Storming through BMO Field

6 05 2009

I thought I’d keep my loyal readers in suspense on ‘Boxergate’ for a couple more days.  So first, I should take you back a little – to Saturday – where we last left things…

After my first blog post, I made my way to BMO Field with Ms. Campbell, eager to catch my first TFC home match and absorb this heralded atmosphere that only Youtube had teased me with prior.

We entered the grounds and made our way to the offices to meet with Paul Beirne, Senior Director of Business Operations.  The first thing we noticed was the branding around the stadium.  TFC have done an amazing job of putting their logo on virtually everything.  I am passing this on only as heresay evidence, but to give you an idea of what I mean, the women’s washrooms apparently have logoed toilet seats and soap dispensers. More than logos, however, there were collages of memorable moments (you might be thinking ‘what memorable moments?’ but go with me on this), framed autographed photos and large silver wall thingees (I’m saying thingees because I have no idea what the name for these are, so just have a look at the picture).

I must say, I was a wee bit nervous to meet Paul.  Admittedly, I don’t know many Torontonians, but I had always heard they were arrogant.  And if any Torontonian had a right to be arrogant, it would probably be the guy that took an expansion franchise and made it the envy of the league.

So when Paul walked up and joyfully dissed me on my Whitecaps jacket, I knew I was clearly misguided in my stereotype.  Over the course of the next hour, Paul chatted with us about pretty much everything and anything to do with the club.  He was incredibly open, humble and thoughtful, and I could see exactly how the fans feels such a closeness with the club.  In fact, as I write this later, I’ve spoken to a number of supporters that mentioned him outright as a key to their relationship with the club.  I asked Paul about the 75 or so visiting fans from Columbus, all sectioned in the upper north east end of the stadium.  He told me that they let them in 30 minutes before the gates open and don’t let them leave until 30 minutes after the match finished.  This was done so as to keep the visiting and home supporters from any potential skirmishes.

Probably the most interesting thing we discussed was about supporters groups and how he began working with them.  His response was simple: “message boards”.  Sometimes it is as simple as that.  Talk to people.  Read what they are saying.  Personally, I’ve always felt that reading what the Southsiders or Voyageurs are saying on their boards was like free research.  Yes, I also post new topics and respond to threads.  But I also just read.  Like I said, free research.  So to hear Paul touch on that was extremely encouraging.

We took a little tour of the building and the most memorable part was the large room with turf for carpet.  In the middle of the room, there is a little net upon which the players play a form of ‘foot-tennis’.  The dressing rooms were pure class as well.  I didn’t take pictures out of respect, but the main room had a giant touch screen video review wall and there were additional rooms with food, hot and cold tubs and a lounge.

After the tour, we ventured out into the concourse.  TFC have done an incredible job of ensuring every fan is wearing red, and that was never more evident than when I walked through the concourse.  In fact, one of the things I found interesting was that their merchandise booths sold very little variety of items.  Only the staples – jerseys, scarves, caps, hoodies, shirts and a backpack.  That’s it.  Rather than trying to provide something for everyone, they instead tried to make everyone looking homogenous.  This has to be deliberate, as you can look into the stands and only see red.  I compare that to the Canucks merch shop, which features hundreds of different items and stylish clothing in a range of colors and cuts.  Although the Canucks store is undoubtedly successful, I would venture to suggest that it doesn’t help build atmosphere in the arena the same way TFC does.  Different clubs, different sports, different strategies.

Once the match started, we attempted to get near the Supporters Club section.  Unfortunately, Lake Ontario had different intentions as a storm brushed in and proceeded to pelt us with freezing cold rain.  I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but we scurried off to the MLSE suite to warm up, eat some free food and observe.  Sure, laugh at us all you want, but in the thick of things, you’d do the same!  Besides, I was the only person in the building with a Whitecaps jacket on, so I’m not sure if I would’ve survived in the supporter’s section much longer.

The atmosphere at BMO Field cannot be overstated.  Sportsnet or Youtube clips do not do it justice.  What makes it especially interesting is the different ‘pockets’ of atmosphere that exist around the stadium.  You have the visitor’s supporters section whose patrons remain standing and yinging (a combo between yelling and singing) throughout the match.  Then there’s the north end whose supporter’s club sort of built up organically (essentially the people of that section created their own group one day).  The fans on the upper deck stomp their feet and since the upper deck is built on aluminum stands, the sound is immense.  The sidelines are perhaps the quietest (corporate and family-oriented), but even they have times where they all stand up and cheer.  Finally, in the south end you have a mixture of a steel drum band in one corner and the immense presence of the Red Patch Boys in the other.  Their chants, flags and streamers cannot be missed and they do a fantastic job of delivering intimidation to the opponents (and the refs!).

Despite the allegiance to the home squad, the ‘aura’ in the stadium never felt dangerous.  It never appeared like there was any chance of fights breaking out.  Even I, wandering around in my bright blue Whitecaps jacket and Southsider scarf, heard barely a jibe.

The match itself was great to watch, although TFC were probably lucky to come away with a draw.  It seems as though the crowd really pushes TFC along, as they got stronger as the match progressed.  I’m sure a 1-1 draw was not ideal for the TFC faithful, but against the defending champions, it wasn’t a bad result either.  The fans exited the stadium with little incident, content to head home and do it all over again on Wednesday.

And with my last pair of underwear on and nasty cold forming in my chest, so was I.

TFC thingee

This was down near the locker rooms

Inaugural season tickets and scarf

Columbus fans entering the stadium long before the TFC faithful

TFC fitness room

This is written on the wall in the fitness room

Turf and soccer-tennis setup

Match - and storm - set to begin

Me getting pelted with rain in the supporters section

The suite was much dryer

A stream of streamers await the corner taker

Merch booth - as you can see, not a ton of variety but all red.


BMO Field concourse

And finally, this is also what you take pictures of when you go on a trip with a director of events. Fun!


In search of soccer fans and undergarments

2 05 2009

I’m writing you from the center of the universe, a densely populated metropolis of vast expanses of industry, endless rows of brick and mortar houses and a limitless medley of cultural expression.  I’m talking, of course, about Toronto.   This is the second time I’ve visited big brother, but the first that I’ve been staying downtown and am able to soak in the city’s energy.  That is, if I can find some more underwear!

Perhaps, I should back up a little.  I’ve been sent on a research mission per se, with my colleague Hillary Campbell, Director of Events for the Whitecaps.  We are here to spend time with Toronto FC staff on a topic we are calling ‘fan cultivation’.  As you probably are aware, TFC have done a remarkable job of not only selling out their building since their inception into the MLS, but also creating a stadium atmosphere unlike anything typically seen in North America.   By working with supporter clubs, they’ve made BMO Field an intimidating place and created a local passion for the beautiful game.  No easy task, considering teams such as the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, Raptors and Argonauts harbour loyal fanbases themselves.

So we have a week to attend two TFC matches – today against rival Columbus and Wednesday against our very own  Whitecaps.  In addition, we plan to meet with key TFC staff as well as supporter club leaders, pub owners and anyone else willing to offer up some insight.   The goal is to come back to Vancouver with a sense of how we might build a similar atmosphere (or better!) and how we can better work with fans, supporters, etc. If this trip sounds like a dream trip for any Canadian soccer fan, it isn’t without it’s share of calamities – at least for me.  We flew with Air Canada and I was pleasantly surprised at the choices of movies and television shows you can watch on your personal monitor.  However, I foolishly chose Marley and Me despite hearing about it’s proclivity to induce sobbing.  But I love dogs and it seemed far more enjoyable than Frost/Nixon, so I pushed onward.  Hillary, who prepped me with ‘I’ve never cried more in a movie in my life’ was peeking over at me as the movie approached its inevitable conclusion.  Needless to say, it got a little dusty in there during the end, but I managed to keep things in check.  I probably looked like an idiot to the rest of the passengers, but it serves me right.  Note to self – on the way home, go with Frost/Nixon.

Secondly, I completely forgot to do any laundry before my trip.  This means I have a bunch of dress shirts that are about as wrinkled as Henry Kissinger.   Most vital of all, I had hardly any clean underwear to pack and thus I currently am wearing my last pair.  I’m not exactly sure how this story is going to end, but clearly I’m going to have to find something somewhere.  I just hope I’m not stuck buying some tacky TFC boxer shorts!

Other than that, my stay has been great.  My hotel room is very nice and something called Lemongrass Body Butter and Mint Thyme Hair Creme awaited me in the shower.  We are staying in the hotel attached to the Rogers Centre, so we ate dinner overlooking the Blue Jays game last night.  We then ventured off to Wayne Gretzky’s pub, which is also a cool little spot.  Unfortunately, I’m still on westcoast time, so I didn’t fall asleep until 3:30 eastern and am a little groggy today.

But there’s not time to waste!  TFC – Columbus kickoff in 4 hours and we are heading over there to pick up our all-access passes and meet the staff.  I’m so used to ‘working’ at matches, that it will be nice to just wander around as a fan (an ‘all-access’ fan I suppose) and soak it all in.

And, of course, my quest to find underwear looms in the background.  Unless I want to use the hotel’s dry-cleaning service for my only two pair, I better stumble upon a clothing store sometime today.  Wish me luck!

Not the greatest photo, I realize, but my first glimpse of BMO Field.

The Score studio - very very cool

Blue Jays game from our seats in the restaurant. I believe if you look close enough, you can see Alex Rios killing my fantasy team.