I have been reading catching on the business of soccer lately, reading about Major League Soccer (MLS), the English Premiere League, and other aspects including David Beckham’s time in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Included in this research has has been Mike Gastineau’s introduction to the Seattle Sounders and its franchise launch. It’s absolutely a good read.
Below are 10 Things to Learn from the book:
1) Fifty-one percent of those eligible voted in the election and the decision to build the stadium passed by less than two percentage points. Mendoza’s response when asked if the vote would have been yes without adding soccer to the mix is doubtless and declarative. “Oh, God no. No way. It doesn’t even come close. If it had not been for the soccer moms and dads this thing would have died.” “It was a squeaker,” Kolde agrees. “We needed soccer. It powered this thing through. We wouldn’t have won it without that. Not at all.”
2) In a thoughtful nod to Seattle’s sports history it was the Sounders who opened the new stadium just as they had opened Seattle’s new Kingdome in 1976 in a legendary match against Pele and the New York Cosmos. On July 28, 2002 the USL A-League Sounders played their rivals the Vancouver Whitecaps. The home team won 4-1 in front of a league-record crowd of 25,515 people. Standing there that night it was easy to envision Seattle quickly making the leap to the big league of American soccer, Major League Soccer.
3) There are a myriad of reasons the NASL and the Sounders didn’t make it. The league was mismanaged and over expanded. Too many of the original owners were infatuated with soccer, but not dedicated to the long-term success of the league. In Seattle the Sounders of 1974 enjoyed little or no competition, but by 1980 the NFL and MLB had arrived, the Sonics had won an NBA championship, and the Washington Huskies had begun a long string of college football success. But Hanauer emphasizes that move from the cozy confines of Memorial Stadium to the Kingdome. Attending a game where empty seats outnumbered tickets sold couldn’t help but undermine the fan experience.
4) Leiweke proposed that Allen would own 25 percent of the team, but instead of putting up money he would provide business infrastructure in the form of the Seahawks marketing, sales, promotion, and media staff, as well as use of the team’s stadium rent-free for home games. Leiweke had convincing to do on both sides. On the one hand he had to convince Allen that his staff and management could handle the extra responsibility of a new soccer team. Allen’s only concern was whether or not his top executives would get distracted from their duties with the Seahawks, but Leiweke assured him that wouldn’t happen. Meanwhile, Leiweke convinced Roth and Hanauer that what they really needed from Allen was the Seahawks organization’s expertise. Roth and Hanauer wouldn’t get any capital in the deal, but they instantly had an office staff trained in how to run a professional sports team.
5) “One of the things I felt all along about MLS and soccer in America was they accepted their role as a secondary sport. So the first thing I felt was that we have to come out like we are a first-tier sport, like we are baseball, basketball, or football. I kept saying that everything we do we’ve got to do first tier. Our enemy was the 50-year-old white male sportswriters who thought of soccer as something their daughters played.”
6) for the primary marketing effort, the entire group felt the “market to the youth soccer organizations” model favored by many MLS teams was simply the incorrect way to go. “I never want to do something because it’s the way it’s always been done,” Hanauer says. “I can’t stand that kind of thinking.” He had studied and liked the way the MLS expansion team in Toronto had integrated into the community by marketing to soccer fans. “Toronto illustrated to us that this business didn’t need to be and shouldn’t be built on the backs of the youth soccer market,” Hanauer says. “In the history of MLS prior to that it had always been built on youth soccer, but trying to get people to come to a game after they spent eight hours at tournaments on a Saturday was a difficult sell.” So while soccer moms, dads, and kids would be enthusiastically welcomed, they would not be the focus of the new team’s marketing effort.
7) the final piece to connect the new soccer team to the Seahawks culture. Phones would now be answered “thank you for calling the Seattle Seahawks AND Sounders FC.” Business cards were updated to include the Sounders logo. Email addresses were changed to @seahawkssoundersfc.com. A small detail at first glance, that decision went a long way towards establishing the Sounders credibility. They would not be an afterthought. They would be a part of an already established and successful organization. The regular meetings on the team began expanding to include more than just executives, which allowed workers to begin to feel ownership of the new team. “What they (Leiweke and Wright) did from day one,” Hanauer says, “was position this thing within the Seahawks business offices as something new and exciting. Something you not only could be proud of, but that was also was good for your career. They treated it like a top-level professional team.”
8) Along the way to their leap from the USL into MLS the Sounders were smart enough to recognize a huge community of people who didn’t just play soccer on weekends or watch their kids play. The team embraced people who lived the sport, built their days around it, and made plans to be at their favorite pub to watch their favorite team, no matter the time. Leiweke felt too many MLS teams in the past had discounted the existence of such a market in their communities, but he knew it existed in Seattle from first-hand experience, and it was those fans who become primary targets of the Sounders’ original marketing efforts. “Those trips to The George and Dragon served as the inspiration for the core fan base we were going to build around. It was the epicenter.”
9) The Sounders didn’t just hit on the idea of selling the team to the pub crowd; they’ve cultivated the relationship over the years. Their website has a list of MLS Pubs in Seattle and players, coaches, and management make regular appearances to visit with fans. Bayliss says his customers are always pleasantly surprised at how accessible the Sounders are at these appearances: “They are happy to sit down and chat with anybody.”
10) It would be a fun twist if the narrative at this point became Keller teaming up with the USL Sounders to make the jump into MLS and challenge for a championship. It would also be unrealistic. To be sure, there would be some USL guys who made the jump, but to be as good as they wanted to be — immediately — Schmid knew the Sounders would have to succeed in four areas of player acquisition. “You’ve got to find someone in the draft,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure you find someone in the expansion draft. You’ve got to do well with your foreign signings, and you’ve got to discover some guys. If you hit it in three of those areas you’ll be pretty good. Hit in two and you’re 50-50. Hit all four and you’ve got a chance for the playoffs right away. I think we hit all four.”
10a) Swedish native and long time Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg had been signed in October as the Sounders’ designated player. It was a move that made soccer fans in Seattle (and at least one guy still coaching in Columbus) sit up and take notice. “He was huge for the franchise from name recognition,” Schmid says. “He brought more credibility to the Sounders right away. His signing and Kasey’s signing made people think ‘these guys are serious with what they’re trying to do.’ It was a statement signing.”
10b) Maybe they should. Carey’s passion for the fan vote on the status of the general manager is not just some gimmick to attract attention. By the time he met Roth, he had thought through the plan thoroughly and realized that by empowering the fans they would be building in uncommon loyalty. “It’s great because the fans are invested in the team no matter what happens good or bad. If we ever have a bad streak the fans aren’t going to turn their back. They’re going to rise up and do something about it. People are never going to go ‘Fuck this I’m not going to the games anymore.’ That’s what you don’t want. I think the vote thing will keep that from happening. Fans will say ‘We have to rally together and get rid of this GM and save the team.’ That’s what they’ll do.”