Running a professional sports franchise is no easy feat, especially in Major League Soccer where soccer’s popularity and culture continue to grow across the United States and Canada.
The Columbus Crew, one of the league’s founding clubs, had fans’ heads spinning earlier this season when it decided to change its official name from Columbus Crew SC to Columbus SC while adopting a new crest and brand identity. After backlash from fans, whose cries of “Save the Crew” in response to previous owner Anthony Precourt’s failed ambitions to relocate the franchise to Austin, Texas, turned into “Keep the Crew,” the organization pumped the brakes on the changes, retaining the Columbus Crew moniker while adjusting the new crest accordingly.
Chicago Fire FC, which joined the MLS in 1998, went through its own identity crisis under new owner Joe Mansueto, who changed Chicago Fire SC to Chicago Fire FC while introducing a new Fire Crown badge and color scheme in 2019. Less than two years later, the club unveiled a rebranded rebrand on June 18 based on input from its supporters through a fan-focused initiative.
Established clubs looking to update their identity, which also include the Montreal Impact evolving to CF Montreal in 2020, aren’t the only ones under fire from passionate supporters. Fans of New York City FC have protested traveling from the Big Apple into New Jersey to attend “home” matches at Red Bull Arena if Yankee Stadium—the club’s home since its inception in 2015—was occupied by its full-time residents. Plans for a soccer-specific stadium within the five boroughs continue to stall after a deal for a Bronx venue recently fell apart.
In an effort to alleviate some of that stress, potential backlash from supporters and growing pains, Charlotte FC, MLS’ 28th franchise set to begin play in 2022, is seeking a first-of-its-kind Chief Fan Officer to be the bridge between club and supporters.
“We’ve seen what’s gone on at other places and we want to make sure that from our perspective we have the opportunity to build this with our fans and get out in front of it,” Charlotte FC president Nick Kelly said. “Right now we’re in that sweet spot: seven months out before first kick. We’ve gotten a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff that has to get done done, but a lot of what needs to happen now is more fan-facing—it’s the traditions we do in-stadium, it’s the march to the stadium itself, it’s tailgates and everything in between.
“Now that we’re developing more of that gameday culture, we have to have somebody be that conduit.”
The club is accepting applications for its Chief Fan Officer through July 30. While there are no clear requirements for the position since it is entirely new, Kelly confirmed they are looking for a well-rounded individual and strong communicator who is able to not only obtain and record the pulse of the club’s fan base, but can then relay those sentiments to key stakeholders to implement initiatives or improvements accordingly.
The Chief Fan Officer will be required to promote and attend special events and functions, travel to MLS matches this season to gain intel and reports, attend Charlotte FC home and away matches beginning with its inaugural season in 2022, and maintain an expanding boots-on-the-ground presence and dialogue with the club’s fan base.
Already having received hundreds of applications since the start of the month ranging from recent college graduates looking to break into the sports industry to retired members of the armed forces and established on-air personalities, Kelly said he hopes to have a CFO in place by Labor Day. The club has enlisted the help of its supporters’ council in the decision-making process in order to further establish a relationship and, of course, trust with the new Chief Fan Officer.
“Traditionally you take a piece of research, data or a focus group and build big, life-altering decisions for your organization off a piece of research or data that may not be what it was six months ago, so we need to have that evolving conversation with everybody on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “Having that open dialogue is important.
“We’re still always going to do the research like everyone else but these types of fan interactions with our Chief Fan Officer are going to be what we put the most weight in because this person will be out there eating, sleeping, breathing what matters to them.”
The Chief Fan Officer will initially have at least one person directly reporting to them to assist with their functions and responsibilities. Kelly said if the role works out how Charlotte FC management hope and anticipate it may, other organizational departments like Community Relations may slide under the CFO’s remit, strengthening the importance of the position, not only internally but outwardly to the fan base.
Kelly and his colleagues are currently combing through all of the resumes and applications before spending the first half of August narrowing down to the right hire, and his/her No. 2. Once the Chief Fan Officer is in place, the priority is getting him/her into the market and out on the streets as soon as possible to establish a connection with the fans while relaying their opinions, concerns and sentiments back to the club.
“They won’t have immediate credibility internally or with the fans, but it will take time for them to build up on both sides,” Kelly said. “If we can get this fully functioning the way it’s supposed to, it’s a great conduit for us to hear from our fans and obviously for our fans to hear from us.
“It’s a big risk. There’s a reason probably no one’s ever done it because there’s a lot of risk as it relates to making sure they’re welcomed by the fans and ultimately, that they can make a difference. We believe we’re going to have to take these types of risks to be progressive and push our soccer team to the next level.”