Reigning in Seattle

Yes, world, MLS can put fans in the seats

Updated: May 16, 2012, 5:52 PM ET
By Doug McIntyre | ESPN The Magazine

Seattle Sounders FansThomas Boyd for ESPN The MagazineThe world's game has a rich history in Seattle.

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DRUMS BEAT, CHANTS ring out, fans march. There are brightly colored scarves and home-made banners, celebrity spectators and crisp, damp spring air. But this isn't Manchester. It's not even England. It's Seattle, and come Saturdays, the streets and seats fill, and the right side of Puget Sound becomes as lively a soccer city as anyplace in the Prem.

Sounders FC, a young franchise in a disrespected league, tucked away in a remote corner of a nonsoccer nation, is proving the sport can succeed in the U.S. "For everyone in American soccer," says Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, "I always tell people, you have to make a pilgrimage to Seattle. What you hoped soccer would be, it's actually like that here."

Per game, the Sounders outdraw the Mariners almost 2 to 1, with attendance through May 5 at nearly 39,000, which would place eighth in the English Premier League. Merchandise sales are on a par with the Seahawks, according to Gary Wright, Sounders senior VP of business operations. No wonder NBA commissioner David Stern, who let the Sonics leave Seattle in 2008 after 41 years, calls the Sounders "the most successful expansion team in the history of sports."

Not that this success should surprise anyone. Out of the way and independent-minded, Seattle has a tradition of embracing the new. The city gave birth to grunge, Starbucks and Microsoft. Occupy Wall Street? In Seattle, home of the 1999 World Trade Organization riots, that's so last century.

It also helps that the world's game has a rich history in the Emerald City. The original Sounders were founded in 1974 (two years before the Seahawks and three before the Mariners), but the Kingdome was literally crumbling when U.S. Soccer chose host cities for the 1994 World Cup, and Seattle was passed over again when MLS launched two years later. The demand was there; the venue still wasn't. Then in 2002, Seahawks Stadium (now named CenturyLink Field) opened, having secured public funding largely on the promise it could host soccer as well as football.

By 2007, a lifelong soccer fan named Joe Roth, who just happened to be the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios and a multimillionaire Hollywood producer with movies such as Major League and While You Were Sleeping to his credit, decided the time was right for MLS in Seattle. He partnered with Adrian Hanauer, a local businessman who ran a minor league version of the Sounders, then persuaded Microsoft co-founder and Seahawks owner Paul Allen to buy in. The marriage of football and fütbol turned out to be a masterstroke.

More than half of the Seahawks' full-time staffers also work for the Sounders. The teams merged ticket, marketing and financial operations, enabling the Sounders to hit the ground running. The new club also took advantage of the void left by the Sonics' departure -- inheriting media coverage and corporate sponsors -- though there's debate about how much that helped at the gate. "People say that was a factor," says Wright. "But I'm not sure how many basketball fans love soccer."

In the Sounders' original business plan, the goal was to sell 12,000 tickets per game. The team averaged nearly 30,000. "It became a cultural phenomenon," Roth says. But execs refuse to take that support for granted. "The day you assume everyone's always going to be there on Saturday is when complacency bites you on the ass," says Hanauer, the GM.

So the front office made sure to build trust among its young, tech-savvy fans from the start, letting fans name the team and soliciting feedback through social media. "The people who put down a deposit for season tickets [their inaugural year] were sent a link to fill out info such as: What kind of fan are you?" says Bart Wiley, the Sounders' director of business development. "Will you sing and chant or just watch the game?" Comedian Drew Carey, another minority owner, took the concept of "democracy in sport" further by giving season-ticket holders the opportunity to vote out the GM every four years. (Hanauer, up for re-election in November, calls his chances "reasonable.")

The suits were also smart enough to stay out of the fans' way. "People ask how we created this amazing stadium energy," Hanauer says. "We didn't create anythingthey did. We've made good decisions, but we're careful not to disrupt the organic growth and authenticity of what's developed here. We know we can screw this up."

Of course, it's easier to support a competitive team. Under coach Schmid, hired fresh off an MLS Cup win with Columbus in 2008, the Sounders won the first three games in their history and haven't looked back. They've since made the playoffs and increased their point total every year without superstars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry. Not that they're cheap. The club has the third-highest payroll in MLS behind LA and New York, spending wisely on lesser-known but highly skilled South Americans like Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales and Colombian forward Fredy Montero. This season, the Sounders are off to their best start yet.

Like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, what started as coffeehouse counterculture is now a money-making stream. And the rest of MLS is paying attention. New clubs in Portland and Vancouver entered the league in 2011 with similar grassroots excitement, and the European-style atmospheres are slowly taking root in places like Houston and Kansas City, albeit on a much smaller scale. But what plays in Seattle doesn't necessarily sell in KC. Instead of simply following the Sounders' blueprint, other clubs should follow their example. Take the world's game and make it their own.

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Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has covered American and international soccer since 2002.