How To Hold A Supporters Conference in 2021

We're all in this together

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In 2021, everyone is looking for answers. About pretty much everything.

It’s no different among supporters groups, as questions around the status of 2021 league seasons mount and the leadership of each SG is tasked with providing direction, guidance and inspiration to its members ahead of another potentially tumultuous year.

Enter, the Independent Supporters Council’s annual conference.

While the virtual conference may not have been able to provide answers to everything, it offered an opportunity for many supporters to connect, exchange ideas and go into another uncertain year with more confidence and revamped strategies for how to handle the unique challenges of 2021.

Typically held in January of each year, the ISC Conference is a three-day event hosted by a different North American supporters group. It’s an opportunity for SG leadership to meet, mingle, swap ideas and recharge ahead of the coming season. 

“It became the time annually that everybody could come together,” said Bailey Brown, president of ISC. “As we evolved, it almost became the kickoff to the year for a lot of supporters groups. In North America, people have been working through their off-seasons, they have a list of things they need to do, and a list of questions. They’re looking for best practices to improve within their own groups. So, it’s a time where we can just share with one another, learn, be inspired, and try to take that back and share that same energy with our own group. So, it’s our marquee event but I also feel like it’s the energizer that a lot of us need to push into the new season. Because it really does fall right when people are trying to wrap up offseason planning and push for opening day.”

ISC Leadership knew by May of 2020 that the 2021 Conference would not convene in person. They communicated this early on in order to save the hosts, Portland Thorns SG, Rose City Riveters, and potential attendees, money and headaches.

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“We couldn’t, in good conscience, ask anybody to use money for a conference,” Brown said. “We didn’t know how people’s budgets were going to be affected throughout the year. We didn't know how we were going to do it [the conference] once we made that decision. We just knew we had to make the call early so that people didn't start using money that they maybe didn't have.”

Despite the cancellation, it was evident to Brown that many groups craved information and guidance more than ever. 

“When 2020 played out in a real way, we saw our groups looking for answers, more than normal,” Brown said. “We could see that there was a real need to help give them tools for their toolbox to take back to their own communities.” 

By the fall, planning for a virtual conference began in earnest. Through an ISC member survey they were able to identify the key areas that people were most interested in, and began brainstorming ways to address those areas.

“We really just used our resources,” said Nicole Hack, ISC co-director of communications. “Someone would say, ‘I can ask this person for this panel’ or ‘This person would be great for that.’”

Through this process, they developed about 10 sessions. Knowing that a weekend Zoom sprint was out of the question, a two-week schedule began to take shape. 

“We said, ‘What if we do two weeks, and we do one session a night?’ Then that allows people to attend everything if they want,” Brown said. “If they can’t make it, we can video the sessions and provide it to our members via our portal. Even if they’re cooking dinner, they can join in and listen. So we were trying to think about what would be easiest for people to participate in without complete burnout. That’s how we arrived at the two weeks. Then from there it was just plugging it all in and figuring out who could help us out with what session and on what day.”

Programming included sessions that addressed community outreach, self-policing, engaging younger generations, supporting across leagues and sharing best practices. They were also able to create virtual versions of many of the in-person traditions, including a Friday night social hour featuring the Cooligans.

“Even though we’re virtual and we’re looking at each other on this screen, there was still engagement,” said Hack. “After events, we would leave Zoom open for more of a casual dialogue, and we’d talk about our experiences related to the event, or just life in general, which is what happened when we were in person as well. We were able to take the circumstances and be able to create a really unique event.”

The group also leveraged the online nature of the conference, and opened up several sessions to the general public, including “Racial Equality in the Workplace” presented by Eric Ward, a nationally-recognized expert on the relationship between authoritarian movements, hate violence, and preserving inclusive democracy, and “Playing For Change” a panel which featured members of Black Players for Change, the USL Black Players Alliance, and the Black Women's Player Collective. The panel, which hit virtual attendee capacity in about 24 hours, was hosted by Kyle Carr, a member of Forward Madison supporters collective, The Flock, and co-founder of the Featherstone Flamingos. 

“I had helped with drafting ISC’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion statement last year and ISC Leadership had approached me asking if I wanted to moderate panel,” Carr said. “I was both excited and nervous. I had never moderated a panel before so to do so for this particular topic there was some nerves. But I also knew this was an important topic so being involved with it was special for me.” 

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The entire session was later made available on Youtube and received positive plaudits both online and from ISC members for it’s powerful messages. 

“We as supporters have the power to make a difference and we need to be the best allies as possible and stand by these players,” Carr said. “Supporters need to educate themselves on the topic of race and systematic racism and learn how they can use their privilege to help combat bigotry.”

By Friday night, the last night of the two weeks, Brown said there was no discernible burnout, and the final session, which was scheduled to last 60 minutes, went on for two and a half hours. 

“I think people were as energized as we could be coming out of a virtual conference,” Brown said. 

Although they don’t have all the answers, Brown and Hack feels that supporters are now armed with more resources and game plans for taking on a year which threatens to be as unpredictable as 2020. 

“I think that the exchange of ideas was really important, and more important than previous years, because we’re all facing the same struggles,” Hack said. “Normally, we all have our own issues in our markets, but now we’re all unified in dealing with the same things.” 

“When we held the conference in January of last year, we had no idea that every league would shut down,” Brown said. So, I think now it’s, OK, we all got through 2020, let’s take what we’ve learned, let’s share, and let’s make 2021 as successful as possible in the soccer realm, and in our communities, knowing that it could be like 2020 again. That’s where people were the most encouraged, getting those tools to make sure they could make it the best possible year.”