Photo: Earl Gardner
The 2014 season is a milestone year for the Philadelphia Union, its fifth anniversary of play in MLS. And while the season is still weeks away, the Sons of Ben are already working hard to make 2014 a milestone year of their own. PSP talked to Sons of Ben president Kenny Hanson about the supporters group’s plans for the year, a year that in its first month already included a number of very successful events and will be capped by the group’s first elections.
SuperDraft Week successes
The Sons of Ben began the year with a series of successful events during SuperDraft week that showcased both its organizational and fundraising acumen.
“The whole draft week was really cool,” Hanson told PSP. “It started out before the draft when I think we had around 250 to 300 people who showed up before the draft then we all marched into the convention hall.”
The Sons of Ben’s efforts weren’t limited to injecting something of the gameday experience into the SuperDraft. Also on the calendar were a private screening of the soon to be released Sons of Ben documentary and the annual Help Kick Hunger charity event to close SuperDraft weekend.
By all accounts, the Sons of Ben movie is both powerful and informative. “I learned some things about the organization that maybe I didn’t know before,” said Hanson, who is in his first year as the supporters group’s president.
Help Kick Hunger raised over $10,000 and collected more than 400 pounds of foodstuffs for Chester’s St. Bernadine Center.
“We kicked off the year right and we hope to keep that momentum going through the season starting with Stache Bash,” Hanson said. “We’re really excited to get started.”
Monies raised from this year’s Stache Bash will be split between the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which works to fund research to cure childhood cancer , and the Jessie Miele Fund. Miele, a Sons of Ben member who stood in the River End with the Corner Creeps, tragically passed away after giving birth to her first child in December.
Hanson knew the Miele family from his time as president of the IllegimateS, the supporters group that was located in section 133 at PPL Park, next to the Corner Creeps in section 134. The decision to direct Stache Bash funds to the Jessie Miele Fund was an easy one.
“It’s nice to do a variety of different events and charity causes in and around the Chester area, but if we have a member in need, that’s where our first priority has to be.”
Supporters Group Summit
“It was a really cool experience,” Hanson told PSP. “Essentially it was a group of the majority of supporters groups from throughout MLS that essentially sit at a table and discuss the challenges that they have had, and how to overcome those challenges, as well as their successes and things that worked for them. It’s a great idea exchange: you talk about charity events, you talk about other events that can benefit the community. You talk about how you can leverage your merchandise to raise more funds for the membership and for other charity efforts that we focus on.
“As far as the supporters culture goes,” Hanson continued, “the Sons of Ben are still really in their infancy so it’s really good to look at other models and see where their successes and failures have played a part in building their group and so help us hopefully avoid some things in the long-term and also for us to pick up some things that are going to help our membership.”
“We learned a lot and I’d like to think people learned from us.”
Additionally, the summit also addressed issues related to the relationship between the league’s supporters groups and the league itself.
“And then there are larger issues,” Hanson explained. “You see people talking about what is revealed from MLS — information we have and information we don’t have. This is a place where we can get together as a group, as supporters groups of MLS, and can speak as one voice. It gives us all a voice, not just one supporters group,” Hanson said.
Hanson said that findings from the Supporters Group Summit will be presented to the league “very soon.”
The gameday experience
While the Sons of Ben’s charitable efforts are a big part of the group’s work, supporting the Union by enhancing the gameday experience is the reason the group exists. And that gameday experience involves many things.
“It literally is from the time you get to the stadium until you leave,” Hanson explained. “So, what does that encompass? Well, that encompasses the tailgate, that encompasses when you get into the stadium and the different tifo and the excitement, and the capos that are up in front that represent the organization. It means all of that.”
When it comes to supporters groups, the attention of the national soccer media is more often than not squarely focused on the kind of spectacular tifo displays that have come to be associated with Seattle and Portland, something of which the Sons of Ben leadership is very aware. “It’s definitely something we’re working on,” said Hanson. “We want the gameday experience to be better and we think that sometimes on tifo, our message is lost throughout the rest of the stadium.”
Producing such displays at PPL Park is not a question of will or talent — there is an abundance of both within the Sons of Ben — but one of logistics. Simply put, the kinds of displays that can be produced in covered, multi-level stadiums cannot currently be done in the open-air River End.
Hanson told PSP that enhancing the Sons of Ben’s ability to produce more spectacular tifo displays is “a priority” and that talks are ongoing with the Union front office to build the infrastructure in the River End to make this happen.
“Because of the way the River End is set up there are certain engineering questions that come into play so it’s not as easy as putting up some poles in the back,” Hanson explained. “But there is something in the works — [the Union front office has] already checked on it and I’ve gotten some information back on what it would cost. So, those conversations are literally going on as we speak.
“On the other side, it’s not cheap, either. So we have to evaluate those things as well.”
Connected with having the in-stadium infrastructure required to display tifo on a larger scale is having a space to actually create the tifo, which is currently done using borrowed space at Arcadia University. Towards that end, Hanson said that the Sons of Ben are actively looking for a warehouse space close to PPL Park “where we can do bigger and better tifo.”
“We’re absolutely looking for space,” said Hanson, “We’re working on that, we literally had a conversation this week.”
Hanson emphasized that installing the necessary infrastructure in the River End and securing a warehouse space near PPL Park will take time.
“Unfortunately, things like this just don’t happen very quickly,” Hanson said. “Is it possible that we’ll have something for the beginning of the year? Maybe, but I can’t say that for sure. But everyone — the Sons of Ben, the Philadelphia Union — everyone wants for our message to get through to everybody in rest of the stadium better. It’s just positive for everybody.”
When the SoBs go marching in
One Sons of Ben tradition that can be counted on returning for the start of the season is the march into PPL Park, a tradition that Hanson said fell to the wayside in 2013.
“I think one thing that we didn’t do a lot of last year which I think is the No. 1 thing that people have said to me that they’d like to see back to enhance the gameday experience is the march-in. That is going to be something that we bring back this year, and it’s gonna be consistent So, if it’s me and five other people, then that’s what it is. But our hope and our expectation is that there’s enough people that are excited about the march-in. Hopefully that excitement extends onto the field and to the rest of the fans.”
Hanson explained that the starting point for the march-in, which typically begins at the Sons of Ben tailgate, may change throughout the season in an effort to engage more fans.
“I’m not exactly sure yet what we’re going to do in terms of our starting point, but we may set it up so that the march-in starts in different places each game. Because then, maybe people in Lot A see it and get involved. [The march-in] doesn’t just mean for the River End. If we can get that excitement and extend that energy out into the rest of the fanbase, then PPL is going to be that much more louder.”
The Sons of Ben is run by a board of directors which, to this point, has been made up of original founders and founding members of the supporters group, and new volunteers. At the end of the year, the Sons of Ben will hold their first election in which the wider membership of the supporters group can vote on candidates for open board seats, which are expected to be announced in September.
“Things are evolving and we’re trying to move into a different model,” said Hanson.
Candidates for open board seats will have the opportunity to meet with the membership in an open meeting, most likely in October. At the meeting, which Hanson hopes will also be live streamed, candidates will answer questions from a moderator and also the membership in attendance. The meeting will be recorded and posted online for viewing by members who can’t attend the meeting.
“Members who wish to be considered for open board positions will need to submit a bio that will posted on the Sons of Ben website for people to read,” Hanson explained. “We’ll want people to focus on service, and the groups and organizations they’ve helped out with, and maybe what they’ve done with the Sons of Ben. Because there are a lot of people who help out nonstop all the time that aren’t on the board.”
The election itself will take place in November with current members receiving a unique link with which to cast their vote. Hanson told PSP, “We’re working on the logistics of that to make sure it’s a secure system and each person gets one vote.”
“What I want to make clear is that you are running for a board seat, you’re not running for a position,” said Hanson. In this, the Sons of Ben are following the model established by Portland’s Timbers Army.
“When you get elected, you’re elected to the board, not elected to a position,” Hanson explained. From there, the members of the board vote to make appointments to positions that need to be filled. Once a new board member has been elected, “that’s when we’ll evaluate where they can benefit the Sons of Ben membership base the most, and that’s where we will put them.”
The success of any election is tied to voter participation, which for the Sons of Ben means a voter pool of more than 2,000 paid members. Hanson is hopeful that the membership will vote in large numbers.
Hanson acknowledged that “It might take some time to get there” when it comes to having a majority of the membership voting. “A lot of people are content and just want to know that things are getting done. People might concern themselves a little bit more when things aren’t getting done, which is human nature, I guess. We’re going to push it and so we hope that we do have a large amount of participation.”
And for those who aren’t content, Hanson said he is always happy to address the concerns of the supporters group’s members. Hanson made clear that he doesn’t view criticism as “negative.”
“I don’t really look at it that way,” Hanson explained. “I guess I look at it like I’m just really happy that they care enough to be that pissed off. Myself and, really, most any of the people on the board, will address any concerns. First and foremost, what we owe to our membership is transparency and to answer their questions. We’re happy to do that, it’s just not going to happen in 140 characters or less.”