SEATTLE – The Emerald City Supporters held their green and blue scarves high and sang in unison, their words echoing off the brick facades of the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood as they marched to a recent Seattle Sounders FC match.
“Take ’em all; take ’em all …” they bellowed. “Short ‘n’ tall, watch ’em fall; come on boys, take ’em all!”
If Major League Soccer had any concerns about how soccer would be received in its newest market, they have long since disappeared. The overwhelming success of the first-year Sounders is providing a blueprint for future MLS franchises.
At a time when MLS attendance is down in many markets, the infant Sounders are bucking the trend to the point of opening more seats beginning this weekend. Instead of 29,000 clad in rave green and blue cramming the lower bowl of Qwest Field, as was the case for the first nine home games, it’ll be nearly 33,000 for the rest of the season.
Seattle is easily on pace to shatter the previous attendance mark set by the Los Angeles Galaxy in the league’s first season, and the Sounders are expecting sellout crowds of 67,000 for international matches with Chelsea and FC Barcelona this summer.
Some of the success is because of the novelty that comes with every expansion franchise. But the Sounders are smartly tapping into a fan base looking for something new to rally around after the SuperSonics, Seattle’s oldest professional franchise, were sent into storage a year ago when the owner moved the team to Oklahoma City.
“One of the current examples that we can show of the best practices of starting a team from scratch would have the Sounders all over it,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “It’s across the four P’s of marketing: product, price, place and promotion. All the facets of what we would say is sports marketing 101 they’ve accounted for and are doing well.”
In a city known for starting unique trends – grunge rock and overpriced coffee as examples – Seattle is doing its best in year one at wresting away from rival Portland the title of “Soccer City USA.”
On that recent weeknight, the fans who showed up for the “March to the Match” represented a broad spectrum: skaters and brokers, families and mohawked fanatics. Wannabe hooligans shoved and yelled at those in opposing jerseys, while a Sounders’ scarf was draped across a baby in a stroller.
The fanatic reaction to the league’s 15th team has even amazed some of those responsible for its success.
“What maybe has surprised me is that it’s become so mainstream, so prevalent, all the way through the community, through every type of sports fan so quickly,” said general manager and part owner Adrian Hanauer. “We’ve struck a chord and … I’ve heard so many stories ‘I was never really a soccer fan,’ or ‘I’ve never been to a soccer game and I gave up my season tickets to this team to be a Sounders supporter.’ That level, that type of fan that we hoped to get someday. We didn’t think we would get them immediately.”
Stepping into the void left by the Sonics’ departure worried Tod Leiweke, CEO of the Sounders and the Seattle Seahawks.
“I didn’t necessarily see it as a benefit,” Leiweke said. “It’s a different season and different fan base.”
The Sounders helped mitigate any such feelings with a series of deft moves:
•Fans were allowed to vote for the team name, rejecting three other choices to bring back the Sounders name from the old North American Soccer League days. They also hold the right to vote out the sitting GM every four years, just like at Barcelona.
•Seattle signed big-name talent like Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg, signaling a desire to win immediately.
•The team gave season-ticket holders the ability to decide what type of fans they wanted to sit around, from hardcore cursers to family-friendly areas.
•Season-ticket holders were rewarded with team scarves as their ticket for the first game and had Chelsea, Barcelona and the MLS Cup included as part of their package.