Supporter groups have been a part of Major League Soccer since the inception of the league. The Empire Supporters Club of the New York/New Jersey Metrostars (later renamed New York Red Bulls) and the Screaming Eagles of D.C. United were the original MLS supporter groups. These were young, independent groups whose sole purpose was to support their club.
In 2007, supporter groups and their relationship with MLS and its clubs changed. Toronto FC joined the league that season and began using its recognized supporter group, the Red Patch Boys, to promote the new club. For the first time, clubs began to emphasize the club's supporters over its players.
Today, all 20 MLS clubs have supporter groups, which are used extensively to promote the club to potential new fans. In doing so, MLS clubs have given their supporter groups unprecedented access, leading to these groups often feeling entitled. This is something that can have both positive and negative impacts on the clubs themselves.
Supporter groups spend each game waving flags, chanting, singing, and displaying tifo. Their impact on the atmosphere at MLS games has been apparent. This more exciting atmosphere has helped lead MLS to an impressive attendance increase. They also work with clubs to contribute to charitable organizations. MLS uses these positive impacts in marketing campaigns for all of their markets.
But there are also some negative impacts from this exposure that have been seen around the league. Supporter groups have become entitled, which has led some of their members to cause trouble for the clubs they claim to support.
A major issue for MLS has been the language by these groups. Rising attendance is important for the league and its clubs but some potential fans have been offended by the language of some supporter groups' chants. While some groups have worked with their clubs to alleviate this problem for the betterment of the club, others have decided to become a nuisance.
Another issue, albeit smaller, has been rival fans fighting in the stands. This problem, commonplace in parts of Europe, drives potential fans away from MLS stadiums, costing the clubs money. While this issue doesn't come up as much as the vulgar language problem, it still rears its head from time to time.
These problems, primarily by supporter groups, led to MLS introducing its "fan code of conduct" in 2009. Essentially, the document states that supporters will not use inappropriate language, fight, or bully other fans during matches. Though not unreasonable requests, some groups have refused to abide by these simple, understandable rules.
These problems arise because some supporter groups feel that they are more important than the club itself. While a supporter group, by name, should exist to support the club in any way possible, some believe that the club exists to support them. If they cared about the club the way they claim, they would acquiesce to the club's requests that they don't particularly like, rather than protesting. After all, a club's front office usually knows what's best for that club.
Unfortunately for some clubs, the supporter group's actions have become detrimental to the club, which outweighs its positives. Supporter groups have become the face of clubs and a supporter group that causes trouble damages their club's reputation which, in turn, hinders that club's ability to grow its brand.
The problem now for some clubs is what to do about that. It is now expected that an MLS club will use its supporter groups to promote the club and the league. But what if that supporter group continues to embarrass the club? Should the club keep the group from now on out of marketing campaigns the way they do most other fans?
This is a problem that MLS and its clubs have created and a problem that only they can deal with. In some countries, ultras, which are basically supporter groups by another name, are known for criminal activity, which has included threatening or attacking players and coaches of their own team for playing poorly. MLS has not arrived at that point yet, but with some clubs, it may not be too far away.
MLS and its clubs promote their brand by increasing exposure of their supporter group. While some groups exist solely to support the club and have therefore been very positive for their club, others have only caused problems. If they truly support the club as they claim, they would do anything to help that club which includes improving its reputation rather than damaging it. Hopefully these groups will realize that in the near future.