This post is the first in a series looking at the success of the Seattle Sounders and how it can be replicated in other MLS cities
Its finally official, David Beckham will once again join AC Milan on loan after the Galaxy’s season is over. This has been by far his best season in MLS and the Galaxy are in the playoffs for the first time. But the loss of Beckham’s star power will not hurt the league at all. The Seattle Sounders are building a much stronger bond with their fans than Beckham ever did in any part of the U.S., and they are leading a Seattle sports revival and pointing the way forward for MLS.
It is certainly true that the conditions in Seattle were ripe for success – the area has a very strong youth soccer program and had been high on the list for MLS expansion for years, the Seattle Sounders USL team had been in existence since 1994 with decent following, and the principal owner of the USL franchise is part of the ownership group for the MLS team. Expectations were high, but no one could have predicted the extent to which the Sounders have succeeded or the way the locals have taken to the team. So how did they do it, especially without a soccer-only stadium or world soccer superstars?
They did it by emphasizing above all other priorities the club’s connection to its fans and the greater Seattle community. Seattle’s match day experience is second to none across MLS, playing an enjoyable style and creating an atmosphere reminiscent of top European or Latin American grounds. Management has skillfully utilized an urban stadium to form a direct link to local businesses, broadening the stakeholders in the Sounders’ success. And the Sounders have given their fans a say in the running of the club, allowing members of the Seattle FC Alliance the opportunity to vote on key management decisions. A run to the playoffs in their inaugural season has helped, but wins only form a portion of Seattle’s success.
Sounders GM and part owner (and former USL Sounders owner) Adrian Hanauer said, “we very specifically decided on a style of play that would please fans – attacking, brave, smart, creative soccer.” They put their money behind that plan, signing former Arsenal and Sweden standout Freddie Ljungberg as their designated player. While Ljungberg is a fantastic player (and former underwear model), no one will confuse him with the marketing power of a Beckham or Ronaldo. Honed in Arsene Wenger’s passing game, Ljungberg, just 31 when he signed, still had the ability and desire to play at a high level and is precisely the kind of player MLS should be recruiting more often. Add in young Columbian striker Fredy Montero, American Nate Jacqua, and local product Kasey Keller to give the team a solid foundation in goal, and the Sounders are very pleasing on the eye.
The excitement on the pitch is amplified in the stands, and not by accident. The Sounders allow organized groups to form in-stadium communities, sitting together in regular sections. This is not unique to Seattle – DC United has the Bara Brava for example – but the extent, at least six different groups are represented throughout the stadium, is unprecedented. They borrowed from Toronto FC the team scarf concept, but upped its relevance for the team and fans. Every season ticket holder gets the green and blue Sounders FC scarf. Before every home game, the club presents a member of the Seattle area community a Golden Scarf, which is then held above their heads, a signal to all in the stadium to do the same. The effect is similar to Liverpool fans holding their scarves aloft as they sing “You’ll never walk alone” before each game at Anfield.
The scarf has become the iconic piece of Sounders merchandise; every real fan must have one. And Seattle Sounders merchandise sells, leading all MLS franchises. Although they do have a team store, the Sounders sell most of their merchandise at local retailers and sporting goods stores. They’ve even given some rather unique licenses, such as the one to Seattle Chocolates to sell Sounders bars at home games – a deal that the company then took to MLS and received approval to sell at all 15 league stadiums.
Part owner Drew Carey pushed for the creation of an official marching band that parades several blocks to the stadium trailing hundreds of fans and belting out high energy tunes an hour and a half before each home game. That sounds kind of silly at first, until you look a little deeper and realize that the band, and importantly the fans, congregate in Pioneer Square. The numerous sports bars and restaurants in that area now cater to hundreds of Sounders fans before and after every home game. This has been a boon to these and other local businesses, as Fuel Sports Bar owner Mike Morris told KING TV News, “The whole economy kind of went down, Seattle had a tough winter, and things were going really bad. The Sounders started up in March and for us it’s just been gigantic.”
Another Carey idea – Drew Carey, sports franchise genius, who knew? – was to adopt some of the structure of big Spanish clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, and allow fans to vote on key managerial decisions. Every season ticket holder is automatically a member of the Seattle FC Alliance, any other fan can join for an annual fee of $125. The Alliance can vote out the team’s general manager at regular four-year intervals (something I think Redskins fans would relish) and form councils to talk with other management or the coaching staff. The Alliance Council was awarded the Golden Scarf at the last regular season home game. The Sounders wisely resisted creating supporters elections for top offices like they have in Spain, but this is far more fan involvement in the actual running of the team than any other sports franchise in America.
And Seattle has responded. From the first game, the Sounders have blown away attendance records forcing expanded capacity at Qwest field, selling out every game, building a season ticket base of 22,000 (more on its own than any other team’s average attendance), selling all 97 corporate suites, and its roughly 31,000 per game average shattered the MLS attendance record by more than 2,000. And as Jerry Brewer writes in the Seattle Times, the Sounders success “wasn’t simply a triumph for a new soccer franchise. It was a breakthrough for a sports market that collapsed in 2008 and remains in clean-up mode.”
Its not rocket science, and while not everything Seattle has done can be replicated across the league, it is certainly the blueprint for building a sustainable franchise.