Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati
CINCINNATI – One of the unique things about soccer are the backdrops created by fans, with tifos and banners honoring their clubs and players – and at times making fun of rivals – made by the various supporters groups adding a different personality than a conventional sporting crowd. These shows of support are regularly present across the USL as fans create an uplifting atmosphere for their players while also looking to throw opposing teams off their games with their banners supporting their teams.
As one of the largest supporters sections in the league, FC Cincinnati’s supporters have produced some of the most unique designs in the USL over the past two-plus seasons, utilizing a detailed process in the way they go about creating images and ideas from scratch. With varied viewpoints within the collaborators on the process, even within a group things are different each time a new project gets underway.
“It’s a process that I'm not sure anyone will ever completely understand. It's all so organic that I don't know if I can give you a good answer,” said Stephen Starkey, Creative Director of the FC Cincinnati supporters group The Pride. “Like any creative process, it takes a lot of very smart minds coming together...usually over alcoholic beverages. In the end, any ideas that we have must be agreed upon by all the supporter groups.”
Fueled by those alcoholic beverages, the group comes up with many different ideas, typically just based on those discussions at the bar.
“It usually just comes from the typical daily banter within the group. We have an internal chat channel that is some of the most ridiculous and fun parts of being a part of a supporters group,” said Starkey. “All it takes is one good comment or idea within that group, and I will take that home at night and pump out a design. I find it to be a great challenge to take other people's ideas and make them a reality. It's truly a group effort in that way.”
The Bustin' Barrels Tifo unveiled by Cincinnati's supporters in 2016 when Louisville City FC visited Nippert Stadium immediately put the fans on the map. | Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati
Given how different it can be to come up with an idea between the groups, there is one thing that remains refreshingly similar each time in the process of building the banner itself.
“Once we have a design, we will take that into the studio to project and trace the image on fabric,” said Starkey. “This part is usually just a small group of experienced artists that can prepare the image for the rest of the group to paint. It's a process that has become a bigger challenge the larger our aspirations have become. We will be changing up our process in the near future to be able to achieve larger, more elaborate displays.”
While these designs are elaborate and seemingly time-consuming, the teamwork that being a large group provides means the final process is actually not that time-consuming. An average banner for gameday can be typically done in one night.
“When we have everything outlined, we will go back in and mark the image like a giant paint by number. It makes the whole process much easier to organize when you have 20-plus people all painting at once,” said Starkey. “The final step in production is painting, which honestly is the easiest part of the whole production. With everything already laid out ahead of time, it only takes a single evening to put it all together.”
The visit of Columbus Crew SC in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup saw Cincinnati's fans bring the "Hell is Real" banner, a play on a sign erected alongside I-71, which separates the Ohio cities. | Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati
With games coming thick and fast in USL there’s always a need for tifo to be planned out and produced, making it an ongoing process to be prepared for the most important games of the season. One key for Cincinnati has been involving as many voices as possible so the art represents the diversity of the group as a whole.
“The design itself probably takes a week or so to finalize, one evening to trace the design, and one to paint. We usually like to prepare at least 2-3 weeks ahead of time, if possible, to allow people to plan accordingly to be able to pitch in on the painting of the design,” said Starkey. “We always strive to get as many people involved as we can and make the production as much a social event as anything else. It's all about building the supporter culture at the end of the day, and giving people ownership in something like a tifo is an important part of that process.”