Union take fan interaction to a new level

Union take fan interaction to a new level
August 18, 2011, 8:12 pm
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CHESTER, Pa. The commissioner of Major League Soccer strolled into the interview room at PPL Park, walked up to the podium and explained to reporters why he was here, in Chester, on a Wednesday night, when there was no game in town.

Our fans, in many ways, believe their teams belong to them, Don Garber said. Our job as a league is to ensure were communicating with them regularly and effectively.

The Philadelphia Union, it seems, are taking this idea to a whole new level.

Just days after Union manager Peter Nowak signed up for a Twitter account the first MLS manager and the first professional head coach in Philadelphia ever to do so the Union held their first-ever Supporters Summit, inviting the club's most passionate fans to ask any question they wanted about the team and the league.

Commissioner Garber made the trip from New York to field those questions, alongside Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz, manager Peter Nowak and players Sbastien Le Toux and Faryd Mondragn, in front of about 200 members of the Sons of Ben, the Unions first and largest supporters group.

Our club, from the very beginning, built its brand on involving media, involving fans and opening our doors, Sakiewicz said, shortly before Wednesdays Supporters Summit began. Part of Peter joining the world of Twitter is along that theme of being inclusive and bringing fans and media closer to us. Its a little bit of a different sports team mentality than what currently exists. And were really proud of it.

It certainly is a different mentality, as evidenced by all the coaches around the country (primarily at the college level) that care more about banning Twitter use among their players then starting their own account. But the Union have always used the social media device to break news, provide team insight and interact with fans, something Nowak hopes he can now accomplish himself as well.

The Union manager has definitely hit the ground running, with over 100 tweets to his name and around 3,000 followers reading them. (He even had a conversation in Polish with his abrasive alter ego Fake Peter Nowak, who subsequently resigned from Twitter but not before calling himself the luckiest fake man on the face of the Earth.)

Its been an interesting couple of days, Ill tell you that, Nowak said. Its something new for me. We always felt when the time is right that we need to go toward our fans, to give them more inside info. Some things of course will stay close to the team, close to the vest. But I think the fans and the people that follow me embrace that pretty well. There werent too many tough questions anyway.

Nowak said he decided not to follow anyone mainly so his players didnt think he was monitoring them and also noted that he expects some criticism and harsh words directed at him. But as long as the coach remains thick-skinned and careful, his newfound appreciation for the online world should do less harm than good.

Were smart guys, said Sakiewicz, noting he no plans to start an account of his own. We know what to say and when to say it and how to say it, so were going to try to measure our words as we always do. Its part of bringing the technical staff closer to the fans.

On Wednesday night, fans didnt need a smart phone or a computer to ask questions just a microphone. And they certainly made their voices heard, peppering mainly Sakiewicz and Garber on a wide range of issues from stadium expansion to officiating problems to the definition of success for the Union in their second year of existence.

Some questions were probably answered to their liking while others were not. But all of the fans seemed grateful to get the opportunity to interact with club officials and team members on a personal level. Of course, that kind of synergy between the club and the Sons of Ben has always been ingrained in the fabric of the franchise; the Union, as Sakiewicz noted throughout the evening, often come to their supporters before making big decisions.

Its particularly unique here, in many ways, because the core fan base existed before the club did, Garber said.

And speaking of Twitter

The most criticism I get on social media is from the Sons of Ben because they care the most about their club, the commissioner continued. And Im a guy in a suit living in New York making a decision they may or may not agree with.

Perhaps Nowak can expect that same kind of online vitriol the future. But for now, the Union manager is simply excited to give back to the fans, in new and different ways.

The more we do toward the fans, the culture were trying to create lets continue do to that, Nowak said. Lets expand it. Lets make it better.
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com and writes a weekly Union column for CSNPhilly.com. You can e-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.