Rivalries manufactured and chants banned
15 January ~ Fixtures for the new MLS season, which starts on March 2, were released last week. The 2013 schedule includes a brand-new gimmick, the "rivalry week". Over March 16 and 17, eight of the nine MLS matches will be contested between regional "rivals". Many fans have reacted negatively to the announcement, annoyed that the league is once again attempting to manipulate supporter emotions. But while MLS strives to promote some manufactured derbies, the league is also involved in a trademark dispute over a genuine rivalry in the Pacific Northwest.
The Cascadia Cup was organised, and is still jointly owned, by the supporters' groups of Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps in 2004. This was before any of those three clubs played in MLS – Seattle were the first of the trio to join the top division, in 2007. Now, with the idea of rivalries clearly at the top on the MLS agenda, the league has applied to trademark the cup in its name. An MLS statement read: "A registered trademark would put Major League Soccer in a position to protect the brand from exploitation by parties unaffiliated with the League and its supporters."
Yet it remains unclear what MLS has in mind should it acquire the trademark and supporters have reacted angrily. Fans fear that if the league owned the copyright, it may stop supporters' groups from selling anything that is branded with the Cascadia name. A second concern is that an unwanted corporate sponsor could be brought in, as in the example of the Subaru Rocky Mountain Cup, played between Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids.
The supporters' groups have set up the Cascadia Cup Council, which has also applied for the trademark. This group stated that they "believe they rightfully own the trademark", snappily adding that they are "the appropriate entity to protect the mark from third parties unaffiliated with supporters' groups in the Pacific Northwest". As the situation threatens to bubble over, the next step of this dispute is a meeting between MLS and the supporters' groups in the near future.
Yet MLS has never been shy about its determination to control the league exactly as they see fit, regardless of fan criticism or opposition. Another such example is the "You Suck Asshole" chant, used by home supporters when the opposing goalkeeper takes a goal-kick. The league has been attempting to ban this chant, which it describes as "offensive and lacking in creativity" for many months now. While MLS has had some success, other fans have been chanting the offending words louder than ever before.
But recent remarks made by Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice-president of Competition, Technical and Game Operations, were eye-opening. He told Howler Radio that MLS were determined to stop the chant due to their "responsibility to the public". Rodriguez drew the dubious parallel that you "wouldn't be in movie theatre and stand for people chanting" and, if so, it would be in "the rights of the theatre owner to come in and make a change".
For an organisation that is determined to attract more followers, Rodriguez strangely expressed the "personal belief" that it is "OK to fire a fan" if they are more trouble than they are worth, and that fans can be replaced. The executive then took an odd sociological leap with his "theory of the broken window". According to Rodriguez, if you allow windows to be broken (or the chant of "You Suck Asshole"), petty crime then goes up, followed by increased larceny and, finally, a growing murder rate. "You Suck Asshole" is a gateway drug to things that are far, far worse, apparently.
Rodriguez claimed that in extreme cases MLS may take away allocation money or even dock points from clubs in the future, claiming that the league would not be held hostage by a minority of fans. The supporter that is banned from the ground can then choose "another entertainment or sports vehicle". The "You Suck Asshole" battle is one to be watched with interest. MLS is spending a lot of money, time and effort in attempting to mould and develop their product. But by taking a strictly top-down approach and alienating existing fans, it may well be doing more harm than good. Ed Upright