After only two years, Sounders FC has already become a flourishing brand that raises the bar in Major League Soccer and serves as a model for franchises in all sports. And the best may be ahead.
A loud, proud prematch march, an undulating sea of green jerseys, wildly waving scarves and passionate fans who stand and chant for 90 minutes.
The Sounders FC sensation is all that — and a lot more.
Behind the sellout crowds is a marketing machine that made sure the loyal support was no accident. Thanks to a number of carefully crafted strategies to integrate with the Seattle community, Sounders FC lit up the soccer world and established new standards on and off the field in its inaugural Major League Soccer season of 2009.
The phenomenon has proved even more remarkable in Year 2.
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“This is one of the great success stories in the history of American soccer,” said Grant Wahl, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and the author of “The Beckham Experiment.”
When the Portland Timbers, an MLS expansion franchise in 2011, put up a billboard last month near Qwest Field calling Portland “Soccer City USA,” Wahl laughed.
“In all honesty,” he said, “it’s clearly Seattle.”
Sounders FC, which ended its regular season Saturday as one of MLS’ hottest teams despite a 2-1 loss to Houston, hosts the first of a two-game conference semifinal Oct. 31 at 5 p.m. at Qwest Field.
With attendance of more than 36,000 per game, Sounders FC fan support is on a par with some of the most prestigious clubs in Europe. Led by a driven ownership group, picture-perfect marketing and impeccable timing, Sounders FC has already become a flourishing brand that resonates globally and serves as a model for franchises in all sports.
“There’s little doubt amongst anyone in the professional sports community, here or even abroad, that this was one of, if not the, most successful launch of a professional sports expansion team in history,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said.
A major-league mind-set
Approach everything with a first-tier attitude.
If there was a singular goal for the fledgling Sounders FC franchise, this was it.
For years, soccer went virtually unnoticed in America’s sports landscape, but majority owner Joe Roth, a longtime Hollywood executive, and co-owners Adrian Hanauer, Drew Carey and Paul Allen had no plans of being the little guy in Seattle.
The NBA’s Sonics had just been dragged to Oklahoma City and the foundering local sports scene was begging for a winner.
Let’s aim high, the Sounders FC ownership group said.
“The biggest thing is what you do at the very beginning because it’s hard to turn around a brand once you’ve launched,” said Hanauer, who also serves as the general manager and owned Seattle’s United Soccer Leagues team before joining MLS.
Hanauer brought soccer enthusiasm and business acumen to Roth’s enterprise. Carey, a TV actor and comedian, brought name recognition and a fan’s perspective. Allen, also the billionaire owner of the NFL’s Seahawks and NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, brought money and experience.
Equally important was a partnership with the Seahawks that spawned several innovative ideas:
Implementing a showstopping, rave-green color scheme. Earning a lucrative sponsorship with Microsoft. Landing perhaps the league’s best coach in Sigi Schmid. Signing one of the greatest American soccer players in goalkeeper Kasey Keller, a Lacey native; and then international star Freddie Ljungberg.
Not every move was perfect — like trying to get rid of the tradition-drenched Sounders name that dates to the 1970s. Some were head-scratchingly original: Hanauer can be voted out as general manager by a fan-based Alliance Council after the 2012 season — an idea championed by Carey and based on the F.C. Barcelona model.
“It’s a way to keep constant dialogue going, even when people are unhappy,” Carey said.
The fans have done their part as consumers. Sounders FC merchandising sales top MLS and are more than twice that of the No. 2 team, the Philadelphia Union. Seattle was also one of two teams — Toronto FC was the other — that made a profit last year (MLS does not disclose sales or profits). Sounders FC’s average attendance of 36,173 is by far a league high and more than twice the MLS average.
The SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily noticed, naming Sounders FC the 2010 Professional Sports Team of the Year ahead of football’s New Orleans Saints and other top U.S. teams.
And it all starts with a closer-than-most connection with the fans.
“They treat themselves like a club and not like a team,” said Dr. Bill Sutton, an associate director and professor of the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Program.
“A team is something that you watch. A club is something that you’re a part of — and the crowd feels that way with the songs and the chants. It’s as close to an EPL (English Premier League) model that you’ll see in this country.”
Setting a new standard
With the arrival of Portland and Vancouver, B.C., to MLS in 2011, an impassioned three-way Pacific Northwest rivalry will be reborn. Despite more than 30 years of animosity rooted in the North American Soccer League, executives from all three franchises are in constant communication.
“It’s been a great relationship,” said Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson of his team and Sounders FC. “I know our fans want to hear me say how much we hate those guys — and there’s no one we’d rather beat when we play them — but I can’t say enough how helpful they’ve been.”
Since MLS operates under a single-entity structure — teams are steered by the league to control costs, revenue and roster moves — each team has to thrive for the league to be successful. Sounders FC has been willing to share ideas and serve as a model for other franchises.
The bar for new teams, however, has been set Space Needle high.
“Seattle is a very, very important driver of the success of Major League Soccer,” Garber said. “Toronto set the stage, and Seattle took it to an entirely new level … Seattle is almost in a world unto itself as it relates to how significant that team is in the local market.”
Connecting with the community sometimes comes with a price. Before the inaugural season started, Sounders FC bought more than 20,000 scarves to give its season-ticket holders. The team also issued a one-game rebate toward next year’s season-ticket packages after an embarrassing 4-0 home loss to Los Angeles in May. The move cost nearly $1 million.
“It wasn’t a grandstand,” Roth said of the refund. “It was us saying, ‘This is not who we want to be.’ We don’t want people to think we’re going to settle for that.”
That May 8 defeat dropped Seattle to last place in the Western Conference, and doubts of being able to maintain Year 1’s momentum grew.
Yet fan support never wavered, which is ultimately what makes the Qwest Field experience so extraordinary, said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s programming senior VP. Sounders FC games on ESPN lead the league in local ratings. Seattle’s Sept. 9 home game against Real Salt Lake was the most-watched MLS game nationally this season.
“When you have a big crowd that’s knowledgeable, that’s passionate, waving scarves, wearing green, marching to the stadium, that makes viewers take notice,” Guglielmino said.
Added Schmid: “There is no stadium experience like ours in the United States. That’s not to demean other fans or other fan bases, but the experience here is beyond that … You think it’s good on TV, but when you’re actually in the stadium you see how good it truly is.”
To soccer fans, moving from London, the hub of the English Premier League (EPL), to Seattle might seem as laughable as a player rolling on the field faking injury.
Yet that was the decision Arlo White made before this season, leaving a respectable gig with the BBC to broadcast for Sounders FC.
“People’s eyebrows raised in front of me because they were wondering what exactly I was doing,” White said. “Then I mention the 36,000 people and put photos on Facebook and Twitter and people say, ‘Wow, that looks amazing.’ “
White saw the potential and was immediately drawn to Seattle. He’s not alone.
Leicester City, a soccer team in the second division in England, and Saracens F.C., a Watford-based rugby team, have asked White to relay secrets.
English teams have also taken notice.
Ivan Gazidis, chief executive of English powerhouse Arsenal, said the Sounders FC attendance “has demonstrated the growing relevance of soccer in the U.S.”
“The Sounders organization has done a superb job tapping into that interest and listening to their fans to create a strong sense of community connection and pride that is at the heart of all soccer clubs,” said Gazidis, a former MLS deputy commissioner, in an e-mail.
With attendance of 60,000 per game, Arsenal is one of only a few dozen teams in Europe with larger crowds than Sounders FC. Seattle’s average of 36,173 would be top 10 in the EPL, top five in Spain’s La Liga and top three in Italy’s Serie A.
“The distance Seattle has put on the (MLS) field is stunning,” SI’s Wahl said.
Not done yet
Becoming stagnant is Roth’s greatest fear.
“That’s my number-one concern and what keeps me up at night,” he said. “How do we keep growing?”
Thanks to spacious Qwest Field, there’s literally room for growth. Opening up the tarped-off Hawks Nest section in the north end would be an easy way to increase capacity to perhaps 40,000.
But that’s just the beginning.
“We’ve established a fantastic and large base of fans,” Hanauer said. “Now we want to do three things. We want to grow deeper roots on that existing base, we want to expand that base, and we want to focus on the next generation of that base.”
Carey is more specific.
“I want to sell out Qwest Field totally — with no tarps at all,” he said. “I don’t know how many years it will take us — 20, 25, 50? I just want to be alive to see it. That’s what I’m dreaming about.”
Where will the Sounders FC phenomenon lead?
“This story is not yet fully written,” MLS’ Garber said. “I think they’ll continue to get better, more popular and continue to impress people with what they achieve on and off the field.”
Leaving the competition, it seems, rave green with envy.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org