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Hooligans --- When a Company Must Deal with an Unruly Customer

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Customers are, of course, the backbone of any business. A company will go out of its way to keep its customers happy and many will reward their loyal/repeat customers. In practice, some customers can be difficult, unruly and even costly.  It may be nice to have their business but sometimes, for the good of the company’s future, an executive decision will be made to pass on that money as any profit made short term will still hurt in the long term.


Anyone who’s been to a soccer game in any country knows that it’s so much more than the experience of watching players on the field. Watching the “supporters’ groups” is an experience in of itself. These fans stand the entire ninety minutes of the game, waving flags while singing and chanting throughout. Supporters’ groups are considered to be the lifeblood of any club. Oftentimes numbering in the thousands, the overwhelming majority of those in an SG are season ticket holders, attend even when a team is experiencing a losing season, and in many cases travel to road games to support as well.  

It’s also popular worldwide for these fans to throw smoke bombs and firecrackers onto the field and light them in the stands. Soccer clubs struggle with supporters’ groups regularly regarding foul language in their songs and chants as the teams attempt to create a more family-like atmosphere in the stadium. Losing important games has led to riots in the stands and fights with security, again something found worldwide. Over the years, supporters’ groups have been given the nickname hooligans, first meant as derogatory towards their behavior but over time accepted as a badge of honor by those very fans and in many cases a term of endearment for them.

This is an issue that New York City Football Club (NYCFC), a brand new team in Major League Soccer of the United States, has been facing during its short 18 month existence. With New York already represented in MLS for 20 years by the Red Bull New York organization playing their games in Harrison, New Jersey, NYCFC tapped into an entire crowd of soccer fans uninterested in travelling to New Jersey, or even following a team based there. In a savvy business move, Major League Soccer created this second New York team and placed them within the 5 Boroughs (Bronx) and the team had 17,000 season ticket holders before they even kicked a ball in league play. They connected with their fans over social media, creating meet-ups for season ticket holders and even getting fans involved in the team draft.  Multiple supporters’ groups were created with the two large ones calling themselves “Third Rail” and “Los Templados/NYCFC Hooligans.” Thousands of soon to be fans flocked to these groups to create a voice for themselves and hopefully their new team. It seemed like a match made in Heaven; a brand new team that “gets it” and makes an effort to have a relationship with their fans (or in our case, their customers). Having a team in NYC seemed like a dream come true and something these “hidden” soccer fans had been waiting 2 decades for.

However, ever since it kicked off its inaugural season, the club has been no stranger to the chaos that can take place in a supporters’ group section. NYCFC plays its home games in Yankee Stadium (the Yankees are minority owners) and adhere to all the rules of fan behavior that are enforced for the baseball team. Numerous fans have been ejected from the stadium after lighting fire crackers and smoke bombs in the stands after a goal was score while others have received warnings for their language. The Third Rail leadership has needed, on multiple occasions, to meet with team representatives to discuss possible future consequences, including stadium bans.

It’s almost a weekly occurrence to find fans arguing with security and in their debut season, some supporters’ took to the airwaves via podcasts and radio shows to rip the team and their handling of stadium rules. Fans complained that NYCFC leadership did not understand “soccer culture” and were taking an uptight approach, as if they were New York Yankees management. It was certainly bad press for the soccer club, especially in their first year existing.    

It is a tough situation for NYCFC to be in. They want these “customers” and do not want to pass on their business. In fact, they view these customers as central to not only their business but also their brand – they just want these customers to stop “misbehaving.” On the other side, the fans would argue that this “misbehaving” is all part of the culture, seen around the world as the norm. They will tell you that it is the team that is paving to public perception and media pressure. What is the solution?

NYCFC’s hands will certainly be tied until they build a stadium of their own (normally a requirement to joining the league but an exception was made for the mouth-watering prospect of a team based in New York City) and will need to find a way to make compromises in the =meantime. As a Soccer fan myself, I can tell you these are not fans you want to lose. I have seen other clubs, such as Sporting Kansas City and Red Bull New York, allow dry ice in the stands, which gives off the impression of smoke but does not take on the risk of harming people in the area or destroying stadium property. Allowing something like this will empower the club to take a stronger stance against other issues like foul language and taunting. “Ok, we can compromise on this but need you to help us compromise on this…”

In this case, it is not a matter of “the customer is always right” but rather showing your customer that you are truly making an effort to find a middle ground. As stated above, NYCFC are “guests” in Yankee Stadium and need to show their fans that they are making every effort to show their appreciation of their fans while also following the rules and fire codes.  At the end of the day, NYCFC is not only a sports team but a company and brand with paying customers --- let them know they matter most and you are willing to make every effort to, while following the rules, make them as comfortable and happy as possible.