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What Goes Into Building A Tifo?

By Tyler Trent

Image courtesy of Heidi Underhill

Game day at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a whirlwind of emotion for a community who has waited for an MLS team to come to the Queen City for such a long time. For the supporter groups of the team, the day starts early. Preparation for the pre-match festivities, like the supporter’s tailgate start hours before the match, but preparation for the Charlotte FC supporter group’s tifo start far earlier than that.

Charlotte FC’s supporter groups have formed a committee of individuals eager to bring the excitement of tifos to Bank of America Stadium. The group consists of members of Charlotte’s Royal Family of supporter groups that includes Blue Furia, Carolina Hooliganz, Mint City Collective, Mint Street Mafia, Southbound and Crown,Queens Firm, and Uptown Ultras. Lucas Barnhardt, President of the Uptown Ultras supporter group and one of the co-leads of the Tifo Committee, spoke with us about the creation of his favorite tifo so far, Queen Charlotte. “Hard not to say that the first tifo of Queen Charlotte was my favorite. Not only the size, design, and incredible detail. The experience of making that tifo is something I will remember for the rest of my life! To have so many people from so many different supporter groups and everyone working together was amazing to see.”

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC

The 54-foot Queen Charlotte tifo was unveiled in front of an MLS record attendance of 74,479 at Bank of America Stadium for the inaugural home match of Charlotte FC against the Los Angeles Galaxy. The tifo received praise throughout the league and around the world for the scope and detail from a new group of supporters. However, creating such a stunning tifo wasn’t easy. Barnhardt recounted the stress of preparing the inaugural tifo. “It got stressful at times and there was a group of five of us that stayed in the warehouse until 6am to finish painting - we knew that 74k people were counting on us!”

Brandon Lewis, Tifo Committee Head, echoed the sentiment when asked about his favorite tifo so far. “Of course, I'm going to say the Queen. It had to be that one. Just the sheer number of hours that went into that. The details, camaraderie, and experience of bringing that to life took two months. Starting from scratch.”

Heidi Underhill, tifo volunteer and Membership Director of Southbound and Crown,shared her love for the first tifo as well. “The first tifo was my favorite because of the sentimental feelings surrounding it. I mean, we had waited so long for that first game. We worked so hard behind the scenes in our tifo group and supporter groups.” Underhill recounted the struggle to overcome the anxious and boiling atmosphere of the crowd at the stadium, minutes before the inaugural match and the first tifo. “I personally had to fight with the wild crowd in that first row to get my part of the banner to raise it. When the sound cut off on the national anthem, it added to the emotion. The fireworks went off, and I was already crying as I was raising my poll.” Underhill went on to share how much she loved working on the tifos each week. “It makes me feel like I’m a part of Charlotte FC’s history.” She said that she has added her name to every tifo she has worked on so far this season.

Image courtesy of Heidi Underhill

Although Queen Charlotte was a fan favorite, each week the volunteers have continued to create magic with their tifos. Morgan Gallemore, tifo volunteer and Shipping Department for Southbound and Crown, reflected on the Real Queen City tifo that was prepared for the match against FC Cincinnati. “That was one of the first ones I was a part of from start to finish. I think the design was really great and loved the whole concept.” Gallemore is also the lead of the collective group of women leaders in Charlotte FC supporter groups, La Femme Footie. She has fond memories of that tifo for its connection to the United For Girls - US Soccer Foundation fundraiser that the group led. La Femme Footie helped to raise over $2,000 leading up to that weekend continuing to support their message of “raising queens on and off the pitch.”

Image courtesy of Matt Garner

Creating the first tifo was a learning experience, but the community came together to create a masterpiece that announced Charlotte FC’s arrival to the MLS stage. Everyone can appreciate the sight of the tifo in the stands, but we wanted to dig deeper and get further insight on what goes into the process of creating the tifo that has its few minutes of fame before the match.

The Creative Process

The development of the tifo starts early. Discussion between the Tifo Committee often occurs in a Slack group message as well as in person meetings. Lewis shared the typical creation from idea development to gameday. “Tifo creation starts with the committee meeting or just chatting on Slack, discussing possible themes months out from each match. We take ideas that have been submitted from any supporters and refine them to a final product.”

So far this season, multiple members of the community have worked on designing the tifos. Jordan Parks has graphically designed three tifos, including the previously mentioned Queen Charlotte. Evan Russell, Terry Hines, Becca Mitchum, and Lewis have each graphically designed one tifo as well. While only Parks and Russell have a background in graphic design, the rest of the team has come together to bring their designs to life.

Lewis further shared the process of physically creating the tifo following the digital creation. “From there, the fabric is cut from a large 1000-yard roll, and sewn to the required lengths. For drawing, we lay down a 12, 15, or 18-inch grid with chalk line. The final design will have a grid on it, and we draw it freehand from the digital file via grid. This usually takes a six-hour evening with ten people for an average 30'x30' tifo.”

Image courtesy of Heidi Underhill

Next comes the painting, Lewis commented that most volunteers enjoy helping with painting the tifo the most. “We use interior acrylic/latex paint that bonds well with the cotton/poly fabric. This takes an additional six hours with ten people, then an hour or two of touch-ups. Lastly, depending on the display method, if we hoist it, we will grommet around the edges and attach to the field goal net with zip ties. If we go overhead, we accordion fold it, and bring the tifo out into the stands pre-match.”

Anywhere from ten to thirty volunteers show up and devote their time to creating something for everyone to enjoy. Barnhardt spoke about the collaboration between the group. “I love following along in the Slack group and watching everyone bounce ideas off each other and post their concepts and designs. It truly is a group effort, and I admire our Charlotte FC Supporters who take time out of their everyday lives to contribute however they can.”

Working on the tifos has also nurtured friendships throughout the community. “Working on the Tifo Committee has provided a growth of comradery between the volunteers who devote their free time to creating something magical. “That was the beginning of many relationships and friendships I’ve built through tifo work.” Barnhardt said.

Gallemore shared her favorite part of working with the tifo committee. “Seeing everything come together. You get to see the tifo come to life from sewing material together, to gridding the fabric, painting, then seeing it all on game day.” Like all volunteers, she mentioned it’s a lot of work to prepare the tifo, but it’s all worth it. “It’s a lot of work to do in about a weeks’ time, but some of my best memories of this season are painting at Bank of America Stadium. You spend 20+ hours each week working on the tifo and really make great friends.”

Image courtesy of Heidi Underhill

The Road Ahead

The group has committed to preparing a tifo for each of Charlotte FC’s 17 home matches this season. Barnhardt spoke about his excitement for the tifo prepared for the match against New York Red Bulls on June 11th . “I don’t want to give anything away about future tifos, but I will say we have some great ones coming up for Red Bulls, Toronto, and Orlando. Red Bulls next Saturday will be extra special as Brandon [Lewis] worked to get fabric and materials to a high school in the outer Charlotte area. The tifo looks incredible, the kids did a great job. There will also be a banner made for Black Excellence! I’m excited for Saturday to see the contributions of so many different groups, come together for one display.”

Lewis added his excitement for upcoming games and tifos as well, “We have some big things in the works that will test us, since this is our first season and we are still working out all the kinks. For me, Austin would be up there and possibly Toronto or Chicago. NYRB will be something similar, but different than what we've done to date.”

The Time Of My Life

The previously mentioned New York Red Bulls tifo came to life on Saturday. The large Dirty Dancing themed tifo was revealed before the match, but unlike previous tifos, this one was designed and created by a group of students. The tifo was designed and brought to life by students at the Highland School of Technology in Gastonia. Dirty Dancing has roots in North Carolina. It was partially filmed at Lake Lure, and that is also where they practice the lift depicted in the tifo during the film.

Underhill shared the connection between the hit 80’s film and Charlotte FC on twitter. “In the movie, Patrick Swayze’s character Johnny practices the lift with Jennifer Grey’s character Baby repeatedly throughout the movie. Baby can’t get it, but Johnny is patient with her and continues to practice it. Sometimes he gets mad, at one point she hurts his back, but he doesn’t give up. They perform the lift at an “away” performance, and don’t succeed. At the end of the movie, he comes and grabs her, and in front of their family and friends, they finally score the lift. He raises her up and her family is amazed. So, in the tifo, Ben Bender is our Johnny. Lifting us up. After much practice and many falls, in the end we get the lift right with his help.”

The symbology of the tifo matches up perfectly coming off a loss away against New York Red Bulls in the US Open Cup, and even more struggles away from home. The tifo was made even more special by Ben Bender opening the scoring in the match where he was honored as part of the tifo. Working with the Highland School of Technology was a change compared to how the previous tifos were created. I asked Underhill how the collaboration came about and she shared that Lewis was actually an alumnus of the highly rated school. “The leader of the Tifo committee, Brandon Lewis, is an alumnus of the school. He’s incredibly talented, a great human, and obviously appreciates where he came from.”

While the creation of this tifo was slightly unconventional, it came off perfectly. The tifo was widely recognized for its creativity across the internet. The students who spent hours working on it were given tickets to the match so they were able to see their tifo unveiled in front of over 30,000 fans.

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC

Volunteering And The Future Of The Tifo Committee

Creating tifos not only takes hard work and the free-time of volunteers, but the costs can also add up quickly. Lewis shared, “The cost of all the supplies have been funded through the supporter’s fund. This is the $50 that is tacked onto supporter’s section season tickets. Without those funds, we wouldn't be able to do as much as we do with the rising cost of things.”

The Tifo Committee is always looking for volunteers to assist in the week leading up to each home game. If you’re interested in being a part of an incredible team, you can find the volunteering event dates and times by reaching out to the Tifo Committee on Twitter. Dates and times are often shared in individual supporter group chats as well.

I asked if there were ways for supporters to support the tifo creation other than showing up in person. Lewis said they currently aren’t accepting donations for the tifo team, but suggested anyone wanting to help the community to donate to other community causes. “We try to point people toward causes that need the donations, such as QC Royals Pride raiser or La Femme Footies can 4 can.”

Gallemore shared her hopes for the tifo committee as they move forward. “I would love to see everything grow. The tifo committee is already trying to plan bigger tifos for next year and I would love to see more fans get involved. I don’t think most people realize these tifos are made by only a handful of people each week.”

While only a handful of people work on the tifos some weeks, the quality of the tifos this season have been incredible. As Charlotte FC continues to fight their way through the MLS season, so will the Tifo Committee who dedicate their time and effort to share a magic moment with supporters throughout the Carolinas and the world before each game.