Hello, and welcome to American Tifo, a weekly newsletter for, and about, North American soccer supporters. Thank you for being here. If you haven’t already, subscribe! If you’re a member of a supporters group, please consider sharing this with the rest of your SG and encouraging them to subscribe as well. Lastly, if you have any cool/interesting stories you’d like to share, reach out! I’d love to talk to you.
Look at that scarf, probably hanging on your wall or draped over some chair. It’s a symbol of the supporter group you’ve grown to love. A reminder of the friends that have become your family. In fact, think about all that cool stuff you own. The stuff that’s nicer, bolder, more creative than most generic club apparel. Thank your merch team.
The merch team is an essential but often overlooked arm of many supporters groups. Specific setups between individual groups vary. But often, the merch team is responsible for the design and distribution of supporter group shirts, scarves, hats, and other apparel. From manning the merch table at gameday tailgates to working with vendors to actually create products, they’re responsible for all of that cool stuff that you’re rocking.
For Minnesota United supporters group, Dark Clouds, continuing their merchandise efforts during the 2020 season was an important and essential endeavor, one of the ways to keep supporters connected even when gathering at matches wasn’t an option.
Its merch team is co-chaired by Andrew Bruski, who became involved with it back during Minnesota United’s NASL days for the noblest of reasons: It was possible to man the merch table while still popping over to the communal beer table.
“My brother and I got it in our head that we could sit at this table and sell stuff, and still drink beer, because it’s only 20 feet away from the beer table,” Bruski said. “We could do this, it doesn’t take us away from the game, and we got to meet a lot of people that way.”
Since then. Dark Clouds’ merchandise efforts have grown from one table to an online presence, a team of 15 volunteers, a Slack channel and an almost constant stream of work.
Constant until March of this year. In fact, it was during the group’s season kickoff meeting, held at a local brewery, that someone pulled out their phone and read that the NBA season had been suspended indefinitely. You know the rest.
The merch team shut everything down for a few weeks, but in April started to talk about what a relaunch of some items could look like.
“We started asking ourselves two questions: 1. Can we sell merch safely in a way that is respectful to our volunteers? 2. Should we sell merch? Because at the time, it just felt crass to be commercial. At the start it just didn’t feel right,” Bruski said.
But soon they landed on a solution that connected supporters with the community.
Their scarf vendor, Euro Scarves, had already converted most of their manufacturing efforts over to masks, so Dark Clouds made masks, which directly benefited their local community.
“We made masks and sold them at cost times two. So, everyone who bought a mask bought one not only for themselves, but for a local clinic,” Bruski said. “It was a good way to transition people in a way where, ‘OK, I can buy merch, we can sell merch, it’s all for charity, we’re not making a penny off of this.”
Shortly afterwards, they sold socks through a local organization called Hippy Feet, which employed homeless youth to help package their products, paying them an equitable wage.
“That was another one where we had a direct charitable line to this merch item,” Bruski said.
To make a supporter group run as a finely-tuned machine, you need people that love support in a lot of different ways. Beyond the baseline stuff, of loving sports or soccer or chanting or beer. You need people who love logistics, getting places on time, having the right permits. You need people that love merchandise fulfillment. And Erin Green loves merchandise fulfillment.
“It’s so appealing to me,” Green said. “I’m pretty Type A, I just like keeping things organized on our back end.”
One of the key volunteers on the merch committee, Green has helped coordinate shipping for several seasons out of the small office that the individual SGs of Wonderwall share downtown. But with Minnesota’s governor issuing a stay-at-home order in March, and with concerns about close quarters, using the office was impossible in the short term. So Green moved the entire shipping operation to her house.
She gathered all of the necessary shipping materials from the Postal Service, perfected her contactless pickup and drop-off process, and made one trip to the office, grabbing the label maker and loading up her car with boxes and boxes of scarves, shirts and hats.
“We would have about 8 big boxes at a time in our sunroom,” Green said. “My boyfriend may or may not have appreciated all of the extra boxes.”
All new items were sent straight to Green’s house, where she ensured that all of the Dark Clouds season membership items, including a scarf and membership card were delivered. She also handled the shipping not only for Dark Clouds, but the other SGs within Wonderwall.
For Green it was important to keep things moving.
“I think part of it keeps people’s enthusiasm and energy up when they can’t go to games. There’s something to look forward to whether or not there’s actually games happening,” Green said.
“Then I think the other part of it is that a lot of the merch that we do financially supports different non-profits. So I think our merch is a lot more than just piling up scarves on your wall. A lot of it has backstories, or benefits a lot of the groups around our community. Third, I think our committee just has a lot of fun working together. It gives us something to work on and gives people a creative outlet. It’s a fun thing that we do. So I think those three things together are why we wanted to keep going instead of just shutting things down for the year.”
By summer and the MLS Is Back tournament, the group had resumed selling some of its regular products. But it’s tougher now, according to Bruski, when you can’t see people in person, talk about what products look good, spitball ideas with fans on game day at the merch table. But seeing Dark Clouds members donning their apparel during their normal lives has been fulfilling in a different way.
“We don't have that same reinforcement, that pat on the back, every time we've done something that people really like, so that has been difficult,” Bruski said.
“But it was important to us as a way to keep people engaged. We really have a lot of fun when people tweet out pictures of themselves receiving merch. Seeing merch on their kids, on their pets, in their world. It’s just important to us as a way to keep engaged because we don’t see people on matchday wearing that stuff.”
“There was no doubt in our mind that we were going to find a way to keep this engine running,” Bruski said. “We were really hitting our stride, getting a lot of momentum going. It just wasn’t in our realm of thinking that we could possibly shut down entirely this year. We knew we’d have to temper expectations but that we had to keep going because we just had too many ideas that needed to be realized.”