Sounders fans can vote to retain or remove general manager Adrian Hanauer, who is also a part-owner of the team.
Let the fans do the dirty work.
That was Drew Carey’s pitch to Sounders FC majority owner Joe Roth four years ago, when the infant MLS franchise was still months away from its first game.
The concept: democracy in sports.
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The centerpiece: a vote to retain or remove the team’s general manager after every fourth season, an unprecedented idea in American sports inspired by models at world powers FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Well, it’s time.
“This is it. This is the fourth year,” Roth said. “You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, right?”
Starting Sunday, Sounders FC season-ticket holders can vote — as promised — for or against keeping general manager Adrian Hanauer, who is part-owner of the team with Roth, Carey and Paul Allen. More than 10,000 ballots must be cast, either in person or online, for the vote to be valid, and Hanauer needs a simple majority to keep his job.
Voting ends Dec. 7, and the result, as authenticated by a local third-party accounting firm, will be announced at a business meeting Dec. 13. Non-season-ticket holders are also eligible to vote by paying a $125 fee to join the members association.
“I got calls from owners in other sports telling me I was out of my mind,” Roth said.
The idea was made public four years ago, but is just starting to receive attention across the country. The upcoming vote has been covered this week by The New York Times, ESPN radio and Deadspin, among others.
More is expected throughout the two-month-long process, but this isn’t just for publicity.
It’s part of the franchise’s commitment to treating fans like partners, not customers.
“It’s in the back of our mind with every decision that we make about the team: the idea that the fans come first,” said Carey. “What do the fans think? Let’s see what the fans like.
“It’s really important to us that we get fan feedback … but it doesn’t mean we’re going to do everything the fans want all the time.”
A strong case
By all accounts, Hanauer has nothing to fear. The team has abstained from an official endorsement, but supporters groups — notably the Emerald City Supporters, with more than 4,400 members — have come out in support of Hanauer.
“It’s pretty simple: We believe he’s done a good job as general manager,” said Greg Mockos, ECS co-president. “It’s just that. It’s not a matter of loyalty or anything else.”
“He’s going to win, no doubt about it,” said Carey, who joked that a more malfeasant Hanauer would have been better for the vote’s widespread publicity.
On the field, the Sounders were an instant success when they joined MLS, and they’ve sustained it. The team has qualified for the league playoffs all four seasons — including this year — won three U.S. Open Cups and twice advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
Off the field, Seattle continually breaks league attendance records and boasts the league’s highest TV ratings and merchandise sales.
Hanauer’s track record isn’t flawless — disappointment in the playoffs and inconsistency in retaining designated players are a few negatives — but overall the complaints haven’t been overwhelming.
“I guess my campaign speech will be very simply, ‘We’ve done what no other expansion team has done,’ ” coach Sigi Schmid said. “We made the playoffs four years in a row, and continue to play among the top three, four teams in MLS..”
Even if Hanauer, who doesn’t take a salary for his general manager duties, is voted out, he would still retain his 32.5-percent ownership stake.
“He would obviously be a part of the decision-making about a (new) GM,” said Roth, who hasn’t bothered to think of replacement candidates.
And while there might not be a lot of drama going into the vote, there’s still a bit of fun.
“I’ve got six votes. I’m going to ask (Hanauer) how much I can get for my six votes,” joked assistant coach Brian Schmetzer.
More than just a vote
How important was democracy in sports to Carey?
Well, he wasn’t interested in joining any ownership group of a sports franchise without it.
Disaster nearly struck, however, the day Carey was supposed to introduce the idea to Roth over lunch. During a rehearsal for “The Price is Right,” Carey, the show’s host, had his arm catch in a rotating platform.
Carey thought his arm was broken, and the paramedics told him to go straight to the hospital. But he couldn’t. He had a lunch meeting.
“So I showed up like 15 minutes late with a big ice pack on, throbbing in pain,” Carey said. “I got some aspirins from the EMTs and I was in really bad shape, but I didn’t miss the lunch because I wanted to talk him into doing this thing. This was my big chance.
“The lunch was like an hour and a half. At the end of it, I talked him into it … and I went straight from there and drove myself to the hospital. That’s how important this was to me.”
Roth has never had second thoughts, and the relationship with the fans has been about more than just a vote every four years.
An elected fan council meets with the team every three months. That partnership has decided the name of the team, the name of the team band (“Sound Wave”), the name of the members association (“Alliance”), seating sections at CenturyLink Field (from family friendly to more boisterous) and more.
Season-ticket holders and Alliance members can petition for a GM vote in any year with a 20 percent approval.
“I have a lot of faith in the fan base,” Roth said.
A model to follow?
Carey, who’s also known for supporting Cleveland sports teams, would love to see the maligned Browns of the NFL adopt democracy, though it might be a while before other professional franchises follow suit.
And while healthy, the relationship between the Sounders and fans also will need time to mature.
“I think it’s a great start,” Mockos said. “I understand the vision and I like the vision, but you have to also understand that we’re not going to have what Barcelona has (right away).”
One of the newer collaborations has been including the fans in the design of next year’s season-ticket holder’s scarf.
“I think it’s a really interesting story to take something that’s clearly a capitalistic venture and turn over essentially all of the nonfinancial decision-making to the fans,” Roth said. “To me, it’ll be an interesting experiment.”
For Carey, the ultimate goal is keeping fans connected with the club. Losing often leads to a disconnect, leaving limited options for fans to express frustrations — letters to newspapers and websites, calling sports-talk radio, refusing to buy tickets, etc. A vote, on the other hand, encourages more involvement.
And while the team is just approaching its most obvious landmark in sports democracy, Carey’s vision is longterm: “25, 50 years, or 100 years down the road.”
“It’s going to take a while to catch on,” said Carey, adding with a smile, “like all great ideas.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org