of Timber Army and the 107ists for making his basement beds available to bums like me and Boris from the Red Patch Boys. (Boris - what ever happened with you and that chick after I left?)

I'd also be remiss to not give special thanks to Dave Boyle who flew to Portland all the way from England to share knowledge from his experiences with the Footballs Supporters' Federation and Supporters Direct. These organizations do some amazing work. The FSF, which is a mere ten years old, advocates on behalf of supporters and tackles some of the same issues that we are addressing with the ISC. A few of their notable highlights: they successfully lobbied for getting 200,000 in compensation to Stoke City fans, they were the driving force behind refunds for Chelsea & West Ham fans who were overcharged for tickets, and now they're pushing for safe standing areas. On the other hand, Supporters Direct works to ensure that clubs are financially responsible and to create conditions in which supporters can secure influence and ownership of clubs - a la the Green Bay Packers model. As you can probably imagine, Dave had some absolutely brilliant insights to share with us during and after the conference. So Dave, again, thank you for making the long trip across the Atlantic and a whole continent to share your wisdom with us.

Portland is an absolutely fantastic city. And I'm not just saying that to be nice. They have everything you need: 66 brew pubs, more food carts than you can count, and cheap, efficient public transportation. It was amazing to see how much BEER this city has! I vaguely remember rummaging the streets of downtown Portland Friday afternoon with Boris, walking into Kelly's Olympian, drinking 6 or 7 pints of beers I'd never even heard of before, and walking out of the place with a tab under $20. The lesson to takeaway from this is healthy competition can create incredibly high quality products available at low prices. There. My requisite Austrian economics plug is fulfilled.

I have to give it up to Portland's food cart scene and public transportation as well. They're completely unrelated, but you don't need another two paragraphs unassociated with why you're reading this in the first place. On Saturday I had a gyro that was bigger than my head. Tons of tzatziki sauce and delicious beef & lamb meat; A+. But what really lubricates the gears of Portland is its public transportation. It is awesome being able to move around a city on the cheap with no stress, no traffic, no maintenance/gasoline/insurance/licencing costs all while you chat up good people who are moving around on their own adventures.

What is the ISC and why do we need it?

First, the thing that really sold me on making the trip to Portland was the chance to mastermind with MLS supporter group leaders. I went into the weekend hoping that delegates wouldn't be holding their cards close to their chests. I quickly found that the spirit of the ISC truly is sharing best practices so we can all grow and build supporter culture on a macro level. A few interesting things I learned from other group leaders:

  • One group that sponsors a local charity gets many of their front office punishments dealt with by requiring those who break rules to fulfill a certain number of community service hours before he or she can attend another game. The member avoids lengthy bans, the group avoids restriction on drums & tifo, the FO avoids being vilified, and the community benefits. Everybody wins.
  • Accountability & self-policing. In TA, we say that we do it. But up to now, there's never really been a system in place. A group at the ISC shared that they encourage an environment of healthy peer pressure that emphasizes "if you f*** up, you f*** it up for all of us. And when members get out of line, they have a yellow & red card system. They don't literally pull cards out of their back pockets and hold it up in the air (No! YOU'RE out of order! lol), but they basically say "dude, security just told me they saw you throw a streamer during play, I gotta give you a yellow" as opposed to "you threw a streamer, you have a warning." As people who know the laws of the game, upon hearing we've been issued a yellow, we'd know, "next time I screw up, I'm done." There's no ambiguity to it. Brilliant.
  • As leaders, most of us gauge how we are doing at our positions by whether or not we get re-elected. A lot of people won't tell you to your face that you suck at what you're doing in a particular area. A group at the ISC shared that they send scorecards to their membership at the end of every season that asks "How are we doing?" I'm sure that would be a humbling experience for me.

With Texian Army, we've only been at this for 6 years. There are groups who have already figured out solutions to challenges we face in Houston. So instead of reinventing the wheel every time we have an issue, its a huge benefit to be able to tap into the collective knowledge of experienced supporter group leaders who all want to see supporter culture grow.

But why this alliance really needed to form is to lobby leagues and front offices for some basic rights for all home and away supporters. If you look at the Supporters' Bill of Rights, we're really not demanding anything unreasonable: a place to stand and sing, use of tifo, clear & consistent guidelines, minimum standards of accommodation for away supporters, security that is trained in and understands supporter culture, and fair enforcement of rules. As Dynamo supporters, we've experienced a few of these rights violated. But I have to say, after hearing some of the other supporter groups histories and stories, we really don't appreciate how good we have it here in Houston. There are teams whose FO's discourage them from traveling, stadiums that allow NO drums or tifo from visiting supporters, and several clubs who have random security assigned to their section who have never been to a soccer game and freak out when they see a bunch of people getting rowdy.

I truly do believe that by having solidarity amongst the leadership of all groups, we wield a tremendous amount of leverage to bring about positive change in soccer leagues in the United States and Canada. Let us never forget that we are soccer's major differentiator in the crowded professional sports market. In no other sport in North America do you have fans who stand and sing for every minute of every game, spend countless hours designing & producing tifo, or who load up buses and planes to travel to every game feasibly possible. We don't hold seats on the MLS Board of Governors. We don't have full-time paid staff. We don't have millions of dollars of capital or big household name sponsorships behind us. But we are the heartbeat of every soccer stadium. And united, we aren't going to let anyone d*** us around.

What the ISC is not

When a group gets together and starts talking about issues that effect people not at the table, some people's natural reaction is mistrust and suspicion. Believe me when I say, as a philosophically anti-establishment guy, I empathize! So let me cover a few good limitations on the ISC.

First, the ISC is not a governing body deciding what is best for all supporter groups. ISC decisions and initiatives directed towards supporter groups are non-binding. That means the ISC has no authority over supporter groups and any recommendations it makes are for us to decide whether or not to adopt. For example, let's say Maradona-forbid another New England incident were to occur. Its possible that the ISC might decide, "we are going to be silent for the first 10 minutes of all games this week as a symbol of dissent and solidarity." Texian Army, as a group, would then decide whether or not that's something in which we'd like to participate. So there's no loss of sovereignty by being a member of the ISC.

Second, its not the man behind the curtain. We all know that behind closed doors there are shady doings at the world's highest level of the beautiful game. And the perpetrators of corruption are the biggest mouthpieces for words like "transparency" and "reform". That corruption is fueled by billions of dollars and shrouded in secrecy. As someone who volunteered for the ISC web committee, I can tell you that we are working on building a Facebook page that keeps you informed and allows you to give your feedback so there is a channel for direct communication. And you don't ever have to worry about the ISC selling you out: the organization has no budget or revenue generation planned. Our costs for conferences are split evenly amongst our members as they are incurred. No dues are required for membership either.

Finally, the ISC is not a closed, good ol' boys, secret society. Most MLS clubs sent delegation from at least one supporters group. But the door is always going to be open to the clubs who were not represented, other supporters groups who did not get to attend, and supporter groups outside of MLS: national team SGs, lower division (there are already several members), and women's league groups.

In closing...

The ISC Conference was an eye-opening and humbling experience. I'm grateful I had the opportunity to take part in it and for the connections I made there. I truly do believe that this organization has the potential to bring about changes that will benefit supporter groups like Texian Army.

So what's your take on our involvement with the ISC? Do you think the ISC can help supporter culture in the US & Canada? Let us know on our facebook page!

ISC delegates gather around a laptop for the final moments of the Africa Cup of Nations. Zambia won the Cup, beating Ivory Coast 8-7 in a dramatic penalty shootout.