This is the first of, hopefully, many stories from across the country about supporters groups from every league. They are ordinary people who share one thing in common: their love for the beautiful game. On the screen, they are the ones making noise, holding up scarves and sending smoke to the heavens. This is a way to give them their voice! We want to let their lives and moments be a part of the 100+ years of American soccer history.
In this first installment, a new club finished its inaugural season in the National Premiere Soccer League (NPSL) in a city and place many would never associate the beautiful game with: Little Rock, Arkansas. Yes, Little Rock. You may not believe it, but soccer is growing in the south from North Carolina and Georgia to Mississippi and Louisiana. The Little Rock Rangers ended its season on July 14 with a 4-2-4 record and the satisfaction that its dream of being an actual club became reality.
Alongside the club, three guys came together to create an independent supporters group (SG) to encourage and support the Rangers. It took a couple of months in early 2017, but by spring they had found a name, a motto and people willing to be a part of the group. It is time for their story and their voice to be heard as their new journey of making sports history in the deep South is heard from the supporters section.
I spoke with one of the founding members, Ryan Stallings, about their first season, how they grew the Red Watch and how soccer is growing in the home of Bill Clinton and WalMart.
(Ed): Hello there! Thanks for taking part in this interview. Tell me, when did you guys form your group?
(Ryan Stallings/The Red Watch): We started with three founders writing out a plan for a SG about 14 months ago. We developed our identity and materials over the last year and officially launched April 2017, ahead of the NPSL regular season opener.
We officially formed in February (2017) when the three of us sat down and determined we were going to start writing everything down as an idea for down the road and agreed we would launch for the home opener. We selected a name and a motto, and our graphics guy turned out a lot of beautiful work for us to begin to build an identity. After that, we determined what membership costs, structure, and expectations should be, secured member-exclusive Red Watch ‘swag’ we’d need, and secured our social media handles and web domain.
(E) How did you introduce yourselves to the public?
(Ryan) We announced ourselves in April, held a launch party, and attended the first home match verses Springfield with our first 10 members.
(E) Tell us more about yourself and your compadres and what brought you to the beautiful game.
(Ryan) Myself and Kyle Pounders had been friends for a while, having bonded over a mutual love for the USMNT and for the Portland Timbers. Kyle brought another friend, Hunter Oden, on in 2016 for his graphic design expertise. I had some knowledge of supporter culture, having followed Ralph’s Mob of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Section 904 of the Jacksonville Armada, Flight 19 of the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and the Ruckus and Iron Firm of Orlando City for a couple of years.
Kyle had attended several matches in Portland observing what the Timbers Army do. We both pulled a lot of elements we liked from each of those groups in determining what we could do here in Little Rock.
I’d would be seriously amiss if I didn’t mention Dennis Crowley and the guys behind AFC Mobile, as having a deep impact on me in founding the Red Watch. Reading Crowley’s article laying out the first year how-to of founding Stockade FC, caused me to appreciate much more deeply what Jonathan Wardlaw and the other founding families of the Rangers were seeking to bring to Little Rock. It really gave me the determination to start a supporters group that could hopefully, in some way, let them know their efforts were appreciated. Following Abram’s coordinated effort in bringing AFC Mobile into existence was inspiring to want to find something that would also rally community and help encourage civic pride here in Little Rock just as he was on the Gulf Coast.
(Ed) How have you grown since this season started?
(Ryan) We stared with three founders and since April 30th, we have grown to 47 dues-paying members. We have a few out-of-state supporters, as well as a few fans who joined as a means of supporting our efforts but have to tend to other duties as volunteers on match days, so we have another 36 active members.
We put a cap of 50 members for the first year, really because we feared running out of scarves (laughs). With the season complete, we will designate the 47 with us as the ‘founding membership’ and future members will be considered part of the 2018 class.
(Ed) Tell me about Match Day and what it’s like?
(Ryan) Match Day with us is certainly a work in progress but for this season, tailgating began at 5:00 p.m. with march-to-the-match taking place as a united effort with The Red Order – the other SG for the Rangers. The SG’s have a rotation of about six chants and cheers we use throughout the matches, mostly typical of supporters groups, but the Red Order introduced the Power Rangers theme song to great effect and popularity with the fans.
There’s a sizable percussion section with us now with two bass drums, three snares and a quad and, perhaps, more flags than people to wave them. Prior to getting permission to use smoke inside War Memorial (Stadium), we tossed streamers with every Rangers goal, now in combination with the approved smoke bombs.
We’ll be introducing bagpipes to the march and in-match support next season, keeping up with the heavily Scottish-influenced naming of the Rangers and the Red Watch. We’ll be coming in heavy with smoke, now that we have some clearer guidelines and safety protocols worked out with the War Memorial Stadium Front Office, who really went out of their way to work with us and even stuck their necks out for us in some respects. Additionally, we’ve already begun preparing tifos for match days, involving certain rivals as well as plans to produce Match Day posters designed by a rotation of local artists who we’ll be able to highlight. Profits from those game day items will be given as donations to the club and towards charitable organizations we intend to work with over the next year.
(Ed) What are your plans during the offseason to keep the interest for the club and soccer in the city going?
(Ryan) Well with the World Cup happening next year, we’re expecting that to increase interest locally in the Rangers as well. We hope to work in several events to exacerbate that jump in interest and notice. First, we will be helping push the online petition to have the State Highways Department begin producing Rangers speciality license plates.
Then, we’ll be helping host the Ranger reveal of the license plates (excellent upgrade) and new kits. We’ll be fielding a ‘Red Watch FC’ coed team in the local amateur league as a way to, both, build camaraderie for ourselves and also build notice, and hopefully interest, in the Rangers amongst the other teams in coming out to support the Rangers in 2018. We’re laying out plans to host a spring 7v7 adult amateur tournament with proceeds going to local charities. We’re launching a blog and a podcast that will highlight local high school and collegiate soccer each week as well as the Rangers, too. A FIFA tournament is also forming for the summer weeks leading up to the World Cup.
(Ed) Why do you think soccer works in Little Rock?
(Ryan) I think one of the reasons soccer works in Arkansas is it’s a state I feel is uniquely situated to support a team (or teams, thanks to our new rivals to the northwest). There’s just one ‘power five’ collegiate athletics program in the state and no professional team to compete with outside of the two minor league baseball teams.
A growing number of the surrounding small colleges are beginning to field competitive soccer teams, both men and women, creating tangible local opportunity for kids and teens coming up through the youth soccer levels. Having the Rangers invest in a lot of that local talent each summer only grows the optics of opportunity for the local youngsters.
(Ed) So why do you think this part of the south can work?
(Ryan) Soccer works in Little Rock already and will continue to grow for players because of those growing visible ties and opportunities to collegiate and youth soccer structures, but it will also continue to grow its fanbase, which already ranks top five in average attendance in the NPSL.
The Rangers offer a sporting outlet for community, region and state pride in playing against regional rivals like Memphis, Shreveport, Tulsa, Springfield, Northwest Arkansas, etc. Natural rivalries rise from having opponents in near proximity, and it’s these rivalries that will spur greater fan interest. I think that’s why soccer in the South as a whole will succeed.
Most of the teams in the region are named after the city they are based in, tapping into civic and regional identity, pride and rivalry even for those fans with little soccer background or understanding at the beginning of their following of their respective teams.
(Ed) You may have already shared your best moment as a supporters group with the club, so is there another moment that sticks out to you as the club’s best moment since forming?
(Ryan) Another seminal moment was being fully-embraced by the players, and us fully embracing them. They’ve been incredible in showing their gratitude after matches to the fans and coming over to greet, cheer and dance with the SG after the match.
(Ed) While you have the floor, is there any advice you’d like to give to any SG who is starting up like you that you think could help?
(Ryan) Advice 1: Build a solid group of three or more people first, and plan out what your group’s goals ultimately are; first what your “shoot-for-stars” goals as a five year plan, then scale back to a vision of where you intend to be in year three, year two, then year one – it helps focus everyone and streamlines the effort and the progress.
Advice 2: Be pre-emptive with the team ownership and, if applicable, the stadium front office where your team plays. Work out all permissions, protocols and codes of conduct. Keep them in the loop of your game day intentions for things like tifos, banners, flags and flagpoles and if smoke bombs are allowed.
Every supporters group takes its own journey in growing a culture. Each community is different; each community responds differently to the concept, in trying to figure out what exactly a supporters group is in the first place. I learned a lot about the growth of the game in the South and how communities like Little Rock could buck the stereotype of what being a soccer community is all about.
My other take away is how much I enjoy hearing from different people with the same mindset of growing the game, their club and their community. It gives me a boost in my spirit and reminds me that we’re not alone in this venture. Despite rivalries and trash talk, we all want the same thing and that is to see America take its place as part of the world’s love for the beautiful game.