The Growing Pains of a Changing Fan Culture
I have followed sports since boyhood, but I became a true fan while attending Virginia Tech. I grew up in the North End Zone of Lane Stadium, encouraging our offense to “Stick it In”, painting myself in maroon and orange on November night games, and yelling at the top of my lungs on every defensive play. I loved the excitement, passion, and camaraderie of every home game. Through that place and spirit, I experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I felt truly alive when throwing myself unabashedly into Hokie football.
I fell in love with soccer shortly after graduation because I saw the similarities between the two fan bases. No other fan group throws itself so wholeheartedly into their sport. No other group has such a devotion for their team that it borders on religion. Southeast college football and world football are two brothers separated by an ocean.
My best friend Eric, another Hokie grad, and I attended the Richmond Kickers thrilling 5-2 win over the Dayton Dutch Lions on Saturday night. Brian Ownby and Matthew Delicate both recorded braces and Richmond came one step closer to securing the regular season title for the first time since 2007.
For the first time, Eric and I sat with Richmond’s official fan group, the Red Army. We stood for entire halves, we cheered at the top of our lungs, and we sang along with many of the chants the Red Army suggested. At moments it almost felt like a return to those salad days at Tech.
That said, the Red Army still has plenty or room to grow. Most obviously, we just need numbers. We need more than thirty or so fans scattered throughout Section O if we hope to excite the rest of the fans at City Stadium. To do that we must dispense with the elitism that has become the calling card of the American soccer fan. The hardcore fan in this country grows the sport with their enthusiasm and chants from behind the goalie at US home games, but then they turn around and scoff at any new fans that join as a result of their demonstration. I have hardly played a game of organized soccer outside of gym class. I mocked the varsity team at my high school until my conversion during the 2002 World Cup. I have only followed Richmond and Liverpool since 2009. I still have much to learn about the sport and its history, but this does not make my passion for the Kickers any less powerful and real.
On the more local level, we have to quit attacking the “soccer moms” and their families. During our extended discussions, my wife has made me aware of the vitriol the Red Army showed at Monday’s meeting toward the bread and butter of Richmond’s fan base, the soccer family. She has a more reserved variety of fandom and she wants to make sure that City Stadium remains a family friendly place. To accomplish our mission as the Red Army, we must heed her advice. We must encourage and coax the families to stand chant and cheer, we cannot accuse and berate. I believe these families and children would enjoy chanting and waving flags, but perhaps we can compromise on less family friendly tools such as smoke and flares. Above all, we must create chants that are clean, simple, and fun.
We also need a better way to translate those cheers and traditions to the masses. At Tech, the upperclassmen and Alumni already knew the chants by heart. A few freshmen stumbling though them in the early part of the season didn’t detract from the overall effect. We had time to learn on the job. In this situation, the Red Army must try to teach the rest of City Stadium when we do not fully know ourselves. Though seemingly antiquated now, it quickly becomes obvious why schools found cheerleaders necessary in the early years of college football. Now I certainly don’t believe the Kickers need cheerleaders, skirts and all, but we need a way to dispense information. A few ideas come to mind. Someone could create songs during the week and post the lyrics or videos of their performance on the Kickers website and Facebook prior to matches. We could have Kickeroo (not my favorite part of Kickers’ games) or the Red Army lead the crowd in cheering practice in the half hour prior to the match or during halftime. The Kickers could even devote a small corner of the roster sheet handed out at the gate to a “Chant of the Week.”
Even with that, for the Red Army to work cohesively with the rest of the Richmond fan base, we need the true Kickers fans to stand up. We owe many thanks to the DC United and US Soccer fans that have taken the lead in organizing and inspiring the Red Army, but I seek people that, like myself, are Kickers fans first. Honestly, I hate DC United. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dykstra and the other loans, but I want nothing more than to defeat United. I am sick of losing to them in extra time or PKs in the Open Cup. I am sick of the big brother attitude they take towards us. I am from Richmond. That makes me a Kickers fan first.
But more than just removing divided loyalties, a sense of true fandom brings about a degree of accountability. In any fan group you have a few miscreants, but Eric noted how we felt a certain responsibility as Virginia Tech fans. Even with copious amounts of alcohol, we kept our bearing because we represented our university and the town of Blacksburg. True Richmond fans can drink until they’re feisty, cheer loudly, and create a great atmosphere for everyone without venturing into obnoxiousness.
I do not seek to over-criticize the small steps that the Red Army has taken. I witnessed one of my coolest moments as a Kickers fan Saturday night. After the final whistle blew, the entire team came over to our small section and offered applause and an extended hand. They cheered us for a job well done as we continued to serenade them to the last. That moment defines fan interaction, the brief second when the team and the fans become truly one.