“Let’s be clear: I don’t like smoke bombs,” Daniel Ryan tells me, “and I’m not a big shouter. I do cheer, and I do join in and start chants at times, but I don’t like smoke bombs.”
Ryan is the President of the Music City Heaters, and he, and the Heaters as he presents them, are not what I pictured. Until talking to Ryan, I had an image of an anti-supporter group supporter group, and that’s not what Ryan is about.
Last May 23rd, I was hanging out with friends at McDougal’s prior to the 3rd round US Open Cup game that had Nashville SC facing off against Mississippi Brilla when Jonathan Slape showed the group of us a tweet from a group called the Music City Heaters. The tweet showed their now familiar logo, and we weren’t sure if it was a real group or if it was one guy with an imagination and a twitter account. We found ourselves delighted by the logo and the name, and I think my dreamscape painted a picture that had nothing to do with what the group was attempting to do at the time or with how they see themselves now.
In my mind’s eye was group that saw itself as oppositional; what I got instead in this conversation was a group that, while different, is every bit as much as committed to supporting NSC as any other supporter group.
Daniel Ryan grew up in Franklin, TN, where youth soccer is a big deal. He played and, when given the opportunity to officiate games—realizing that might be a better path for him than playing—he took the chance and worked as a ref at youth games, at least until he realized how maddeningly serious friends and family members of players would take their venom out on the officials). He played FIFA; he watched some MLS and World Cup. While he knew the Metros existed and followed them in The Tennessean, he never went to see games. He didn’t have a Premier League team until he was in London in 2015 and got tickets to see Fulham play QPR in a Championship matchup. But he loved soccer, and, as he says of himself, “I’m a joiner and a supporter by nature.”
So, when the Vanderbilt graduate heard about Nashville Football Club playing at Vanderbilt, he started going to games. While he sat in the Supporters sections with the Roadies (at the time, the sole supporters group), he knew he wanted something a little different. While he liked being near the energy of the section, and still espouses support of what the Roadies are all about, he didn’t necessarily want a capo or anything quite so organized. What he wanted was a group that was a way in to the scene for those who had an interest in soccer but weren’t quite there yet.
Ryan and some friends decided that they were all in on the team. They joined the 1779 Club when the USL franchise was announced and then slowly but carefully started thinking about a supporters group built around a social scene. They didn’t do this in a slipshod fashion. Knowing that social media outlets would allow them to punch above their weight, they carefully crafted a logo. Borrowing from the Nashville flag, as NFC itself had done, they took the colors, the skull, and the tobacco leaf and began designing. Thinking of “heaters” in its multiple significations (as cigarettes, as a team going on a streak) they designed the skull smoking, making the trail of smoke follow the path of the Cumberland River as it flows through Nashville.
This was not all happenstance, in other words. They designed a logo with the specific purpose of drawing interest and branding themselves tightly to the team. When they made their first 30 shirts, they sold out quickly. (Incidentally, they are very protective of the brand and don’t see going much beyond shirts and koozies).
That said, something about the logo, and something about the fact that they didn’t immediately (or still) become an “official” supporters group made them seen like outsiders, bucking against the middle.
Ryan is quick to correct that: “We are guys who love soccer. We are very positive. We aren’t necessarily against anything, but we also don’t take the company line. We are an independent soccer group that loves this team and wants to help build the community.”
For example, when they now famously put out a press statement that said they wouldn’t attend a watch party at the “schizophrenic cocktail bar/coffee shop/axe throwing/hotel” Downtown Sporting Club, out of respect for their love of Paradise Park (a press statement that the group rightly thought was a humorous statement while conveying their feelings about where they wanted to watch the game), they did join the very next event sponsored by Nashville SC. While they won’t do everything the club advertises for supporters, then, they are not fighting against it just for the sake of being oppositional. They join when they think it enhances their atmosphere for watching; they don’t when it doesn’t. That said, when they decide not to join in, you may well see them send out “official” press releases to make their point.
To hear Ryan tell it, the Heaters are a great group to watch with if you’re thinking about watching soccer but unsure of where you fit in. You don’t need to know anything to watch with them except how to have a good time. They are near the action of the chants, cheers and smoke bombs, but you don’t have to love those things to watch with them. They join in on chants and cheers at times, and sometimes they start their own.
Again, they are not the anti-supporter group supporter group. They are, rather, a different kind of group.
When asked what he expected over the next five years for the Heaters and for other groups, he expected growth in each group. For the Heaters, however, he wanted to make sure that the growth was organic and not growth for the sake of growth.
Ryan also sees room for other groups to emerge. While some groups might emerge along the lines of ethnic or cultural heritage (e.g., LAFC’s Tigers Supporters Group, the Korean-American SG), he also thinks there is room for the anti-SG SG. Whatever emerges, he notes, is all part of one eco-system. You can’t have the Heaters without the Roadies, or any of the other groups. They play off of each other in an organic fashion.
Ryan does believe that all of the supporters groups need to do less talk and take more action. While he hears a lot of talk from everyone about doing more to help build a base of fans separate from, but still support of, what the club itself is doing, he notes the difficulty because all of us are doing this as a labor of love.
“People need to dig into their group membership; find the people with skills who aren’t necessarily putting them to use and find a way for them to help,” Ryan says. “If all the groups do this, we will fill the 6,000 Supporter Group seats in a larger stadium.”
Support doesn’t happen on its own. It takes work, and it takes different groups providing a number of different ways for others to join in. If this eco-system Ryan describes is going to work, it’s going to take less high school drama, Ryan says, and a lot more action. --------------------- Sloop, with contributions by Davey Shepherd