I wrote this article a while back, and after Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final in Nashville, felt it needed to be updated and reshared. It was absolute party in Nashville, and everyone buzzing about the crowd energy. Even Barry Melrose gushed about the fan songs and chants. It has never been so clear that most hockey markets would benefit greatly from some type of supporter section or culture.
I always look forward to the NHL playoffs – the energy is buzzing around the arena, and as you enter, you are hit with loud music, fans cheering, and some type of giveaway (although probably not light up wrist bands in Philadelphia anymore). Given my experience with playoff games, I was astonished when I walked into Wells Fargo Center last week for game 4 – I have never heard that place so quiet.
As I walked to the seats with some of my friends – perfectly placed in the last row with a center ice view line – we were amazed at how empty the building seemed. Still, we remained standing the entire game and tried relentlessly to start simple chants to get the crowd energy going. It just wasn’t happening. This wasn’t a mid-season Flyers vs. Oilers game. This was playoff hockey! Standing with two members of the Philadelphia Union’s (MLS) supporters group, the idea of NHL supporters groups never looked better.
Why haven’t supporters groups become a part of other American sports yet?
Individualism has long been a strong American value. There is no doubt that this carries over into fandom where we see individuals dressing up in Green Men suits and people making smaller handheld posters. America’s Game has historically been baseball, which is more of an individual sport where the focus of the game is the duel between the pitcher and the batter. This value is also paralleled in sports such as the NBA and the NFL where one superstar can often be enough to carry a team.
In Europe, with football as the primary sport, a larger emphasis is placed on the team and community than on individuals. In this regard, hockey is closer to European football than most other American sports in terms of the what is important to win. Sure, you hear about the superstar stepping up or a goalie stealing the game, but there is no doubt that the Cup gets hoisted by the entire team. Additionally, fandom in Europe is done as a collective; supporters groups are commonplace and the most popular way to be a part of the fan experience. I have spent a lot time with MLS supporters groups around the country, and with some slight adaptations, supporters groups could be a great fit in the NHL and potentially provide positive outcomes for the game.
– Supporters sections add another layer of excitement to a game with tifos, drums, and group leaders guiding organized chants and songs, and they are there regardless of the team’s place in the standings. No longer is there is a lull in the crowd during that mid-season Flyers game versus the Oilers.
– That environment can help draw in the casual fan who sees the fun during the game, and the close community feel within the group helps create lifelong fans.
– The supporters group is usually in communication with the front office. This gives the average fan a voice with the front office.
– Supporters groups’ message tend to include an emphasis on community involvement and charity work – both items which NHL teams love to promote.
– The group organization makes it easier for fans to plan trips and travel to see their teams in other cities.
Traditional supporters groups would need some adaptation to fit into the NHL, and there would be some hurdles to overcome.
– Almost every stadium has season ticket holders who have established seats throughout the arena. Finding a section in an arena would require some careful movements by the team.
– Away team supporter sections would not be feasible due to the number of games, and creating an away team section would be difficult as teams would not want an empty section if fans are unable to travel.
– NHL season tickets are a large investment due to cost per game and number of games, which may be difficult for some hopeful supporters.
– A large part of the in-game cheering is through longer songs, and this would need to be adapted to fit with the back-and-forth action and stoppages of play during games.
– Change is not always welcome, and some may not appreciate the boisterous display of fandom.
Before I ever sat in a supporters section I only saw it from the outside, but I knew I wanted to be a part of the relentless singing and cheering. Even if I didn’t want to be in there, there was no denying that their energy carried over into the stands. With the rise of soccer’s popularity in the US and technology bringing America and Europe closer together than ever before, supporters groups will continue to be seen in the media. Many fans would love to show their support in a similar fashion and feel a different connection to the game. I’ve seen several NHL supporters section in action in New York, Tampa Bay, and Nashville. I have also found that there are several more in places like Ottawa and San Jose. There is obviously some type of appeal for the European type of fandom in the NHL, and I expect this to continue to grow despite hitting some inevitable bumps along the way.