Following the end of the Union’s first season, we ran a series of Q&As called “The other supporter group,” which looked at some of groups that, following in the footsteps of the Sons of Ben, had come together in and around the River End, groups like the Illegitimates, The Corner Creeps, Tammany Saints and the Bridge Crew. The series returns with a Q&A with Jeremy Sharpe and Justin Lee, two of the founders of the Bearfight Brigade. Organized during the 2011 season, Bearfight Brigade may take its name from a drinking game, but the group is as serious about creating unity among supporters through frank and open dialogue and engaging in charitable efforts as it is about having a good time.
Philly Soccer Page: For those who don’t know, what is a bearfight?
Justin Lee: A bearfight is an Irish Car Bomb directly followed by a Jager Bomb. They are drunk for speed and accuracy.
PSP: Tell me a little bit about your soccer background. Did you play soccer growing up? Do you play now?
Jeremy Sharpe: I started playing youth soccer at the age of 6, when my youth ice hockey coach suggested it as a good ‘off season’ sport for fitness and improvement of coordination. I played through high school. I did play in a futsal adult league at USTC in Downingtown. Currently, I do not have the time to play adult league.
JL: Never played. Always a fan. Growing up in Tennessee, I guess it was a want what you can’t have kind of thing. My high school still has no soccer program. Not to mention a lot of the punk bands I listened to always sang about soccer and the clubs they love.
PSP: Your website describes the Bearfight Brigade as first beginning in 2011 as a kind of organized tailgating activity, but soon a larger purpose soon became apparent: “About a quarter of the way through the season the 3 of them could see the separation forming within the River End. When they saw that happening, they knew they had to do something. Enter the Bearfight Brigade.” Can you tell me more about the separation that was occurring in the River End?
JS: We noticed tempers starting to flare up and a separation between the leadership of the Sons of Ben and some of the supporters in the River End. There were open arguments during matches and people who believed that they had no say in the leadership decisions made in the Philly supporter culture. If we (Justin, Wayne Romanowski, and Jeremy) are good at anything it is making a scene and making our voices heard, so we stepped in. We also noticed that the fun of being a Philly supporter was deteriorating a bit. We saw a chance to help bring this back to what it was always meant to be, undying support of our club, and a great match day experience.
JL: There are so many different personalities in the River End. There are so many good ideas, chants, etc., that just weren’t being heard. That lack of willingness to listen and consider was turning people off and it was weakening the River End. We formed this to give them a voice, to work together for one common goal, make the club stronger in any way we can. We are not saying every idea is great and should be implemented. Lord knows the random ideas we have come up with. But we also know that they are silly ideas that are not feasible, and that’s what we tell people. If you have an idea, let’s hear it. If it is good, we do our best to make it happen. If it needs work, we say that. It’s that simple. We want people to bounce things off of us. As long as that open communication is there, we will always have the strongest supporters section in the league.
PSP: The history continues to say the Bearfight Brigade “was started to unite all of the groups and all the people within that group. Everyone is different with different opinions. The Brigade wanted to give them a voice.” Can you tell me more about that? Is the Bearfight Brigade needed to give voice to unheard opinions among the Sons of Ben to the Union Front Office?
JS: There were a lot of fracture groups and factions forming, and the most counter-intuitive thing seemed to make sense to us: start yet another group, and use our contact that we have made in and out of soccer to give the leadership of these groups (SoB, Creeps, Illegitimates, etc.) a central point that they could all come to express their opinions and ideas. Some people are not as outspoken as others, but still have excellent ideas for match day activities, tifo, chants, charities, and fun events. We like to think of ourselves as pretty approachable people, so we saw a chance to be who we are, a soap box for the folks that are soft spoken, or feel ignored. This supporter culture in Philly, just like anywhere else, is an exquisite machine, but if you don’t have the right parts in the right place, that machine will not function properly. There are a lot of parts out there that will help this machine run smoother, run better, but some may not have been around since 2007, or may be quiet people. No matter what the situation, we want them to have a chance to have their imprint in the culture.
As far as our own FO, we have a lot of respect for Nick and the FO, but at the same time, we have had our clashes with them. We were very vocal about our opinion of Nowak, and our feelings on some of the trades and moves our FO has made in the first few years. We probably made the FO uncomfortable with a few our our ‘Fax The FO your opinion’ campaigns. We know that in at least one case, our organization was brought up in a discussion with an FO member or two and leadership of another group. All in all though, Nick and the FO know we support our club, but we aren’t afraid to speak up on what we feel is right and wrong. Love of our club does not mean we blindly follow, our love runs so deep that we aren’t afraid to speak out about what we feel is best. I think that, long term, this will mean that our relationship may sometimes be strained with the FO or other groups, but our honestly and transparency will garner respect.
PSP: What’s your relationship like the Union front office? Do have regular contact with someone there?
JL: Good. We reach out when we have a question. Our contact is always willing to sit with us. We don’t like bothering them that often though.
JS: Our regular contact there that has helped us navigate through some things and has shown constant support for not just the BFB, but supporter culture in general in Philly. At the same time, we know we have ruffled some feathers and gotten into some hot water now and then. As I stated before, we pride ourselves on our honesty. We love our club, but not the kind of love that blindly follows, the kind that states it’s opinion, that really wants this to be the marquee club in MLS. We aren’t afraid to speak up to when we see a situation that we feel will not help the long term development of this club. Just like with the SoB, our relationship with the FO is one of mutual respect.
PSP: Am I correct that Bearfight Brigade is now officially recognized by the front office as an official Union supporters group?
JS: At least last we checked we were, but we have asked the FO to not list the BFB on their website as an official group, the same with MLS websites and supporter group information. As people that have been around the Philly supporter scene for a long time, that were there when MLS announced a franchise in Philly, were there for the stadium ground breaking, the first player meet and greet, and events of the like, we have a great deal of pride that the Union only lists one supporter group, the Sons of Ben. It shows that, in the end, we are truly all unified to support our club. We want that to stay that way.
PSP: The history on your website notes that there have been “ups and downs.” Can you tell me more about that?
JS: We exist, above all other reasons, to support our club. Our club, although young, has already seen its share of ups and downs. We have seen the departure of three captains, we had an unimpressive rookie season, we have dealt with a manager that did not do what was best for the club. In a supporters sense, it is crazy to think that we always get on well with each other all the time, especially since we are constantly trying to bring new people into the fold of our own leadership. We disagree, we stress out, we over think obvious scenarios. Add to that mix our ‘unification’ theme. There have been times where one group is not completely happy with another, and we try to step in and hear all sides. This can be as stressful as it is productive.
JL: There will always be differences of opinions about everything. That’s life. What makes us great is the willingness to resolve them. It’s a matter of being willing to communicate.
PSP: How does one join the Bearfight Brigade? Is there a membership fee? Do you sit in a particular section in the River End?
JL: Go to www.thebearfightbrigade.com, and go to the membership page and sign up. There is no membership fee right now.
JS: But if you are a supporter and want to sit in The River End with us, you will have to join the Sons of Ben. In the future, we may have our own membership fee, but nothing is concrete on that front.
JL: As of the 2013 season we have carved a small section in 136. We are looking to grow it season to season. If people want to move, we try to accommodate as long as there are seats available. Others don’t want to move, and that’s perfectly ok.
PSP: How many members does your group currently have?
JS: Honestly, we have no idea. Our membership is a very loose agreement and everyone is welcome.
JL: Enough to party! But in all seriousness, that’s a tough question. We are liquid. We keep enough to stay recognized, but people come and go.
PSP: What sets you apart from other Union supporters groups?
JS: We are willing to push boundaries. Look back at our first big public showing in TRE. We did a big part in rallying the troops for a moment of silence to show support of our friends in New England after their FO tried to intimidate them. We aren’t afraid to take a stance and upset MLS or our own FO. Our first ‘moving tifo’ was the CD9 Moving Van tifo from 2011 (vs. DC home). We were aware that we may upset some folks with our little display, but we pushed the envelope and did it anyway.
We also vow to constantly do right to anyone who has done right by us. We are a family, and that family loyalty will be there no matter what. A prime example is Danny Califf. Danny did right by us numerous times while with the club, and not matter where he lands, we will always have his back (barring playing vs. Philly). We had members go to RBA to support him when Chivas took on NYRB, we still make sure Danny gets any new BFB merch. We will be in Toronto for some matches. It is loyalty to the end. The same goes for Sheanon Williams. Shea and his family have always done right for us, and as such, we will always do right by him.
JL: We all support the Union.
PSP: Many of your members must be members of the Sons of Ben. What is your relationship like with the SoB leadership?
JS: It is a great relationship. Justin and I have sat in Sons of Ben meetings. We help with events, we help with tifo. We have constant discussions with SoB leadership. We try to help other SoBs that want to get involved with the organization with contacts. We have a great amount of respect for how much time and effort it takes to run a group as big and dedicated as the SoB. We have mutual respect. We are not always going to agree, but we will always respect them, and have seen nothing to indicate that the respect is not mutual.
PSP: Do you do much networking with other Union supporters groups?
JL: Networking? More like invitations. We invite all to everything. Everyone is welcome to join in the fun.
JS: Always. Some of the Illegitimates will be sitting at the top of section 136 with us this year. We are working with them through the Bearfight Winter Classic to raise money for NF Program at CHOP/ Miles for MJ, which is a charity that they have been heavily involved. We know a lot of the Corner Creeps through activities outside of soccer. We have a great relationship with Ben from The Bridge Crew. We have members all over PPL Park, some are hardcore supporters of the club, some are more casual fans, but all deserve a say in this process of supporting our club and making PPL Park the most positive place to play as the home club, and the most intimidating place to play as the visiting club.
PSP: What is your relationship like with the Union players?
JL: Good, I guess. We care more about our relationship with our members. If a player likes what we do and wants to get involved, they are more than welcome. Invitations are always open. We are there for them and they know it.
JS: We have a few that we have some contact with. We have a few that have attended some of our events. It is no secret that Justin, Wayne, and I were and still are very close with our former Captain, Danny Califf. Our relationship with players in is that we support our boys on the pitch. We hope that they will be a part of the Brigade family. We strive, when they are at BFB events, to make them feel at home, comfortable; to let them sit at a table with their family, have a meal, a few drinks, and chat with anyone there as all of us chat with each other. We don’t want them to feel as if they are being used to further some agenda we have or for us to use their name for our own glory, but to feel like we are friends. We hope that when they are around us they don’t have to feel like a Union player, but a person who loves the club as much as we do and just so happens to play soccer for a living.
PSP: What makes the style of support the Bearfight Brigade are trying to encourage unique to Philadelphia? Aside from the pregaming, there’s a pretty cool punk rock kind of style going on.
JS: Well, the ‘punk rock thing’ was never our intention, but a reflection of the men and women who are members of the Brigade. We never set out with a plan for a ‘style’ that defined that Brigade. We are letting the members take this in the direction that best suits them. This was never about what Justin, Wayne, and Jeremy want this to look like, but what the people, the members want it to look like, how they wanted it to function. We want fun, we want the kind of loud, vocal, honest support that is the heart of this sport. We want PPL to be the place every club has to go to for an away match, but no visiting club wants to play in. It’s not about Mohawks or whatever else that is ‘punk rock’, but family, loyalty, fun, and passion for our club. We want this organization to run not by the say of Justin, Wayne, and Jeremy, but by the say of the men and women that come to our events, that sit in our section or anywhere in PPL Park, that come on road trips, and hang out at tailgates. This is their organization, not ours.
JL: The three of us that started this little thing are all old, haggard punk rock kids. We only know one way to support and that is with all we have. That’s how we were and that’s how we still are. We are DIY. We do everything ourselves and don’t really ask for permission or acceptance. If you like if cool, if not, cool. Either way we are there for the same reason. But unique to Philly, I don’t know…loyalty and honesty maybe. If we are unhappy, we express it. Some people agree, some people don’t. Some hate us for our honesty, some love us for it. At the end of the day, we respect everyone’s opinions and we ask they do the same for us. We love this club and want to see them lift that cup
PSP: What kind of behavior does the Bearfight Brigade consider crossing the line?
JS: We use the same code of conduct that the SoB use. We do not tolerate racism, violence, sexism, or discrimination of any kind or for any reason. Our organization is all encompassing.
JL: See the SoB code of conduct.
PSP: Fan versus supporter: What’s the difference? Does it matter to the Bearfight Brigade?
JL: Nothing. We are there for the same reason. Your level of involvement is your own. Some people love this club just as much as us, but may not be able to go to paint parties or even every match. There is no difference. You love the club, you’re all the fan/supporter we need.
PSP: Some supporters have suggested that MLS has made a mistake in overmarketing itself as “family friendly,” which leads to the kind of debate we continue to see about things like the YSA chant. Where would you place the Bearfight Brigade in this debate?
JS: The NFL sells sex and violence in their product, and it is the most popular sport in America. Families go there all the time and their children are subject to hearing things that even I would never say. That being said, MLS is still a growing league, so its need for families to fall in love with the sport is greater. But, supporter culture, to some extent, is part of the allure of soccer. Now, I am not saying that we should be allowed to say whatever we want, as loud as we want, whenever we want, but we are going to say some off color things sometimes. We respect your decision to not sit in the supporter section, and not have to sit with the constant barrage of noise, respect that we have made a choice to not sit in the family friendly areas of PPL Park. Sometimes, with a few minutes left in the first half, or a few minutes left in the match, or on bad weather when we see part of PPL Park empty, we are offended, but we don’t call up the FO and cry about it. We appreciate the same respect. As far as YSA, it is unimaginative. It is a great chant at USA matches, not at the club level. And, as another supporter said to me in 2010, YSA is not the chant that we should make our Alamo. This is a battle that is not worth winning. Someday, something much bigger will come up that we really believe in, it will be nice to say, hey, we gave in on YSA, give us this one.
PSP: There’s some pretty cool Bearfight Brigade merchandise out there. How important is such merchandise to the group?
JL: People seem to dig it, so we do it. If people told us to stop, we would put it up to a vote with our members. If they say stop, we stop. We put almost everything up for a vote to our members. We send out an email and give it a few days. Those who respond get a say, and we calculate that out. We have had ideas that get voted down and we have had things brought to us and we put that up for a vote as well.
JS: Wayne was our original merch guy. He is the man. The West Coast move has made it impossible for him to do the shirts, but has moved on to BFB specialty items like flasks and glasses at www.cafepress.com/outlawvoices. Justin has taken on a lot of the merch recently, and does an excellent job, as well. Merch, like anything else, is a direct reflection of what people ask for, design, and want. We try to tailor our merch to the demand of those who support us. We design some ourselves, other pieces are designs from members. We try to keep our merch fresh. We do all of it in limited runs, as to not over saturate with one design or one item. For the group, it isn’t just merch, it is an identity. In the same way that, when we were kids, getting our first Sex Pistols, Clash, or Ramones shirt meant something special, so does it seem that the BFB merch means to our members. They are proud of what we do on match day. They are proud of our charity involvement, they are proud that everyone gets to have a say. They know that we have each other’s back all the time, not just on match day, but any time. We constantly use the word ‘family’, and that is what we are, a family.
PSP: Bearfight Brigade is very active during the season and in the offseason with events. Can you tell me more about some of the events? They generally seem to have a charitable purpose to go along with the fun.
JS: Fun and charity, always. We know that each and every one of us is lucky. We get to go to the pub, or to PPL, or sit in our homes at watch our club. We have food, shelter, cars, phones, and health. We also know that not everyone gets to be as lucky. But we have a group of people that want to do what we can, in our own unique way, to try to help those that are not as lucky as we are.
JL: Many of us have been blessed in our personal lives, but have also experienced hardships. If anyone ever said they didn’t need help one time or another, they are liars. We have never forgotten the people who have helped us out when we were coming up and we just want to pay it forward. We believe that if we show someone help, then they will remember and help someone else at a later time.
We have done several things in the year and a half we have existed. First, the 2012 Bearfight Winter Classic. We really had no charities in mind at the time, so we raised money for the SOB Help Kick Hunger. Just a few days before the final one of our members, Barry Evans, told us about how Camden Youth Soccer, the youth club he worked for, was robbed of all of their goals and outside equipment. We tend to help our own, so we decided all money raised the night of the final went to them. And everyone came to the rescue. Stoney, owner of Stoney’s British Pub and supporter of the brigade, kicked in, all the members kicked in, and we were able to raise around $1200 (Jeremy, I may be wrong on the number) with no promotion but word of mouth and the love we have for each other. Then was the final home match of 2012, with Third Grade Day where we did class photos and a diorama contest. All the money from that day went to Ekisa.org to help buy medical and school supplies for the orphan kids in Uganda. This 2013 Bearfight Winter Classic, the money goes to two different charities. Our local charity, NF Foundation for CHOP (Sheanan Williams Charity) and our International charity, Ekisa.org. The money will be split 50/50.
And we are starting something new this season. Ten percent of every dollar we bring in with merch and donations will be put back for our Brother/Sister in need charity. Like we said, people have been there for us, and we want to be there for them. We are still in the planning stages, but it will work in a way that we can help immediately.
JS: Yeah, if one of us, any of us, is in a bad way, or needs a little help, they can reach out to us. Like Justin said, we are still in planning stages, but we will have some kind of contact form, and some kind of vote or panel to look over the request.
JL: If it seems on the up and up, they will receive whatever money we have to give to help. No strings, just a request that they do the same if they ever have the chance to do so.