A rift between Minnesota United fan clubs over the ethics of proper rooting

The Mill City Ultras believe other clubs are blurring the line between impassioned purists and PR shills.

The Mill City Ultras believe other clubs are blurring the line between impassioned purists and PR shills.

Behind the Minnesota FC United net guarded by goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, hundreds stood, cheered, and sang. The legions belonged to the team's hardcore fan clubs, namely the Dark Clouds and True North Elite.

The latter is United's newest supporters' group, having been formed in 2015. The Dark Clouds are Minnesota's oldest and largest band of organized fans, established in 2004.

A section removed from these rabid throngs inside TCF Bank Stadium was a small contingent of equally-pumped spectators. They call themselves the Mill City Ultras. Based on two signs group members were holding, apparently all is not kosher in the world of organized fandom for Minnesota's newest pro sports franchise. 

"Our passion is not for sale!" read one of the Ultras' poster boards.

It turns out that this group, numbering maybe a few dozen or so, are distancing themselves from the existing fan clubs. The reason behind the fracture, they claim, is because the team's relationship with the established supporters groups is a bit too cozy, blurring the line between impassioned purists and PR shills.

Specifically, the team is using members of other groups to do pro bono advertising, as well as using Dark Clouds and True North Elite to help sell season tickets, Mill City Ultras allege.

Minnesota FC United spokesperson Eric Durkee did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment. Mill City representatives declined on-the-record interview requests for this story. However, the Ultras did write a Facebook post late that vaguely spoke about the purpose behind their match day signage protest.  

"We feel the placards speak for themselves," the post read in part, "and on various medias have discussed our view points on current season ticket selling practices using the clubs supporters groups. Going forward the best way to ask us about our view points on this issue is to please come and talk to us in the stands."

Dark Clouds spokesperson Jim Oliver defines the group's relationship with the team more as a collaborative effort than as compensated homers. 

"I think there's a narrative for a lot of people that if you're working with the club, you're kind of under their boot.… [But] it's not a like a givey takey. It never has been," he says. "Like when the club needs people to be on the morning TV news shows, we provide that opportunity for people if they want to be involved in that kind of thing, but it's not like anyone's getting paid for it." 

Oliver and True North Elite spokesperson James Norungolo both acknowledge their groups' involvement in helping to sell season tickets. But there's a good reason for this, and it's not money.

According to Oliver and Norungolo, the team is offering to send all season ticket holders in the supporters section to the match against the Chicago Fire come late August if the club sells 200 more season tickets. 

"That's it. Period. End of story," says Norungolo. "These fans, Dark Clouds and True North Elite, are not getting any monetary compensation. All we're doing is basically sharing that [season ticket] information.

"We're saying, one, you don't have to be a season ticket holder to be a supporter, but there are a lot of cool reasons to be a season ticket holder. And oh, by the way, if you have been to the matches with single games tickets, here's a potential goodie that the club has put up. We don't get a dollar from the club. The stuff we do, we do it because we want to."

Oliver feels the Ultras are raising a stink for no good reason.

"We're going to send a bus to Chicago and the club wants to participate and so the sales revenue side says, 'Well, if you can reach this goal, then we'll participate at this level," he says. "It's a marketing thing, mostly like a social media push, a kind of email marketing. It's not like we're phone banking."

Oliver does understand the Ultras' logic, though. Clubs can't be authentic if they're not completely independent from the team.

"I agree with that to a certain extent," he says, "but I think you can be independent and work together too."