As Vancouver prepares to enter Major League Soccer, Seattle’s team is packing them in
By BRUCE CONSTANTINEAU
SEATTLE - By North American standards, Seattle Sounders soccer fans are a fiercely passionate lot.
They chant and scream and proudly hold up Sounder-blue/rave-green team scarves while marching to Qwest Field singing the 1969 Perry Como hit: “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle!”
They even put up a mildly anti-Canadian banner when Toronto FC came to town two weeks ago — Blame Canaduh.
Club officials pulled down the amusing in-stadium signage with upside-down Maple Leafs before kickoff, but the fans’ outright fervor for the beautiful game can’t be denied.
In its first Major League Soccer season, the Sounders franchise is a runaway winner.
The club easily tops the league in game attendance by averaging more than 30,500 fans each match — a whopping 10,000-plus more than second-and-third-place Toronto FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Surging demand for tickets prompted Sounders officials to boost Qwest Field’s lower-bowl seating capacity to 32,400 from 24,400 at the start of the season. The team has sold 97 full-season corporate suites — for prices ranging from $9,000 to $32,000 — and has a season-ticket base of 22,000.
“We certainly anticipated a high level of success, but obviously we couldn’t have predicted exactly how well it has gone and how many things fell into place along the way,” Sounders general manager and part-owner Adrian Hanauer said.
Seattle’s success has clearly grabbed the attention of fledgling MLS franchises Portland and Vancouver, both due to enter the league in 2011 (notwithstanding the uncertain status of BC Place renovations).
Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi closely monitors the Sounders situation and he and his senior staff spent a day in Seattle earlier this season learning the details of the operation from Sounders executives.
“Seattle has been pretty systematic with what they’ve done and things have gone amazingly well,” he said.
Like Vancouver, Seattle has an active youth soccer movement and a strong background in professional soccer that laid the foundation for success at the MLS level, Hanauer said.
There also had been a strong pent-up demand for MLS soccer in Seattle, given former league commissioner Doug Logan promised the city would get a franchise if it built a new stadium. Qwest Field opened in 2002, but it took seven long years to field an MLS team.
Movie producer Joe Roth is the Sounders’ majority owner, with Hanauer, Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen and comedian Drew Carey holding minority stakes in the team.
The owners agreed early on the new team had to focus on being authentic and true to the game, Hanauer said, without distractions like cheerleaders, mascots, dancers or laser light shows.
“That means the entertainment on the field better be darn good, so we very specifically decided on a style of play that would please fans — attacking, brave, smart, creative soccer,” he said.
The result has been a competitive team that finds itself in the hunt for a playoff spot in its inaugural season. Twenty-two-year-old Colombian striker Fredy Montero has thrilled fans with his offensive flair this season, while 32-year-old Swedish midfielder and former Arsenal star Freddie Ljunberg is a clear fan favourite. The fiery Ljunberg doesn’t mail in his game performances. He received a yellow card during the Toronto FC game after tussling with opposing forward Dwayne DeRosario and was nearly tossed from the game after trash talking with the Toronto players bench.
It was Carey’s idea to have a 52-piece marching band — Sound Wave — create excitement before the game and the concept appears to have worked. Hundreds of Sounders fans meet in Pioneer Square 90 minutes before kickoff to hear the band play several high-energy tunes before they all march three blocks to Qwest Field.
Hanauer readily acknowledges Seattle’s success stems partly from copying the best ideas of other MLS teams — particularly Toronto FC, which sells out BMO Field every game.
Seattle adopted Toronto’s strategy of giving team scarves to season-ticket holders, who then display them as a show of club loyalty. At least two-thirds of Sounders fans at Qwest Field wear scarves or team jerseys, creating a veritable sea of green and blue throughout the stadium.
The team also understood early on the importance of cultivating and retaining a loyal fan base by “underpromising and overdelivering” to create a strong sense of value. Two hugely popular exhibition games against European powerhouses Chelsea and FC Barcelona this year were included in season-ticket packages.
“A lot of markets charge additionally for those games but we really want to deliver immense value for our season-ticket holders,” Hanauer said.
He also feels having a downtown stadium is a huge benefit to the new franchise.
“It can work with a suburban stadium, but it’s more of a challenge,” he said. “People are already used to coming down here for Mariners games, Seahawks games, restaurants and hotels, so it’s a lot easier for us to be here.”
The Whitecaps embraced the downtown-stadium concept a long time ago — first with their proposed soccer-specific stadium on the downtown waterfront and then by agreeing to lease space in a refurbished BC Place.
Lenarduzzi expects Vancouver’s MLS team will give season-ticket holders the same kind of value offered by the Sounders, noting the team already gives its USL-1 season-ticket holders free playoff tickets.
The Whitecaps also will stay true to the game and avoid flashy forms of fan entertainment, Lenarduzzi said, but he doubts it will get rid of its popular mascot, Winger.
“We love him and he appeals to our crowd,” he said. “We’ll try to assess things as we move along.”
Lenarduzzi, who recently went to Toronto to speak to prospective corporate clients, said corporate support for the new Vancouver MLS franchise already appears strong.
“We’ll be looking for that signature partner like Seattle has with Xbox,” he said.
The Sounders signed a lucrative five-year, $20-million sponsorship deal with Microsoft/Xbox, and the Xbox logo is displayed prominently on the front of the team jersey.
Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot hasn’t been keen on the idea of slapping a sponsor’s name on the front of a jersey, but it’s a common practice throughout the soccer world and Lenarduzzi said if the team can find the right sponsor, it could be a great fit.
The new Seattle franchise tried to abandon the Sounders name, but fans wouldn’t let it happen. The same scenario might happen in Vancouver; the Whitecaps organization is going through a branding exercise to determine the right name for the new MLS team.
“This is our one chance to make sure it’s the right name so we’re going to take our time and do the due diligence,” Lenarduzzi said. “If I have a vote, which I do, I wouldn’t want it to be anything other than Whitecaps, but that’s just me. I’m one person.”
Hanauer, meanwhile, said he’s keenly aware the Sounders’ success at the gate this season doesn’t guarantee huge crowds in the future. Major MLS markets like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York have experienced attendance declines ranging from 20 to 25 per cent this season.
“All we can do is make sure we’re true to the brand and true to our fans and provide a great product on the field,” Hanauer said. “We can’t put people in their cars and deliver them to the stadium, but we feel if we do all the right things, we can sustain this for the long term.”
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