Sounders already make big noise

RENTON, Wash. – The splashy new Seattle Sounders are still two months from their first game. Yet they already have sold far more season tickets than Major League Soccer averaged in attendance last season.

They have the millions of Hollywood filmmaker Joe Roth, team co-owner and actor Drew Carey, and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen. Disney is a team sponsor, too.

All that cash pried one of MLS’ most accomplished coaches, Sigi Schmid, from the league champions and persuaded Swedish national star midfielder Freddie Ljungberg to come from England’s Premier League to this modest soccer league in the United States.

And they have a partnership with the Northwest’s pre-eminent sports franchise, the NFL’s Seahawks.

The only thing missing from all this buzz is David Beckham.

“It doesn’t look like an expansion team,” Roth said Wednesday, smiling like a proud father after watching his team practice for the first time through a cold fog on the practice field of the Seahawks.

The NFL team is partnering with Sounders FC through the minority stake in the soccer franchise held by Allen’s Vulcan Inc., a management company that invests in science, the arts and movie production, and also runs the Seahawks.

So it fits that the MLS’ 15th and newest team has brought an NFL-like excitement to a region starved for a championship sports team.

Roth said the Sounders will turn a profit in 2009, no small feat in the current economy. They have sold 18,600 season tickets. Even if no one else buys a seat, Seattle will be better than 11 of the league’s 14 other teams were last season at attracting fans.

The Sounders are the first MLS team to have an agreement for all games to be broadcast on free, over-the-air television. Microsoft is paying $20 million, according to The Wall Street Journal, to have its Xbox 360 Live brand prominently displayed on Sounders jerseys for five years. Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos said the company has not disclosed the amount but confirmed this was its first sponsorship of a pro sports team.

This is far beyond what the second-tier MLS is used to. While teams in New England, Kansas City and New York – until the Red Bulls move out of Giants Stadium and into their own place – share stadiums with NFL teams, Seattle is more intricately partnered with the behemoth of American sports.

The Seahawks, with their regional might and rich resources, have provided at least the appearance that the Sounders are in the race with pro football and baseball’s Mariners for the Northwest’s pro sports attention and fans’ money.

“Well, I hope so. That was my idea,” Roth said. … “Once a week, I wake up and say to myself, ‘What would I have done without the Seahawks?’ There’s no way we would be where we are right now without them.”

Roth was standing in the hallway of the Seahawks’ luxurious new headquarters, built for $60 million. His Sounders are using the complex for part of training camp before they leave for Oxnard, Calif., and then Argentina next month. They will begin play March 19 on national television inside Qwest Field, the Seahawks’ opulent stadium that Sounders FC is using rent-free.

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