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Name-Change: Ultras In For The Long Haul

Happy with petition numbers, fan group pledges to continue its campaign to reverse name-change at IMFC...

The fan group Ultras Montreal 02 will continue to campaign against the name at their beloved Impact de Montreal...

The Ultras Montreal 02 and other fan groups are determined to continue the campaign against the name-change at their football club, formerly known as Impact de Montreal.

Currently their main vehicle of protest takes the form of a petition to owner Joey Saputo and President and CEO Kevin Gilmore, and they’re happy to be approaching the 5,500 mark in signatories.

Ultras spokesman Garry Whyte has been with the group since 2008 in parallel with being an Impact season-ticket holder -

“This [petition] of course is not the only thing we have planned and although it’s difficult to visibly express ourselves without being able to go to the stadium, we are launching a further initiative in the next couple of weeks, which I cannot yet elaborate on.

Garry feels the nature of the almost 5,500 signatories, so far, is significant when it comes to them having an active relationship with the club. “The petition has only been published locally by us or shared by local media, so it’s mostly people following us.

“They tend to be the most active in the stadium and most likely to buy club merchandise and match tickets. So we feel that the majority of those signatures are people that are directly involved and could make a financial impact on the club’s operations.”

The petition was launched back in December initially in reaction to the first rumours emerging about re-branding and name-change.

Said Whyte: “Initially our petition was designed to pre-emptively send a message to Kevin Gilmore and the club’s administration which we issued in late December. At the time the petition was 2,2000 names strong.

“Unfortunately the club responded with a letter which chose to ignore the petition and provided a similar message to what they were giving out to the media, in the sense that they are looking to collaborate with the supporters but not at this point, and that they wouldn’t comment on rumours.”

The petition’s organizers felt they had been completely ignored.

After re-branding became official the petition was slightly modified and re-released, something the fans hoped they wouldn’t need to do, and subsequently The Ultras produced an official statement with the main message being the club needs to revert back to it’s original name.

Garry went on, “The logo itself is another discussion as is the branding and the colours, although of course several people have commented on this negatively. But for us the important thing is the name of the club which is the link to its history and past, so that’s what we are going after here.

“As a group, we understand the logo and the colours are meant to evolve through the years.
“We see lots of clubs the world over with hundreds of years of history which continue to evolve and modify their logos to become more attractive to the modern supporter, but none of these clubs change their name for a commercial reason, which is what we’re seeing in Montreal right now.”

The fans do not believe the Impact name is an impediment to attracting big-names to Montreal, citing Nesta, Di Vaio, Drogba, Piatti and of course Bernier, a hometown player who was attracted back from Europe. And also it didn’t deter the biggest name of all, Thierry Henry, from taking on the coaching role.

Justin Kingsley (left) and Kevin Gilmore (seated) during the launch of the Re-branding earlier this month.

The Club’s Position
The club was contacted for their reaction to the Ultras-led petition exceeding the 5,000 signature mark, however declined to comment. It did however state it had been in touch with The Ultras, previously responding to them on December 18 when an invitation was extended to the fan group to co-operate on some future plans.

Post-branding/name-change, Club de Foot Montreal also appears content with data they released (after a specific request last week by La Presse), around social media reaction in Quebec and around the globe.

Mined via three different organizations the results portray a rosier picture than might be expected.

Media coverage in the week following the re-branding announcement amounted to 4724 mentions (Source: meltwater). 1471 of these were in Quebec for a neutrality rate of 99%. Internationally from a sample size of 3253, the rate of neutral comment reached 83%, while positive comments represented 15%.

There were 2.2bn impressions 287m (Quebec) and 1.9bn (International), representing a dollar-value visibility of $20.3m.

MLS-sourced social listening data disclosed 19k social posts from Jan 14 to Jan 20, with the day of the launch (the 14th) reaching 9.3k posts followed by 3k and 2k respectively over the subsequent two days.

Impressions for the first four days, including launch day, amounted to 81m.

The club also claim the sale of merchandise increased in the wake of rebranding. In the week following the announcement they allude to $54k in total sales, representing a third of all ecom sales in 2020 ($155k) (Source: Fanatics). Impressive perhaps, since the new shirt (traditionally 40% of all merchandising sales) is not yet launched, however given the peculiarity of 2020 it’s reasonable to wonder if in fact it was a low year for ecom sales.

The effect on season ticket-sales, say the club has been nett-neutral, with 24 refunds linked to the rebrand and the same number of new sales, however there’s a revenue gain of around $24k. This can only mean the new tickets purchased were of higher value than those cancelled.

The fan groups are taking the numbers with a pinch of salt however and consider the sources ‘extremely debatable’. They feel the negativity numbers are significantly understated, using as a comparison some similar studies undertaken by their own members.

Garry suggests the numbers form part of a PR exercise showing positivity towards the club’s direction on re-branding. “You can see when the club posts news now, even when it is something positive such as the contract extension for James Pantemis, 90% of the comments are still about the rebrand and the people who remain angry about it.”

The new CFMTL logo

The Ultras claim to have screenshots and proof from some members who have received notice from their reps at the club, giving mixed signals why returned season-ticket refunds cannot be processed. They see it as a stalling tactic.

Garry Whyte: “Members have been told there is a waiting list, the refund cannot be done right away and may take 2 weeks. Others have been told the club is waiting for news from MLS or from the government. So we believe they are trying to delay refunds to prevent people from cancelling.

“I also want to be clear we didn’t encourage anyone from our group or supporters in general to cancel their season-tickets. We don’t think that’s the way to go. We prefer to maintain our leverage and our position with the club.

“But it’s been people from other sections and across the stadium who know our position obviously, so we have received several messages saying, ‘I’m trying to cancel my tickets. What’s going on?’”

The Ultras say they will always be supportive of the Impact and feel there is still time to turn the situation around before the new season begins.

Garry Whyte again: “It’s something that we’re prepared to go through. In Chicago it lasted for a year. We’re ready to continue. Our chants will not change by one syllable, we’ll have the same colours and apparel that we use in the section.”

But would they withdraw their support from the club entirely should it not revert to its original name?

“It’s something we would have to put to a vote. So far the majority of our members and the members of other groups are strongly attached to the ‘Impact’ name and feel a large part of history has been ripped from the club.

“But it’s really premature now to talk about what we’ll do when fans return to football.”

The fans however do plan different actions to support their campaign, while it remains unsafe for everyone to return to the stadium. Within the next 14 days The Ultras will announce the next steps, with all being revealed through their social media platforms.

Montreal Ultras.... seeking a return to the club’s traditional name, Impact de Montreal...

So where does it all go from here?

Re-branding seems to have become less of an issue in a few short weeks than the actual name-change element contained therein. So maybe there is an opportunity to find common ground after all, even if it’s not likely to happen this side of MLS’ big April kick-off.

Going into February Montreal’s soccer fans should be discussing the actual football and the new season ahead. In 2021, the name-change issue coupled with Covid restrictions have made this a close-season/pre-season like no other. Football, the players, the team and its colourful fans, all the things that under normal circumstances create the spectacle, have been relegated to the division below. Rightly so, of course when it comes to the pandemic.

CF Montreal remains committed to its full re-branding while the club’s fan groups appear diametrically opposed to the name-change element.

The club may ride this out expecting the last embers of resistance to eventually fade and die. A marquee signing or an explosive start to the season would help of course. But the fans say their campaign will not subside, that they will remain strongly active, and, “... this is something the club will not be able to sweep under the rug.”

The fan groups feel a very distinct sense of betrayal and it seems clear, at least in the short-term a widening chasm between some of the Impact’s most loyal followers and CF Montreal is inevitable.

How well can the club bridge that deepening gorge, will it be able to re-engage those fans’ feelings of disenfranchisement... are those fans too entrenched to change?

Only time will tell....