Unlike other North American sports franchises, the Sounders are unique in giving season-ticket holders a voice in how the team actually runs its business. They even allow them to vote to keep or fire the general manager every four years.
Inside sports business
Hollywood producer Joe Roth was a youth soccer player in Long Island and also saw college action for Bowling Green and Hofstra.
So, the former majority and now minority owner of the Sounders has the sport coursing through his veins and doesn’t mind spending a rainy Wednesday night discussing it with local fans. That’s what Roth, 69, did last week when the team and its Alliance Council fan representatives held their 2017 Annual Business Meeting at The Ninety in Pioneer Square.
The meeting is part of the “Democracy in Sports’’ vision Roth’s fellow Hollywood counterpart and Sounders co-owner Drew Carey first espoused before the team started play in 2009. Unlike other North American sports franchises, the Sounders are unique in giving season-ticket holders — all automatically members of the Alliance — a voice in how the team actually runs its business. They even allow them to vote to keep or fire the general manager every four years.
“This was all him and it works,’’ Roth said of Carey’s vision. “This isn’t just some marketing thing. We really wanted to give the fans a say.’’
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And for two hours last week, Roth, majority owner Adrian Hanauer, chief operating officer Bart Wiley and general manager Garth Lagerwey did just that. Seated alongside Alliance Council leadership representatives Stephanie Steiner, Martin Buckley and Alex Eagleton, they fielded questions from about 100 fans in attendance and others listening in via internet livestreaming.
Previous years’ events were held at bigger venues and open to everyone in-person. This year’s was limited to about 100 people on site, but the livestream was done for the first time to accommodate those who had complained they couldn’t make it to past events because of issues such as midweek scheduling, weather and driving distances.
Questions were taken live via the internet, though criticism of the team’s management was muted; small wonder given the Sounders are defending MLS Cup champions and on Nov. 21 will open the Western Conference finals at Houston. Another GM vote also isn’t due until next year’s meeting.
But management was nonetheless peppered with questions on everything from the in-game experience, to security-bag checks, the Sounders 2 second-division squad’s planned move to Tacoma next year and a ticketing switch to SeatGeek as the club’s main partner. SeatGeek co-founder Russ D’Souza was on hand to explain what some of the ticketing switch means from a technology and experience perspective.
Oh, and there was also the whole “stars” thing.
Few things symbolize the Alliance’s mission — and one of its biggest successes yet — more than having pushed Major League Soccer in February to allow championship gold stars to be sewn above the crests of Sounders jerseys sold by the team. Soccer tradition worldwide has seen title-winning clubs sew such stars on their jerseys for the following season.
But MLS sets the policy for merchandise sales leaguewide and had previously limited the stars to only authentic team jerseys, which fans complained do not fit the majority of them – especially women and children. It first became an issue when the Portland Timbers won the MLS Cup in 2015 and their rabid, tradition-savvy fans began clamoring for stars to be added to all jerseys being sold.
The Timbers, without MLS authorization, thus began selling all jerseys with stars slapped on them until the league cracked down on the practice.
Sounders fans also began complaining they wanted stars shortly after the team’s title victory in Toronto last December. The team itself had already begun discussing policy changes with MLS officials in New York, but the process was accelerated when the Alliance got involved.
“This is a classic example of you the fans having a voice and in this case a very, very loud voice,’’ Sounders COO Wiley said from the podium. “We were discussing it with the league, but I can truly tell you that when some executives at the league phoned me to say ‘Oh, my gosh, if one more Sounders person calls, emails or flies to New York to talk to me personally in the office, I’m going to lose it,’ that’s cool.’’
He added: “You guys had a real loud say in that and in the stars getting on. I honestly don’t know if we get stars on replica jerseys without the help of (Alliance) Council and the fans.’’
MLS has agreed to allow championship stars to be sewn on jerseys being sold for all championship teams beginning in 2019. But jerseys for years ahead of that date have already been manufactured and shipped to teams and vendors without a provision for stars. Alliance president Steiner told the meeting last week that regardless of MLS policy, the Sounders have assured her they will provide stars to all partners and vendors selling jerseys in the event the team repeats as MLS Cup winners.
“Our club has stuck their necks out and they’ve said ‘We will have stars’,’’ Steiner said.
Roth said afterward that the exercise of actually listening to fans has paid off for a franchise that grew its attendance to 43,666 this season from 42,636 a year ago despite ticket-price increases. It’s why Roth says he flew up specifically for the event, promptly hopping on a jet back to Los Angeles that night so he could “go to work in the morning.’’
“People think that if you let fans have a say, it can hurt you,’’ he said. “But if you want them to feel connected and be a true part of the team, you have to give them a say and then listen to them.’’