Emotional Currency: Learning From LAFC

Banc of California Stadium, the home of Los Angeles Football Club, holds a capacity crowd of 22,000 and has been sold out for every game since LAFC's first ever match in 2018. To give you a sense of the excitement of the venue and the popularity of the team, this past Sunday night, hours before El Tráfico was about to kick off, the cheapest seats that I could find on the secondary market (and there weren’t a lot of them) were in the supporter’s section, starting at $185.00. Honestly, being at this game, which Deadspin’s Luis Paez-Pumar called the “MLS at its very best,” made $185 seem like a bargain.


I watched the game, and the excitement leading up to it, with a sense of wonder. As with all things soccer these days, I translate the experience into what I think could (or could not) work in Nashville. I dream of seeing NSC and the culture around it duplicate this type of success.


In the press box just before the game, I overheard someone from the LAFC front office remark in conversation, “What we are doing here is not about selling soccer. We are providing media content, for sure, but none of it matters unless there is emotional currency for the fans.” He went on to observe that while the product on the pitch needs to be striving for high quality (and this year’s LAFC is making a case to be considered the best MLS side ever assembled), it is the emotional attachment of the fan to the team, to the city, to the community, that keeps everyone involved regardless of the team's form on pitch. If the attachment is emotional currency, there is never a reason to walk away.


In a sense, every soccer fan already knows this. We don’t need to be told about the type of bonds that keep us attached to the club. That said, there are some aspects of emotional currency that are more universal than others, just as there are aspects of local culture that cannot be translated between cities. LA is not Nashville. Regardless, an experience like the matchday experience at LAFC does provide some topic areas to think about.


Banc of California is a beautiful stadium, not simply because it is internally and externally pleasing, not only because it’s not your typical box stadium, but also because the designers were creative enough to leave one section of the stadium with no seats and no structure, to envision the stadium as part of the city, and therefore, as part of the club. Through that “window,” from a huge number of seats in the stadium, you are looking straight at downtown Los Angeles. Talk about a reminder of the connection of team to city and therefore, individual to club to community - it works beautifully. Indeed, as I understand it, the only way to increase the seats in the stadium is to close that window. If the time ever comes that they need to build those seats, it’s going to be a gut wrenching decision. I trust our stadium ties itself to the city in similar, or other, means.

Seeing LA through a window... | Photo by John Sloop

LAFC could clearly have sold more season tickets and could have built a much larger stadium. They chose not to do so, on purpose. The front office thought it was important to have a sense of intimacy. Strangely enough, a sense of intimacy and energy (emotional currency) requires both a somewhat smaller space and sold out crowds. Empty seats drag away from the energy, drag away from the sense of a movement. While I trust that Nashville’s front office knows this as well and has expectations for crowd size, the recent announcement that our stadium will be the largest soccer specific stadium in the US is really betting on the growing popularity of soccer in the US.


One of the interesting rituals at LAFC is that of not having the traditional guest singer lead the national anthem. Instead, the crowd is asked to follow the lead of the supporters section (the “3252”) in the singing of the anthem. The overall effect is dual: the crowd feels like part of something bigger, and the importance of the supporters section to the team is emphasized. They will lead you in song. When the rest of the crowd follows the supporters group in singing the anthem, they are ready to follow them in general. Not since Atlanta was in Bobby Dodd Stadium have I seen the wider audience joining the SGs so often in song throughout the game. While Nashville should never make this shift with the national anthem (we have too much singing talent in town, and, as the Predators have shown us, the national anthem can be an event in and of itself), we still might need to look for ways to highlight the importance of the crowd and of the hardcore supporters.


LAFC has a wonderful tradition at the beginning of each game of having a falcon fly around the stadium and slowly get retrieved while sitting on an LAFC emblem. It’s not only a great spectacle, but it allows a guest “falconer” walk in and release the falcon. On Sunday night, during the LA derby, the guest falconer was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Talk about a way of claiming the city as one’s own. Articulating people who themselves are symbols of the city with the club stakes a strong claim to the city itself.

The last item I want to mention occurs first, prior to the game. Next to the stadium lies a large field where everyone is invited to tailgate. While the official tailgate start time is somewhere around noon for a 7PM game, groups start arriving as early as 8 AM. By the time I got there at 3, a full party was in swing. Thousands of people, lots of noise, a mariachi band, dance lines, and a hell of a lot of smoke. What a party and what a sense of community! The what-appeared-to-be-dozens-of-supporter-groups operating under one banner, one field, were crazed. What made it more fascinating is that when I asked club officials if this was the largest tailgate, I was told it was the second largest, the first was at the very first game.


Given that LAFC didn’t even have a USL franchise to build upon (at best, you could say that had the remnants of Chivas USA), how did they pull this off? For the three years prior to the first game, the team sent representatives throughout the city, establishing fans “street by street, block by block, one by one.” These groups of fans-without-a-team commented on logos, critiqued stadium design, got invested in team colors. In other words, from early on, the fans were viewed as more than just fans of a team; they were part of the organic whole. If you get fans feeling that, they are not just fans; they are family.


So, yeah, that's emotional currency. The feeling of an organic experience.

It’s our turn now.

EDITOR'S NOTE


The above is an opinion piece and expresses the individual views of the author, not necessarily Speedway Soccer as a whole.

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