Stars Off the Field


It could have been the scarves. Or perhaps it was the marching band, the pub-based advertising, the signing of a Swedish star most locals hadn't heard of, or the local boy who made the big time in Europe. Or maybe it was the fan vote for a general manager. It's hard to say.

No one assumes, of course, that marketing alone explains the Seattle Sounders' league-leading attendance and popularity.

That's because much of the structure for success for Major League Soccer (MLS) in Seattle already was in place. There was the original Sounders of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1970s, establishing the name. Later, there was the successful United Soccer League's team of the same name. Add in the fact that western Washington has one of the highest rates of youth soccer league participation, and the loss of the Sonics creating a vacancy in professional sports fandom, and you have a city that was primed and ready for some fútbol.

These things existed independently from the professional sports ownership ambitions of Joe Roth, Adrian Hanauer, Paul Allen and Drew Carey. But the Sounders' owners rightly can claim responsibility for what many in the industry have called one of the most effective marketing pushes in modern professional sports.

Indeed, it was one of the few growth businesses in Seattle in 2009.

Gary Wright, Sounders senior vice president of business, says it all started with a willingness to listen. "We invited people to speak their minds," he said. "And we listened to the fans."

Some of that listening was done in local pubs, such as the George & Dragon, the Fremont British bar that serves as soccer central in Seattle. Wright says everyone involved in the Sounders marketing push realized the group needed to do two things. One was to make existing fans of high-caliber soccer, such as the English Premier League (considered the best in the world), think that Major League Soccer was worth watching.

For them, the team made scarves, a longtime English tradition, in Seattle blue and green. They also signed former Arsenal star and Swedish national captain Fredrik Ljungberg and Washington native Kasey Keller, who was the first American goalkeeper to play in the Premier League; they encouraged singing, chanting, noisy fan clubs such as the Brougham Boys '74 and North End Supporters; they brought in world-famous teams for friendly matches such as Chelsea FC and Barcelona FC; and they advertised heavily in Spanish and changed the food menu for the games to reflect the tastes of its fan base.

The owners also didn't try to pretend that this was the equivalent of bigger, better leagues. Nor did they try to compete with other far more established leagues in other countries (a mistake Major League Soccer made in its early years).

"Some of [the fans] still would prefer to watch the Premier League or the Mexican division," says Hanauer, who is also general manager of the team. "But they can still enjoy those leagues and enjoy MLS as well. One of the key pieces of information we gleaned was that fans had multiple jerseys.

"So it's OK for them to be fans of other leagues," Hanaeur says. "The focus is to make sure that the game's presentation had some level of purity to it and a high quality of football on the pitch."

But the Sounders went after the casual fans too, the people who might like a sport but were not committed to soccer. For them, the team did a few unusual things. First, the team marketed to youth and recreational leagues-something the big three sports of football, basketball and baseball no longer do with any regularity. Then they tapped Seattle's view of itself as a cosmopolitan, global city when they advertised that the Sounders were bringing "the world's game to Seattle" in the months before the March 2009 debut game.

Then came a marketing coup. The team told season ticket holders that they could vote for the general manager every four years. The Sounders' ownership was stunned at the public's reaction.

"We were surprised how well democracy in sports has resonated," Hanauer says. "People are really enthusiastic and really feel that it is their franchise by letting them be involved in voting and on the advisory board."

But, as management points out, the team still has that new franchise smell. What happens later when the team is having a lackluster year and playing one of the top teams, such as the Columbus Crew, the 2008 champions?

"Well, we can't rest on our success," says Wright, who was also a vice president with the Seahawks for 17 years. "We really are trying to grab the fan who will be with us for the long haul."

To that end, the team has followed specific MLS guidelines on the game experience: No crazy thumping music or needless eye-candy during the brief breaks, and no constant announcer chatter or extended introductions (although the team did find a British announcer for authenticity's sake).

There has been talk in the league of expanding the "Beckham Rule," which is the salary cap exemption that allows the signing of foreign stars like Ljungberg. But Wright says such rules must be balanced against developing domestic stars and the risk of over-marketing big names-a mistake the long-defunct NASL made with Pelé in the 1970s.

And there is some concern about the rapid expansion in the Pacific Northwest with major league teams coming to Portland and Vancouver, B.C. Wright and Hanauer believe local rivalries are good for the league. But it's no secret that fans from both places help fill the stadium for the lucrative friendlies-such as the games this season against Chelsea and Barcelona-that nearly doubled the ticket sales from an average of 32,000 to better than 60,000.

Hanauer says the expansion effect remains to be seen. But he's optimistic that the well the Sounders tapped in the Northwest runs quite deep. As for now, he's pretty thrilled about the way things look.

The business of soccer in Seattle, he says, has gone "extraordinarily well so far. Knock on wood."