Move over, soccer moms
Leander Schaerlaeckens
September 22, 2011
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PHILADELPHIA -- In the River End of the Philadelphia Union's PPL Park, the air is thick with that primitive soccer musk of beer, sweat and smoke bomb. All around you are the Sons of Ben, 1,600 strong on a Wednesday night, singing, drumming, drinking, chanting, jumping, cheering, serenading and jeering in deafening unison.

"We're the best-behaved supporters in the league ... when we win," they sing to the tune of "Coming 'Round the Mountain."

"We're the biggest bunch of bastards when we lose ... if we lose."

During the game, the Union fall behind 3-0 and then 4-1 to the New England Revolution in the first half. The Sons of Ben keep their ruckus at fever pitch, even as frustration mounts. In the second half, the Union stage an improbable comeback and even have several chances to win before settling for a 4-4 draw. Afterward, the Union players openly marvel at their own fans' patience. "Amazing," said midfielder Freddy Adu. "They never gave up. We really build off of that. They helped us tonight tremendously."

Over Major League Soccer's 16-year history, hard-core fan groups like the Sons of Ben have grown from novelty, in places like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago, to ubiquity, defining recent expansion markets such as Philadelphia and the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC. The fan groups, made up mostly of young, city-dwelling men who don't yet have families, represent a considerable turnabout in MLS's core demographic. In the early years, the league marketed itself to soccer moms from the suburbs, the polar opposite of the crowd that has now become the face of its fan base.

"I think the league evolved," said MLS executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez. "The culture of the sport [itself] and the cultural relevance within the United States has evolved." He concedes that MLS may have miscalculated its original marketing strategy. "We very well may have underestimated the potential of that [younger, male] demographic."

The league says it is happy with its new base. "We are thrilled by the increasing number of passionate and noisy fans attending our games," said Rodriguez. But he added that "providing the opportunity for a safe and enjoyable experience for all fans -- young and old, new and experienced -- is of the utmost importance to MLS." Many clubs have found reconciling the new crowd with the old one to be a tricky proposition. Families have taken issue with some of the language used by the fan groups. Strides have been made, though. The Union have worked at putting like-minded fans together. The team gives prospective season-ticket holders a questionnaire on how they prefer to consume a game, which helps it identify the most suitable section for them. "This year we've heard less complaints than last year," said Sons of Ben member Justin Lee. "I believe that the soccer moms are starting to get us."

The Sons of Ben are an excellent example of a fan base helping define a club and altering the league's demographic. In January 2007, three Philadelphians set out to land an MLS franchise for their beloved city. "We were kind of fed up with the fact that Major League Soccer wasn't in the fourth-biggest city in the country," said one of the founding members, David Flagler. "It just seemed kind of wrong, so we thought of everything we could do within our limited resources to help make it happen."

They named themselves after fellow Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin. Their acronym: SoB. "That was half-intentional," Flagler admitted with a grin. "We're not going to say that it wasn't in the back of our minds when we came up with it."

The SoB started showing up at other MLS teams' games, singing to New York Red Bulls fans that even without a team they had just as many trophies as they did. "We were just annoying people," said Flagler. Within nine months, their membership had mushroomed to 500 as they campaigned online, lobbied politicians to pledge funds for a stadium and signed a petition that doubled as a pledge to buy season tickets. They collected 6,000 signatures in two months and delivered them to a senator and MLS.

On Feb. 28, 2008, Major League Soccer announced the addition of the Philadelphia Union. The SoB refuses to take credit. "I think eventually there's a Union," said Bryan James, SoB's first president. "But I think our existence and persistence helped smooth a lot of the rough edges."

MLS said the presence of a pre-existing fan base is a major factor in the team-allocation equation. "It's undeniable that the Sons of Ben had a very direct impact on how Philadelphia was perceived as a potential market and a potential club," said Rodriguez.

"They did make a great case for putting a team in Philadelphia because they were loud and they showed that the team would be supported," said Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz.

By the time the Union kicked off their first game in 2010, the Sons of Ben had 3,700 dues-paying members who occupy their own place at home games -- the sections abutting the Delaware River, dubbed the River End. Although membership is down to 3,100 in the Union's second year -- attributed to a common sophomore year drop-off in interest -- the SoB has evolved into a tightly coordinated group that serves both as a hard-core fan club and an umbrella organization for off-shoots.

When you hang around the Sons of Ben at a pregame get-together, you're struck by their diversity. Like many MLS fan groups, the SoB is made up of people who gravitate to alternative lifestyles. Members sport tattoos, piercings, studded denim jackets, heavy black boots, kilts and everything else not for sale at the Gap. They are inclusive and tolerant, making for a sweaty cauldron of genuinely lovely and accepting people.

"The Sons of Ben is such an eclectic group but faction-less, because we're all here with a common interest, to support the team," said Kate Hynes, who works for a law firm in downtown Philadelphia. She wears horn-rimmed glasses but, sitting in a folding chair amid the 20- and 30-somethings, insists that at 56 she's not the oldest member. She discovered pro soccer in 2006 and joined the SoB in 2008. "I had my deposit down on seats before we had a name for the team," she said. "Coming here is my oasis in my desert of stress. I have a teenage daughter, a blind 94-year-old Alzheimer's father, five cats, a three-legged dog, a house, two cars and a full-time job -- this is my escape."

"This is the most unique group of people I've met," said Lucas Murray, a 30-year-old journalist and member. "There are people who have come together for this team that otherwise never would have been friends. It's quite remarkable."

MLS has essentially become the pet league of the counterculture. Perhaps what makes MLS attractive to people outside of the mainstream is that the league is still an...
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