ISC

Bailey Brown is the president of the Independent Supporters Council (ISC) of North America, an organisation which represents over 100 fans’ groups in Canada and the United States. Earlier this month, FSE spoke to Bailey about everything from trans-continental away trips and self-policing to last season's controversy over "political symbols" and the resulting changes to Major League Soccer's (MLS) code of conduct.

The transcript will be published in two parts.

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FSE: Could you provide some background information on the ISC?

The ISC was established in 2009. Our members include over 100 supporters’ groups. All these groups represent fans of clubs that play in Major League Soccer (MLS), the United Soccer League (USL), National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), and the Canadian Premier League (CPL).

We’re currently in the process of applying for 501c3 status, which, if successful, will mean the ISC will be defined as an official non-profit organisation. The coronavirus crisis has, of course, slowed down this process—having to get everybody on the same calls while they’re dealing with their own problems—but we’re excited to move forward.

FSE: How would you describe fan culture in North America? What is unique about it, and what similarities are there with fan culture in Europe and Latin America?

I think something that’s really cool over here is that the opinions of supporters and supporters’ groups are valued, not just at club level, but at league level, too. And that includes a wide range of issues, from the design of stadia to marketing and so on. Whatever the issue may be, there’s a sense of honouring the independent nature of fans’ groups. Almost all our members are registered as legal non-profits with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). There’s no real pressure from the organisations that we work with to toe the line.

Fans’ groups are also heavily involved with community service work, making a real effort to give something back to their towns and cities. This has been particularly evident over the past couple of months.

What’s more, inclusion is a very important part of North American fan culture, and that extends to inclusion of all kinds—inclusion of LGBT+ people, inclusion of women, inclusion of refugees—making sure that everybody feels welcome in the stands and on the pitch.

FSE: What are the main challenges you have come up against?

Well, this is the first year that I haven’t been involved in the day-to-day running of a club-based supporters’ group. I stepped down from my role with the Dallas Beer Guardians at the end of the 2018/19 season so I could focus my efforts on the ISC. But the biggest challenge we’ve seen, and I think this is true of other groups, is that the things we champion as inalienable human rights—those values that we want our groups to embody—are often cast as “political” issues.

The big struggle that we’ve had, at the local and national levels, is having different stakeholders buy into that notion of some things being part of a human rights agenda and some things being part of a political agenda.

The most obvious example of this has been the fight—I don’t like using that word—to keep the Iron Front symbol (three downward facing arrows in a circle, usually associated with anti-fascism) on the terraces. This formed part of a larger debate that ultimately influenced the definitions of what is and isn’t considered to be “political” in our code of conduct.

We have to be clear that there’s a difference between something that is discriminatory—words, banners, or actions that target people because of their race, gender, sexuality, etc.—and something that people take exception to on a partisan level.

FSE: Can you explain in a bit more detail what the Iron Front/Antifa controversy entailed?

This was particular to the MLS last season. The league published a new code of conduct which specifically prohibited political imagery in stadia.

This was difficult for us and many of our members because we had a lot of people who were bringing in flags that they felt championed basic human rights. But the political climate, especially in the US, meant that these were often viewed as overtly partisan symbols.

Our fear at the time was that it wasn’t just going to apply the Iron Front and Antifa, but somewhere along the line it would include pride flags.

As a result, we worked with our members to create a grassroots opposition movement called ‘A United Front’. For most of the season, it was a case of monitoring what was and wasn’t being allowed into stadia.

It all came to a head in late-July, early-August. It’s funny, I have a habit of referring to ‘Before August” and “After August”—it was that much of a change.

Around this time, I was in Lisbon at the European Football Fans Congress (EFFC), and the leagues weren’t really engaging with supporters’ groups at any level. I went to a music festival in Belgium later in the month, and I remember waking up to loads of text messages from Seattle saying that it was all kicking off.

A neo-Nazi group known as the Proud Boys had been punching people outside of the stadium, stealing flags, that kind of thing. As you would expect, this produced a big backlash.

At the derby between Seattle and Portland, both sets of fans began singing Bella Ciao, an Italian anti-fascist song. From there, we started talking to the MLS about why the wording of the code of conduct of was problematic, why they would have to work with supporters, and why it was important to have a clear set of guidelines that would be enforceable across the league.

Off the back of this, we had a meeting with them in Las Vegas that resulted in the ban on the Iron Front flag being lifted. Then, during the off-season, we worked with the MLS and other organisations that we’d identified as experts on human rights to rewrite the code of conduct so that it clearly defines what is discriminatory, what is political, and what is a positive statement of inclusion. So, for instance, you can’t bring election material into stadia, but you can wave a rainbow flag.

The outcome was really positive in and of itself, but it also created the basis for an effective working relationship between supporters and the MLS and other leagues. Everybody was watching and everybody learned.

FSE: Where does your relationship with the MLS and other leagues stand on other issues? Are there any structured dialogue guidelines in place or is communication more informal?

I’ll break it down by league.

The NWSL have a new commissioner this year, so our biggest goal is to establish a code of conduct and away protocol so there’s consistency across the league.

We’ve been speaking to the USL, trying to get the right people around the table to make some progress on a code of conduct, away protocol, and away ticketing.

We’ve also recently had a call with CPL, but it’s quite a young league, so we’re more serving as an educational resource.

With the MLS, we have scheduled calls, but we have the kind of relationship that means we have relevant people who we contact to clarify certain points of information. This works well and is a great help in ensuring that clubs are adhering to the code of conduct.

FSE: You mentioned the ‘away protocol’—what is away travel like in leagues that span an entire continent?

You’re right. We have 3 MLS teams in Canada and there are Canadian teams in the USL.

In the MLS, there’s a specific protocol for allocating away tickets. It’s very structured and relies on the participation and cooperation of supporters’ groups. We don’t have supporter liaison officers, and, in a sense, we almost don’t need them because the relationship between ultras and clubs is often very close, or ‘straightforward’ might be a better way of putting it.

I did all the away ticketing for Dallas when I was involved with the Beer Guardians. When we travelled to Houston Dynamos, which is our biggest derby game, I would call the ticket rep that we worked with in Houston to get the price of the tickets, information about the section we would be in, and then we would start selling directly to Dallas fans. When we arrived in Houston, I would distribute the tickets, either in person, or by dividing out a pdf and emailing them.

We’d also have to sit in on a ‘supporters call’, which would include staff from the FC Dallas and Houston front offices, plus representatives from all of the supporters’ groups and security resource officers. After the call, the clubs create a document, and that document is sent to the leaders of each supporters’ group. It’s sort of like our Bible for away days. It tells us which gates to use, where we’re sitting, approved items, contact details for the home club, and on and on.  

FSE: What if Dallas played, say, Minnesota United? Would anybody be expected to travel up there?

It depends on the teams.

Portland travel well to pretty much every game, but that’s because groups such as the Timbers Army have local chapters all over the country. They might bring a couple of hundred people to Dallas, but half of those will never have even lived in Portland. It’s nuts. I don’t understand it, but that’s how it is.

Dallas might take 10-20 people to distant cities. It’s important to remember that our closest away game, Houston, is a four to five-hour drive. Most people drive down on the interstate highway. Coach travel isn’t especially common or popular.

If I’m going to somewhere like Minnesota, I’ll fly.

FSE: It sounds like you have a working or workable relationship with the police and stewards. Is that a fair assumption?

It is fair.

The most important part of that relationship is that, to a reasonable degree, they let us self-police. At Dallas, I could go to the person who’s in charge of security at any time and be like, hey, here’s what’s going on, can you keep an eye out for this or that. The rules are there but they’re not rigid, and the security personnel don’t tend to escalate a situation before allowing supporters’ groups to find a solution first.

For away travel, it’s similar. I’ve been to away games where we haven’t had any security assigned to us. In 2016, we went to Los Angeles and won the Supporters’ Shield, which is awarded to the MLS club with the best regular season record. The LA staff helped us find all the Dallas fans who had tickets around the stadium and moved them into one section. They also let us take the shield onto the pitch and present it to the team.

When it comes to safety and security, fans tend to have a good relationship with their home team and opposition teams, though there are exceptions, of course.

FSE: What about ticketing? What’s the pricing structure?

ISC members file away travel reports after every single game, so we try to get as much data as possible. The ticket prices are set by the clubs—there’s no cap or league oversight—and they often flex prices, lowering or increasing the cost depending on the opposition.

Home tickets will be the cheapest in the stadium.

In terms of away ticketing, some clubs choose to charge a lot. Portland are one of the serial offenders. Last time we went up there they charged us $40. Atlanta are another—they regularly charge $60, which is ridiculous, in my opinion. Dallas tend to charge away fans in the $20-30 bracket.

These prices come on top of travel costs, which often tally in the hundreds of dollars. I mean, I can’t just drive to Atlanta, or jump on a train. I have to fly. Then there’s accommodation costs, food, drink—it all adds up.

That’s why we’re currently campaigning for a cap. But we’re not there yet.

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