Why Major League Soccer's incident involving Tim Howard, fans was designed

Fans have been led to believe that access is a virtue, and it creates a tension that can boil over as it did in Kansas City and has elsewhere in MLS, Graham Parker writes.

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The unedifying story of Tim Howard’s close encounter with a Sporting KC fan, and the subsequent fallout of bans, statements, and alleged double standards for fans and players, did not have a lot to recommend it.

But the incident and the details stuck with me for most of the week, when I realized exactly where in Children’s Mercy Park it had occurred. I remembered my own conflicted feelings the first time I’d been in that spot myself.

It’s the designed proximity, and the variation on the cherished American sports principle that 'access' is a virtue, that’s just as much at fault here.

Before the 2013 All-Star game I spent a half-hour or so walking around the stadium with an intern, observing the details of a stadium that was being hailed as the state of the art in the league. The tour passed through everything from kitchens, to corporate boxes, to the “Blue Hell” supporters sections, to club stores, to service corridors. There was thoughtful attention to detail everywhere, and there was a sense of a meaningful engagement with the club’s new millennial-powered fan base, which found continual expression in the architecture of the building, whether it was in the roof on the supporters section designed to maximize noise behind the goal or the office spaces within the larger complex designed to incubate tech start-ups. It’s a great stadium.

At one point in the tour, we landed in the section of the stadium adjacent to both the players tunnel and the glass-walled press box, where fans pay a premium for the right to eat and drink in close proximity to the pre- and post-game rituals. The press conference room seemed the strangest element, at first glance. I wasn’t sure how amplifying the goldfish-bowl effect of that particular ritual was going to help anybody gain greater insight. Pretty soon, I ended up stuck on the image of players walking past “refreshed” and agitated fans at the beginning and end of games, and the image nagged at me.

When we’re exposed to the latest iteration of the state-of-the-art, we’re also being exposed to a phenomenon that will age unevenly. And while the thoughtful diligence behind Children’s Mercy Park was sound and innovative it did have one area where it did not seem future-proof: the evolving nature of fandom, and what that would mean for the proximity of players and fans at tense moments.

By now, MLS has a long and complicated history with fans and supporters groups, in particular. Just about every team’s fans have their version of the apparent double standard of the league cheerfully using images of their banners, smoke, and raucousness in montages designed to sell the game-day experience only to have MLS over-aggressively police that game-day experience.

At times it’s made for particularly unfortunate juxtapositions. Atlanta United fan Khiry Battle appeared on billboards promoting the team but is now banned league-wide for a year for using a smoke bomb, which is against team and stadium policy. Fans of other teams have taken up the cause — a banner with the hashtag #FreeKhiry could be seen in the South Ward during the Red Bulls game against Columbus on Saturday night.

Perhaps the more notable comparison to the Howard incident was the moment last season, when Didier Drogba got into a yelling match with a fan in the club seats at Red Bull Arena. And just as at Children’s Mercy Park, it was an incident waiting to happen because of the design and marketing of the game-day experience for affluent fans. The fan was already a kind of benignly notorious presence at the stadium. MLS had even told the story of him and his twin brother on its website. Both are doctors, decorated Iraq and Afghanistan vets, and a visible presence in the seats directly between the media contingent and the visiting bench. Before each game, they stand in the tunnel and get to applaud the team out onto the field. And during each game, they cheerfully heckle the opposition, and especially the technical box a few feet in front of them.

Their presence is loud, though rarely goes close to what you’d call abuse, yet you could see how it would be pretty damn annoying to not just deal with the general mood of a road crowd but also a very specific stream of heckling from someone right next to you. I’ve seen San Jose Earthquakes coach Dominic Kinnear stand up and yell back, demanding they be ejected; I’ve watched more than one bout of angry gestures from substitutes leaving the field at full-time; and when I heard that Didier Drogba got into an ugly confrontation with a fan at the stadium, I knew who was involved without having to look.

Yet, while every adult involved has to bear their share of the responsibility for these incidents, it’s the designed proximity, and the variation on the cherished American sports principle that “access” is a virtue, that’s just as much at fault here. That is  a principle that should be kept under review as the league grows and encourages a legitimate intensity around competition.

It may make for some tweaks as the future of stadiums is being considered. Features that seem cool at the time may be rather too dependent on tempers remaining cool to be sustainable. The Children’s Mercy Park layout is echoed in Toronto, for example, with the red-lit glass tunnel to the field situated beside a bar. The stadium trend is towards features such as these, but it exists beside another trend — the league trying to increase the importance of its competition, along with an uneasy dialectic with the “authentic” fan experience that gives that legitimacy. Put those together in a building designed to house those trends, and it’s apparent where avoidable structural vulnerabilities lie.

This could be worked around, in part by monitoring and managing the game-day experience of the players with the same degree of sensitivity with which stadiums are designed to maximize fan experience.

To be clear, I do make a distinction between the management of fan behavior in supporters sections and the more intimate gauntlets the players have to walk in the heightened postgame moments when they’re leaving the field.

I have no problem with advocacy for standing sections, for example. For my generation of fans, who grew up with them before our experience was refracted by the British experience of Hillsborough and the aftermath of the Taylor Report that led to all-seater stadiums, seeing the standing area at Orlando City Stadium is a remarkable development. And yet properly policed and monitored, it may never cause a single issue other than being a cheerfully intimidating wall of noise for a road team to be up against. It’s not the physical structure in that case; it’s the sensitive management of it.

But deliberately creating structural bottlenecks that force players and potentially drunk fans (no matter how well-heeled they are, or how much they’ve paid for the experience) together, during the fraught moments of those players coming off the field after an intense game, is not setting either group up to succeed.

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Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.