The Cascadia Cup, trophy and trademark, belongs to the supporters of the Whitecaps, Timbers, and Sounders. It’s not merely aggravating but, frankly, bizarre that Major League Soccer wants to make an issue out of it.
It was, very nearly, the first time the Emerald City Supporters, Timbers Army, and Southsiders had publicly agreed about anything. A statement of support came from Seattle’s other major supporters group, Gorilla FC. Vancouver’s Rain City Brigade has tweeted agreement. No supporters group in Cascadia, large or small, has lined up behind MLS as of this writing.
For over a week, fans waited to see how Don Garber would reply to this unambiguous, public rejection from the Cascadia Cups trustee. Yesterday it came and shocked even the most hardened pessimist. Garber’s response to the resistance, communicated to Nick Firchau of MLSSoccer.com while the MLS SuperDraft dominated the soccer news cycle, is an almost staggering blend of arrogance, deflection, and condescension.
The deflection is Garber’s alleged fear that Cascadian supporters groups could, in theory, sell sponsorship for the Cascadia Cup. Set aside the fact that Garber’s opinion on the Cascadians’ property is a point of interest rather than a moral argument, or that the odds of getting the ECS, Timbers Army, and Southsiders to agree on a sponsorship deal are infinity to one. It’s a deflection because Garber is portraying MLS as defending against a possibility it created. The Cascadian supporters’ groups hadn’t taken action on trademarking their Cup until MLS fired the first shot. The possibility of monetizing the Cup had not even been dreamed of and would have met fierce opposition from ordinary supporters if it had. Anything MLS has to fear was entirely created by the direct intervention of their front office. Don Garber isn’t defending the status quo, he’s feigning shock at ideas only he made possible while leaving open the possibility that MLS will do the same thing.
Condescension is obvious as Garber seems to think this is all a communications breakdown, that by “just talking about what our plans are [Cascadian supporters groups will] be pleased that we’ve got their interest and the interest of the league in mind.” The interests of Cascadian supporters groups are not always synonymous with those of Major League Soccer. The ECS, Southsiders, and Timbers Army all existed before MLS and are eternally independent. All three groups cheer on teams attached to the US Soccer Development Academy and the United Soccer Leagues as well as their respective national teams.
Of all these groups, none has insulted and attacked its supporters more than MLS. In the past twelve months, Garber has condemned supporters for using the “you suck asshole” chant on goal kicks, saying “if they don’t stop it, we’re going to have to find a way to eradicate it from our game.”. This came after founding MLS member New England Revolution had their own fans arrested for the chant in June 2011, an act for which neither MLS nor the Revolution ever apologized in spite of a league-supporter-wide “Support the Fort” campaign. Garber’s front office punished Houston Dynamo fans for a few flares and smokebombs at the MLS Cup by banning drums, flags, and banners at their away matches although the offenses involved none of those things then turned around and used the flares and smoke they were so offended by in promotional material. Most strikingly, in early 2012 the supporters of the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake were caught off guard when the rights to their Rocky Mountain Cup were stolen and sponsorship sold off without notice, never mind permission. On that occasion, too, we heard platitudes about “communications breakdown” while the bosses gloated over the cash, and the Rocky Mountain Cup trademark is held by MLS.
When the rubber meets the road, Garber and MLS have repeatedly proven that they do not view their interests as being compatible with supporters groups. His attempt to say he has both supporters’ and MLS’s interests in mind is laughable because easily-documented history vividly proves otherwise. Supporters can determine what their own interests are without the help of an organization that has repeatedly pitted itself against them.
The final charge is arrogance, the arrogance of a league which seems to truly believe it is soccer in Canada and the United States. The Emerald City Supporters were formed in 2005, when the idea of bringing a team from the USL First Division to MLS was radical and their games were at Starfire Stadium against the likes of the Charleston Battery. The Vancouver Southsiders began in 1999, when not only was MLS unthinkable but it wasn’t clear the Whitecaps would even exist in five years. The Timbers Army dates from 2001 and quickly became the most important supporters group in the United States, playing A-League games at a AAA baseball field.
The Timbers Army, Southsiders, and then-Seattle supporters group The Pod created the Cascadia Cup in 2004. They paid for it with their own money, promoted it with their own sweat, and cheered it on with one voice. Sit at the pub with old hands from Vancouver and you’ll hear stories about frantically driving to the border with the Cup bouncing around in the trunk, wondering if they’d get through immigration in time. The United Soccer Leagues, somehow, saw seven Cascadia Cups awarded on their watch without once thinking they had to trademark the name or steal the identity from the supporters who made it. When the Timbers and Whitecaps followed the Sounders to MLS, the supporters went as well and brought the Cascadia Cup with them… but they were never part of MLS and never meant to be. Today, the competition is Major League Soccer, but yesterday it had been the USL First Division, and the day before that the A-League, and who knows what it might be tomorrow? Only a titanically arrogant soul would think that a Cup which thrived for so many years in three different, often chaotic leagues would need some corporate protection, and that it must belong to the league rather than its creators, protectors, and promoters. Luckily, it would seem MLS has arrogant souls in abundance.
The Cascadia Cup preceded MLS. It continued into MLS. If necessary it will survive MLS. The only connection Don Garber or Major League Soccer have to the Cascadia Cup is that the MLS regular season happens to be the competition whose results decide it. This could change tomorrow, if the supporters groups willed, without loss of legitimacy or history. MLS claiming ownership over the Cup on those grounds is as ridiculous as Roger Goodell trying to run your fantasy football league.
I am not a lawyer and cannot speak to the legal issues involved. But what moral claim can MLS have on the trademark for a cup they did not create, did not pay for, have never owned, has never been entrusted to their care, and that they were not tangentially involved in for five of its seven years, and which currently uses them merely as a vehicle to determine a winner? It’s a repulsive grab at property that is not theirs.
Prior to Garber’s Thursday remarks, some fans hoped for good faith on MLS’s part. Maybe the league did fear for the Cascadia Cup, the theory went; an unscrupulous party might try to snatch up the rights and MLS merely acted in defense of their fans. The league’s failure to liaise with the supporters was merely a mistake, but even if they erred they truly did have our best interests at heart. Nobody wants the Cascadia Cup in the hands of some big marketing company.
If MLS really was just concerned with protecting the Cascadia Cup from exploitation, there has been an easy solution for over a week. On the heels of MLS’s trademark bid the Southsiders, Timbers Army, and Emerald City Supporters formed a Cascadia Cup Council to hold the Cascadia Cup rights. It is representative of the three largest supporters’ groups and far more representative of the supporters in general than the league could ever be. All the MLS would need to do is say “looks like you have the matter well in hand; we are canceling our application.” It would have taken five minutes.
Instead, after days of temporizing, Garber has all-but-accused the supporters who created, nurtured, and still cherish the Cascadia Cup of being money-grubbing pirates. “Prospective fan groups, in theory, could offer that trademark to a competitive sponsor. They can take that trademark and sell it to a promoter. They can produce merchandise that’s not merchandise that we would want associated with our teams or with our league.” Indeed! One risks sounding like a Victorian governess, but the sheer nerve of the man, to heap such bald, hypocritical accusations on the fans who make him and his cronies millions! Those are not the words of a protector; they are those of a profiteer trying to accuse his opponents of what he could do himself. The Cascadia supporters groups have maintained the Cascadia Cup for seven years without a hint of sponsorship, and MLS has already sold out the Rocky Mountain Cup at the first whiff of cash.
In response to MLS provocation supporters have tried half-heartedly to pull together. The Independent Supporters Council is a body of Canadian and American supporters groups at all levels which have banded together to fight each others’ battles, but the ISC remains a nice idea rather than a meaningful entity. They have no media presence and are little-known even in supporter circles. Their blog has no posts since July 2012 and no statements on any trademark battles, and the Emerald City Supporters aren’t even members. Around the continent, MLS has infuriated supporters groups, fans have leaped up in arms, then promptly sat back down again. It has always been thus. Apathy is the greatest enemy of the supporter, in the stands and elsewhere; too many of us only sing when we’re winning.
One way or another, an attack on one supporters group must be an attack on all. For example, MLS is also attempting to trademark the Heritage Cup, and if opposition from San Jose Earthquake fans emerges then the Cascadian supporters must stand with them. The Heritage Cup is the product of the Soccer Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Sounders, Whitecaps, and Timbers supporters have never supported it, yet if MLS wants to take it from Earthquakes supporters who care, then that is still a problem for all of us. Just because the Cascadia Cup is enormous and the Heritage Cup insignificant, even disliked, doesn’t mean that only one matters, for if the Heritage Cup is deeply important to some supporters, somewhere that should be enough.
It’s demented that we’re having to talk in these terms, of forming a united front and showing solidarity against the league our teams play in. What a preposterous position, yet tens of thousands of supporters are being robbed in a fashion that has no parallel. It’s one thing to be charged $12 for bad beer and mumble about exploitation; it’s another to be arrested for chanting, or condemned in the press, or have your beloved creations stolen from you by distant billionaires who moan to the media about how you don’t understand your own interests. Major League Soccer is creating a perverse world, but they have been deliberately building it for years.
In hindsight, we supporters should have trademarked Cascadia Cup as soon as Portland and Vancouver joined MLS if not earlier. But can you blame us? The United Soccer Leagues could be just as big, remote, and corporate as MLS, in their way. I wasn’t a Whitecaps fan in the really old days when it was the team, not the league, trying to crush the Southsiders under their heel, but I’ve heard the stories. There are dozens of people in all three supporters groups used to front offices trying to get them to sit down and shut up, but that’s a far cry from what we’re seeing today. This isn’t ideological disagreement, this is naked theft. How do you prepare for the idea that a league your team is in will try to rob you?
As fans we’re all used to being walking piggy banks. Many readers will be NHL fans and may be thinking of the lockouts right now. But even that’s just business: contemptible and crass, but recognizable. If we’re finally fed up we can stop buying tickets and get on with our lives, loving our sport from the grass roots rather than the major leagues. We still had what was ours, our culture and our history.
Gary Bettman, on his worst day, never crossed lines Garber is crossing now, trying to grab creations older than his teams and saying “now you belong to us.” The closest equivalent is the NHL’s monopoly over a Stanley Cup that once belonged to the people of Canada; a crime that is generations old and frustrates true hockey fans at every work stoppage, but that required decades of complicity from hundreds who should have known better. Don Garber wants to snatch a key piece of Cascadian soccer culture after two years from those still fighting to save it.
We were naïve, of course, believing the weight of history and tens of thousands of fans would protect us from a league that, sometimes, seems to wish its best supporters would go away. We didn’t pay enough attention to warning signs like the Rocky Mountain Cup, we saw what looked like teams acting unilaterally against their supporters and drew the wrong conclusions while MLS either ignored or encouraged it. Had everyone been thinking rationally, we would have prepared together long ago against such outrages rather than allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered, but we subliminally gave in to the old fallacy that “it couldn’t happen here.” We’re Cascadia! We are, with all due respect, the greatest concentration of domestic soccer fandom in English-speaking North America and have been for decades! Maybe the small supporters groups in Salt Lake City and Foxborough would have problems but us? Impossible, surely!
Had MLS come to the supporters like business partners rather than mafioso maybe a deal could have been reached. The Cascadia Cup crowd isn’t entirely an “against modern football” movement and many of us welcome MLS’s profits; it’s larceny, not money-making, which causes this level of fury. Supporters will deal with leagues and soccer associations, as we’ve seen countless times. But nobody reacts well to accusations, lies, and billionaires trying to snatch their property like thieves in the night.
Witness the Voyageurs Cup: initially formed as a fan-supported-and-purchased trophy for the best Canadian team in the A-League/USL First Division, in 2007 the Canadian Soccer Association approached the Voyageurs to make the trophy the official Canadian championship. Reaction among supporters was almost unanimously positive, and when the CSA sold the naming rights to the tournament few people minded. A fair deal had been struck between the supporters and the CSA, with Canadian soccer officials avoiding a high hand and making a deal with their fans rather than trying to turn robber baron. Today, the closest thing to a problem is good-natured low-intensity argument over whether the competition should be called the Voyageurs Cup or the Amway Canadian Championship in the press.
If MLS had asked for the Adidas Columbia Championship for the Cascadia Cup, dealt with supporters like businessmen rather than criminals, and tried to make a fair deal, who knows where we’d be? Some supporters doubtless would oppose even the whiff of commercial sponsorship, but it would have been a business conversation between partners and allies rather than a war that poisons every aspect of the supporter/league relationship, perhaps irreparably.
Now there are enough hotheads on both sides that, from here, a compromise looks unlikely. Maybe time will pass, tempers will cool, and supporters will forget what Garber accused them of, or maybe the start of the MLS season and the first Cascadian derby will blow it all up, MLS will insist on total control of someone else’s possessions, and the whole thing will end up in court. Fans are already talking about what the “rebel” Cascadia Cup could be named in the worst case, and more than one fan has pointed out that Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle all have USL PDL teams that might like a derby atmosphere. The nuclear option is not off the table.
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Where does the dispute go from here?
Mentally healthy people can’t sustain outrage for the weeks and months it takes to fight out a trademark dispute, if it comes to that. Don Garber’s idiotic and aggressive comments to Nick Firchau fanned the flames (and caused me to dust off this blog post, which I had been half-heartedly poking at but mostly abandoned for the past week). Now all the talk is back to legal fundraising, what an odious bastard Garber is, and “don’t give up the ship!” But historically-minded readers will recall that, in the end, they did give up the ship.
Then again, to what extent will MLS put up with bad publicity? Banners at Cascadia Cup matches denouncing MLS before an international audience, chants heaping abuse on Garber and company, and a bevy of writers in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere spreading the vitriol? It’s easy to throw out one fan with an anti-MLS sign; it’s a lot harder to throw out five thousand shouting imprecations at the man trying to rob them. The TV cameras would be told to point at anything other than the “Garber is a crook” banner, but up in the press box reporters ask “oh, what’s this then?” and the whole story goes national anyway…
They can’t want to wind up in court, but neither side looks inclined to compromise. MLS has shown willingness to batter supporters groups in the past, particularly when money is on the wind, and the Cascadia supporters groups know they’re in the right. If the Cascadia Cup Council did, for example, gave up their fight in exchange for money or favours, the reaction against them from supporters would be venomous and they must know that.
Somebody’s going to have to blink, aren’t they? Surely MLS will see sense and walk away rather than take their attempted theft to a legal battle… but then again, Don Garber just went on the record accusing his league’s supporters of potentially selling out. If they’ll stoop to hypocrisy that low, where won’t they go to try and save face? There’s just no way of knowing, but the whole thing disturbs the hell out of me. How on earth did it come to this? What twisted logic is at work in New York City for MLS to take things to this point?
MLS has always had a conflicted relationship with its best customers. The league was formed to survive and to be a first-division American soccer league after the 1994 World Cup, ignoring the existence of the American Professional Soccer League in the process. Its pioneers quite peaceably lost vast sums of money in pursuit of that dream, and only in very recent years have they started to see returns from a minority of markets. They marketed to the soccer moms and the family crowd, and it was only around 2007 that hardcore supporters took MLS seriously. And, funny thing, but the more singing-chanting-flag-waving hardcore supporters there were in a market, the more attendance increased and the greater the television interest. Those die-hards were making MLS money at last… but that wasn’t really what the league had been formed for, was it?
If MLS had just said “no standing, no loud noises, and clap when the Jumbotron tells you”, pulling season tickets from offenders and making it known that supporters groups were not welcome from day one, there would never have been a problem. MLS could have gone on losing money in happy silence while supporters flocked to other teams or the European soccer pubs as before. Instead they got addicted to the cash while fearing the culture. It would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?
 — “MLS Attempts to Trademark Term ‘Cascadia Cup’.” Prost Amerika, January 6, 2013. Accessed January 18, 2013. http://www.prostamerika.com/2013/01/06/mls-attempts-to-trademark-term-cascadia-cup/76085.
 — Vancouver Southsiders, Timbers Army, and Emerald City Supporters. “Cascadia Supporters Groups Jointly Oppose Major League Soccer’s Attempt to Trademark Cascadia Cup.” We’re Blue We’re White, January 10, 2013. Accessed January 14, 2013. http://vancouversouthsiders.ca/cascadia-supporters-groups-jointly-oppose-major-league-soccers-attempt-to-trademark-cascadia-cup/.
 — Rain City Brigade. “@Lord_Bob @CurvaCollective I think our opinions are pretty common. It should be supporter owned obviously, not league owned or managed.” Via Twitter, January 17, 2013. Accessed January 18, 2013. https://twitter.com/raincitybrigade/status/292130242745745410.
 — Firchau, Nick. “Garber: MLS has work to do on Cascadia trademark tussle.” MLSSoccer.com, January 17, 2013. Accessed January 17, 2013. http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2013/01/17/garber-mls-has-work-do-cascadia-trademark-tussle.
 — Straus, Brian. “Sporting News Conversation: Don Garber, Part II.” The Sporting News, July 21, 2012. Accessed January 17, 2013. http://aol.sportingnews.com/soccer/story/2012-07-21/sporting-news-conversation-don-garber-part-ii.
 — Stoehr, Steve. “Fracas In The Fort: Revolution Supporters Banned and Arrested For Profane Chants.” The Bent Musket, June 20, 2011. Accessed January 17, 2013. http://www.thebentmusket.com/2011/6/20/2234298/fracas-in-the-fort-revolution-supporters-banned-and-arrested-for.
 — Shay, Miya. “MLS places sanctions on some Dynamo fans.” KTRK-TV, February 29, 2012. Accessed January 17, 2013. http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/sports&id=8561834.
 — Peck, Brooks. “MLS promoting playoffs with league-punished fan offense.” Yahoo! Sports Dirty Tackle, November 1, 2012. Accessed January 17, 2013. http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/blogs/soccer-dirty-tackle/mls-promoting-playoffs-league-punished-fan-offense-182951684–sow.html.
 — Gorski, Eric. “How the Rocky Mountain Cup got a sponsor – and why fans didn’t like it.” Denver Post, April 20, 2012. Accessed January 17, 2013. http://blogs.denverpost.com/rapids/2012/04/20/rocky-mountain-cup-subaru-rocky-mountain-cup/22841/.
 — “Rocky Mountain Cup.” Trademark Electronic Search System. Accessed January 18, 2013. http://tess2.uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4005:4zux07.2.1.
 — Firchau, quoting Garber.
 — “Heritage Cup.” Trademark Electronic Search System. Accessed January 17, 2013. http://tess2.uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4003:82zwei.2.1.