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MLS can only blame itself for fan backlash against politics ban

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MLS purposely courted a rowdy and diverse fanbase. So why is it so surprised at the backlash against its stadium ban on politics?

MLS: New York City FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

This is the pinned video at the top of Major League Soccer’s YouTube page. It tells you a lot about how they’d like to be perceived.

Here’s another one with Dominican-American musician Prince Royce, who sings in both English and Spanish, talking about how the diversity of languages and cultures at games makes soccer special.

MLS, according to its own marketing materials, isn’t like the older, traditional sports leagues. It’s younger, hipper, more urban, more diverse. The fans are rowdier and enabled to express themselves. The game is about more than just the game; it’s about community, and everyone is welcome. MLS games get people of all races and ethnicities together to support something. If you find the experience of the NFL or MLB to be too white and suburban, and the NBA not rowdy enough, then MLS might be for you.

Pulling off this marketing tactic successfully means attracting a large fanbase that is passionate about left-wing politics. That fanbase is going to get angry when members of their soccer family are threatened with having their lives ruined by the government. They’re going to get angry when MLS refuses to kick literal Nazis out of their stadiums. And as a result, the fans that MLS has spent over a decade desperately trying to reach have started displaying anti-ICE and anti-fascist messages at MLS games.

But even if the young urban left is MLS’s core audience, it’s certainly not the entire audience. Conservative families buy tickets too, and they’ve told MLS front offices that they’re uncomfortable with seeing Antifa symbols.

And rather than reckon with the situation they’ve created, or put some effort into treating political expression with some situational nuance, MLS has decided that the best policy is a blanket ban on fans making political displays. No anti-fascist, or anti-ICE, or Proud Boys, or Trump 2020 signage allowed. MLS doesn’t want to wade into the murky waters of deciding which signage is and isn’t appropriate, so it decided to declare everything equally inappropriate.

“I think it was the belief of the league and the clubs that fans are at our games to enjoy the game and that there is a place for third-party political organizations or groups to express their views, but that place isn’t within our stadiums,” MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott told AP’s Anne Peterson.

Practically speaking, there is no actual ban on political statements inside MLS stadiums. There’s just a ban on the type of political statements that might piss people off to the point of not wanting to buy tickets. The national anthem and military appreciation nights are still allowed because anyone who doesn’t like those displays are, mostly, still willing to put up with them. Pride night and pride flags are allowed because anyone who doesn’t like those displays are, mostly, willing to deal to put up with them, too. Alejandro Bedoya wasn’t fined for talking into a field microphone to ask Congress to act on gun control because it would have been a bad business decision.

MLS hasn’t issued a ban on political messaging, just the kind that’s outside the Overton Window of mainstream acceptance.

Currently outside of that window is the anti-fascist Iron Front symbol, which fans across MLS have started displaying with increasing frequency in protest against the political signage ban. If you’re unfamiliar, it looks like this.

This week, the Portland Timbers — ostensibly one of the most progressive front offices in the league — released a tone-deaf statement in support of the league’s political display ban. Their most dedicated supporters, the famously left-wing Timbers Army, are pissed, and have said so in many thousands of words.

As a result, the Timbers Army created an awkward situation on the league’s biggest platform. The Timbers play the Seattle Sounders this weekend in what has been the league’s fiercest rivalry since the Timbers joined the league. Their games are usually the loudest of the season anywhere in the country, and MLS loves to use the fans’ tifos, singing, and celebrations from these games in its marketing materials. On this occasion, the Timbers Army remained silent for the first 33 minutes of the game — a reference to the Third Reich banning the Iron Front in 1933 — to show the Timbers that restricting their freedom of expression will hurt the organization more than losing business from conservative fans.

Instead of talking about the best soccer atmosphere in the country and how it stacks up against some of the biggest rivalries in the world, the ESPN crew was forced to explain that MLS has pissed off its most loyal and passionate fans.

The Timbers lost 2-1 to the Sounders, conceding a goal during the silent period and failing to recover. After the game, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson got into a heated argument with some members of the Timbers Army, telling them that their silence hurt the team.

Unsurprisingly, the ban on Iron Front symbols was also ineffective. Some fans found workarounds...

...while others just brought in flags and banners with the symbol anyway.

MLS did this to itself. It sold itself as a product for young progressives that offered a community beyond soccer games, where people of all backgrounds could come together to celebrate their diversity. It refused to remove fans who threatened that community, then told the progressive fans it so desperately courted to shut up about politics and enjoy the game.

If you’re going to tell the young urban left that MLS is “our soccer,” don’t act surprised when they take you seriously.