Talking to the media this week, Ryan Nelsen suggested that that Toronto FC owes their fans something, that after the amount of them that travelled up to Montreal, there's 'a wee bit of debt' that TFC needs to start repaying. Today Tom Anselmi (at an event to announce a big project MLSE's team up foundation is going to be doing this year, well done to them on that) jumped on that bit of feel good PR, saying "I love Ryan's comments (Tuesday) that we're indebted to our fans. And we are. We have the greatest fans in this league. Our fans have changed this league. So we owe them a great team. But hopefully it's going to start happening soon. So far so good."
Overplayed and outdated patronisation aside, it brings up an interesting question, with an extra follow up question. Does TFC owe fans anything? Do the fans owe TFC anything?
At first glance the answer is obvious. Hell yes they do, and hell no we don't. Supporters have given and given and paid and paid over the years with precious few good memories to show for it. But really, it's nowhere near as clear cut, it deserves a deeper look. My answer; by the end of last season the answer was yes on both sides, but both sides do seem to be working on it this year.
First up, what are fans owed from any sports team. They can invest time, energy, emotional well being as much as they want, but no-one has the right to expect success. If you're in it merely for the wins, there's plenty of teams you can easily follow these days on the tv and internet, and if they stop winning, there's plenty of other teams to change to. For me, there's 2 things a supporter can legitimately demand in exchange for their hearts and wallets.
1) A honest and intelligent effort to win. Very few teams win, but every team should be trying their hardest, in a way that makes sense for whatever their situation is.
2) Don't take advantage of us. Yes, much like commuters at an airport food court with no choice but to pay double the usual rate for a burger, sports fans have boxed themselves into a corner with no other options. Don't exploit that fact.
How are TFC doing? 1) Last year there seemed to be way too much backroom politics, panic moves when things went wrong, hasty and sometimes grudge based player personnel decisions and more. Were they honestly trying to win? Sure, i wouldn't doubt that, were they doing it intelligently? No way. It was a shambles, an embarrassment and I grew to resent it. Yes, I thought I was owed better. 2) Over the first 6 years, there'd been a lot of exploiting, they switched from nurture to exploit way too soon after 2007 and that's a big part of what killed off what genuinely used to be the best support in the league. A price freeze was nice, but clearly only happened due to cratering sales, and at this year's townhalls, there wasn't all that much respect for the fans from Paul Mariner.
There was clearly work to do, and to TFC's credit, they appear to be doing it. In Kevin Payne, there's finally a football man at the top of the heap making the decisions, and so far, though there's still valid concerns and it's way too early to predict how it'll work, that intelligent effort seems to be coming. Moves are being made that seem to have an eye to the future, a realistic choice given just how far off from being competitive now the TFC squad they inherited was. Players have been brought in on loan, no expensive long contracts, or academy kids brought up ahead of their time to fill out the squad. It may or may not work well in the short term, but it's not going to hinder the club in the future. Dropping the ticket prices is a nice gesture, I'm by no means convinced there's any kind of new leaf here (Win, THEN keep prices low and I'll be impressed.) but it'd be churlish not to acknowledge the gesture.
I think there's a continued effort along these lines that's owed to supporters, but I don't think there's anything extra they owe us right now. How about the other way round though?
If you look at supporters as mere consumers (which is how most sports organisations seem to view them) then no, absolutely not. You pay for your season ticket, or don't. Go to games, cheer for the team, buy merchandise or you don't and that is all you owe your team. The other end of that spectrum would suggest that supporters have a job, to inspire the team or intimidate the opposition, that they do have a duty as supporter, which is another way of saying yes, there is a debt that's owed, to be paid game after game.
Where you fit in that spectrum will vary from person to person and from situation to situation, and I'm not in the business of telling other people how they should support a team, so here it gets personal, do I owe TFC anything?
I do think I owe more straight forward, baggage free, sincere support, but it's not really to the team I owe it, it's to myself. Towards the end of last year, I was pretty sick of TFC. I was going to games out of some sort of personal moral code, rather than because I enjoyed them. Writing about them became a chore rather than a hobby, my game previews becoming increasingly half arsed, focused more on what team worst or league worst records we might break in a particular game, and kind of wanting them to break those records rather than get some points and be merely terrible as opposed to historically terrible. If Paul Mariner read this blog, I'm sure he'd have called it hypercritical. I didn't even have the heart or energy to get involved with the late season protests, and no way in hell was I going to go to the 90th minute party. I felt like TFC had broken me. And that sucks.
I'm never going to be ultra happy clappy and optimistic in my writing, I'm by nature a pessimist, a cynic, more comfortable making fun and finding things to grumble about rather than cheerleading. I think that can work, if it's coming from a place of love. For all their grumbling from on high, you can tell Statler and Waldorf actually like the Muppets, that's why it works. I want this to be a hobby again, something I enjoy, about a team that I like and don't resent. I want to reserve my disdain for Inukshuks, red threads, that dj outside the North stand, stupid matchday promotions and whatever fresh horrors Budweiser and their 'big rig' have planned for us this season. For coloured boots and stupidly high numbers and all that other stuff that doesn't really matter.
I want to want to go to games, to enjoy them, to want TFC to win and to have them actually do it sometimes, to get that genuine sincere supporter inside me back. So I'm trying, that's why I decided at the last minute to go up to Montreal and back on the same day, I needed to make some grand, stupid gesture, a re-commitment if you will, that I'm going to try and be a better supporter.
Things got pretty ugly last year, some supporters were angry at the team, or at management, some supporters were angry at other supporters, a lot of them just flat out gave up. Without knowing every individuals motivations, the number of supporters who made the trek to Montreal suggest there's plenty of people in the same boat, giving the team another chance. Hopefully that will continue through whatever inevitable rough patches occur this season, people will continue giving the club the benefit of the doubt and being positive, within reason. It'll make for a much easier and happier season, and that's all we owe. Not to the team, but to ourselves.
The club seems to be trying, the supporters seem to be trying, that's all we can ask, no-one owes anyone anything other than that. If we can get some tangible benefits, in the form of the odd win here or there to keep it all going, it just might work.