On June 18th, 2011, the New England Revolution put a glaring black mark on what was already shaping up to be an abysmal season when they ordered Gillette Stadium's TeamOps security to ransack The Fort and remove supporters using offensive chants. The fallout was massive; New England received a deluge of bad press, while supporters' groups around the league hung banners and sent messages in support of the Revs' fans. Pundits and those close to but not affiliated with the team feared strong backlash and a major hit to already-dwindling attendance numbers.
Brendan Schimmel, one of the leaders of The Rebellion, was in the Fort when the ruckus played out. "Some people were just really disenfranchised about it [afterwards]," he recalled. "I think people's interest definitely did decline, but I think [going forward] the overall attitude was that everything done by the front office was met with even more negativity than normal, which is counter-productive."
Predictably, the Revolution online community and twitterverse erupted into righteous anger, with numerous fans and even season-ticket holders announcing their intent to boycott matches, in some cases indefinitely. Some thought that attendance in Foxborough - already on the wrong side of 10,000 for many matches - would dwindle to FC Dallas levels, or worse. In the end, it wasn't quite as drastic as some expected.
The Revolution actually finished the season with an average attendance of over 13,000, which was up nearly 1,000 from 2010. However, reported attendance figures are based on tickets sold, not tickets used at the gate. Several games last season reported high attendance figures when it was obviously that there were at least a few thousand less fans at the match in-person. As Schimmel did point out, the Revs were not a good team in 2011, and that tends to affect attendance as well.
"I saw a steep decline in attendance in our parking lot and in the Fort for a few games," said Schimmel. "Whether you can chalk it up solely to Fortgate or to the decline in quality of play, I don't know. But there was a noticeable drop-off for a multitude of reasons, and it continued to gradually decline after that."
In the end, Fortgate became a punchline. It was a Revolution reference point for those who take interest in MLS as a whole, one which fans and pundits alike used to label the New England franchise as "unambitious" and "out of touch." Whether or not the Revs are actually either of those things is a matter of debate, but it is certain that neither the supporters' groups nor the front office were willing to sit on their hands and avoid working toward a solution.
An initial meeting was held just about a week and a half later. "We had a follow-up meeting that was more of a group therapy session, where Brian [Bilello] spoke with a bunch of season-ticket holders and Fort members at Gillette," Brendan said. Kelly Way of TeamOps and a representative of the Foxborough Police Department were also in attendance. Guest writer Andrew Donahue already wrote up a breakdown of this meeting when it happened, but Brendan also came away with a few encouraging signs.
"There was an unrealistic expectation that we'd be able to disseminate information to everyone that sits in the Fort," he remembered. "And when we don't control who comes into the Fort, we can't reach everyone and that's a huge problem. We all agreed to set up meetings before every game with TeamOps, team representation, and ourselves."
There was also another welcome byproduct of that first meeting: "At any rate, what it did was create some familiarity between TeamOps and ourselves."
The Revolution fans' relationship with TeamOps has long been murky and fraught with misunderstanding. As explained in the initial Fortgate story, TeamOps is a security organization that reports directly to Robert Kraft; historically, it's been very difficult to open a dialogue with them, and establishing continuity was nearly impossible with the way they constantly shuffled around security staff. It was clear that things needed to change in a big way.
"I made it very clear in the meetings that the first step in any problem situation should be de-escalation," Brendan said. "And the meetings worked."
Most importantly, the supporters' groups and the front office wanted to re-open the lines of communication and make sure they stayed open. "We can't control who comes into the Fort on game day," said Schimmel. "We sit in a pre-designated section that we call home, but anybody can come in. They're not checking tickets at the top of the section religiously. Anybody can come in there. And hopefully we get to a point where we can fill an entire section and say ‘no, you can't get in here unless you're an official member of Supporters' Group A, B, C, or D,' but we're not at that level yet.
"Even if they were all Rebels, though, at the end of the day one person can't totally control an entire section. They're free-thinking Americans and they can do what they please. So communication was a big issue for us at those meetings."
Communication became a common theme for the Rebellion, the Midnight Riders, and the Revolution front office for the rest of the season. Members of the Fort supporters' groups found it far easier to work with TeamOps and with Revs officials when a consistent and strong line of dialogue remained open, allowing them to deal with issues at the lowest levels rather than bringing them to the executive level.
This new regime was not without its hitches, however. High School and College Night was singled out by members of the supporters' groups as an event where more unaffiliated fans would be present in the Fort than usual, creating the possibility of conflict. The supporters' group leaders, including Brendan, lobbied with the front office for increased messaging in the Fort to let these new fans know what is permitted and what isn't in the Fort. When that game came around, the messaging wasn't there.
"We met before that game," recalled Schimmel. "And at the end of the day, there were [no fliers, no messaging] in the Fort. There were only a few issues anyway, and Fran [Harrington] and I were able to handle them at the lowest level with TeamOps, but there was nobody checking tickets for these high school and college kids coming down into the Fort, and there was no messaging in the section."
Supporters' Group leadership and the front office came to the conclusion that it wasn't feasible to get out the fliers and tighten up initial security for every match, and instead agreed to pick their spots when the need arose.
"[The meetings] improved communication, they improved conflict resolution, and hopefully changed some perceptions, of them and of us." Schimmel said. "We were able to resolve an issue with a flare at the lowest possible level because we had phone numbers, we had put faces to names, and we could go right to TeamOps and get it taken care of. There was also a flag issue at the Manchester United match, and we were able to communicate with TeamOps to fix that, too."
With the Revolution going into the 2012 season full of question marks on the pitch, it will be more important than ever that the supporters' culture remains vibrant and strong. That can't happen if the front office and the independent fan organizations are at odds, and people like Brendan are working tirelessly to make sure something like Fortgate doesn't happen again.
"It took three entities caring enough to have these meetings and make this work, and it will take all three to keep it going," said Schimmel. "We can only regress if we stop caring, and I don't see that happening."