Seattle reigns: how the fan-centric Sounders are leading the MLS charge

As Major League Soccer’s best-supported franchise, the Seattle Sounders are well placed to take their home market ascendancy to new frontiers.

Seattle reigns: how the fan-centric Sounders are leading the MLS charge

Firmly established as a domestic powerhouse, the Seattle Sounders are Major League Soccer’s best-supported franchise. Now, with US soccer bosses seeking international growth and MLS teams receiving more overseas exposure than ever before, the Sounders are well placed to take their home market ascendancy to new frontiers.

By Michael Long

Major League Soccer (MLS) has been widely lauded for its sporting and commercial growth since its formation 20 years ago - and rightly so. Through Don Garber's steady leadership and a clear, expansionist vision, the league has succeeded in becoming an operationally sound and commercially stable entity that is now firmly established as a prominent force in an ultra-competitive sports market.

After two decades of near constant commercial and sporting development, MLS soccer has come of age. Evidence of the league’s blossoming maturity can be found in its recent focus on building soccer-specific stadiums, paying its players larger salaries, developing club academies and securing greater international television coverage. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment to date, however, is that the MLS brand of soccer is now taken more seriously than ever, its existence not merely acknowledged but now routinely championed by others within the United States and further afield.

But amid all the plaudits, there is one fact that is often overlooked: that is, that MLS is composed of 20 competing teams. The single-entity nature of the league demands it to be viewed as such, of course; the league’s business model, so typical of American sports, ensures all clubs have a vested interest in the success of their rivals, with each team a franchise and therefore, by definition, governed by the necessary competition rules imposed by a higher authority. Yet for all the positives of that system, there is often a sense that individualism and team identity are secondary to the values, promotion and betterment of the whole.

Whether or not a direct result of that franchise-based system, MLS teams have historically struggled for household name status internationally. There are, of course, one or two exceptions: the Los Angeles Galaxy were sexed up and thrust into worldwide consciousness when they signed David Beckham back in 2007, while the New York Red Bulls have undoubtedly seen the benefits of having wealthy backers with considerable marketing clout. But no MLS team has yet truly stepped out to become a major international brand as distinct from their league - at least not in the same way the elite in Europe or South America have, and not even, it could be argued, as the New York Cosmos have in the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL), an echo of the competition they and the great Pelé helped to popularise in the 1970s.

The Seattle Sounders, however, could yet fill the void. As MLS bids to further establish itself on the global stage, the Emerald City’s fabled soccer outfit are well placed to become the first team brand to genuinely transcend the league internationally. Since they joined in 2009, the Sounders have come to be something of a showcase for MLS. It could be said that they are the epitome of the league’s recent progress: an expansion franchise backed by stable and prominent ownership, a team rooted in their community who have enjoyed success on the pitch and have a domestic following to match many in world soccer.

The Sounders have had Major League Soccer's highest attendances in each of the seven years since they joined the league.

If fans are the chosen currency of brand value and the chief driver of a property’s key revenue streams - fuelling everything from ticket and merchandise sales to sponsorship and TV income - the Sounders have them in abundance. For the seventh consecutive season last year, their average match attendance of well in excess of 44,000 was far and away the highest in MLS, enough to put them 28th in the global attendance rankings or, by way of comparison, ahead of European giants like Liverpool, Chelsea and FC Porto.

That unparalleled following was one of the reasons why Forbes listed the Sounders as the most valuable team in MLS last August. The magazine put a valuation of US$245 million on the team, estimating their 2014 revenues at US$50 million and operating income at US$10 million. While, by admission, such figures are the product of informed guesswork and should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt, they are nevertheless a good indicator of both the Sounders’ domestic prominence and their relative value to the MLS brand overall.

But the Sounders success story is, of course, nothing new. Fronted by Clint Dempsey, the one-time English Premier League practitioner and star of the US men’s national team, the Sounders have been making noise and turning heads for years with their unmistakable ‘rave green’ strips and eye-catching attendances. So what is their secret?

“I think, to me, it begins with ownership - the Major League Soccer ownership, saying, ‘We will not be your typical expansion team,’” says Bart Wiley, the Sounders chief operating officer. “They challenged us from the onset, from the day we announced the franchise, to be the best, to be better, and to not limp into Major League Soccer, but to gallop.”

“I think, to me, it begins with ownership. They challenged us from the onset to be the best, to be better, and to not limp into Major League Soccer, but to gallop.”

If the virtues of tradition and the notion of brand develop and evolve over time, the Sounders have had many years in which to seed and cultivate their identity. The team in their current guise started a little over seven years ago but their origins can be traced back to 1974, when they began play in the old NASL. There - just as they would later become in MLS - the Sounders proved an instant success, hosting the first sell-out crowd in NASL history during an inaugural campaign that would result in several more sell-outs at their old Kingdome stadium and a winning on-field record.

Despite the auspiciousness of those early years, however, a tumultuous period on and off the field saw the NASL's Sounders fold in 1983, with the league itself suffering the same fate a year later. But a return would not be not long in coming. Having been overlooked for a place among the founding members of MLS in the early 1990s, the Sounders of Seattle were resurrected in 1994, the newly formed team joining the American Professional Soccer League (APSL), now the third-tier United Soccer League (USL). Success was duly forthcoming; the team claimed the league title on four occasions between 1995 and 2007, during which time repeated bids to join MLS were proposed and subsequently rejected, the league instead opting to expand elsewhere.

Eventually, in November 2007, the Sounders’ time did arrive. Led by Adrian Hanauer, the club’s majority owner who became managing partner of the USL Sounders in 2002, the team finally secured their place in MLS and a return to top-flight soccer. The turning point came when Hanauer secured investment from Hollywood producer Joe Roth and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who owned, through his company, First & Goal Inc, the Seahawks National Football League (NFL) team and their CenturyLink Field home. Comedian Drew Carey, an avid soccer fan who just so happened to be on the lookout for a stake in an MLS franchise, brought welcome celebrity to the four-man ownership group.

The new Sounders - who would effectively be operated, at least initially, by the Seahawks’ in-house staff - would begin play at CenturyLink Field in the 2009 MLS season. Harking back to the glory days of old, the team would go on to sell some 22,000 season-ticket packages that year on their way to setting a succession of attendance records and reclaiming their position as US soccer’s best-supported franchise.

“I think the launch was successful because of the way in which it was executed from the Seahawks and those of us who just worked on the Sounders,” recalls Wiley, who joined the team in 2001 and served six seasons as general manager of their USL side prior to assuming a role in business development and, subsequently, his current position. “We really, really paid honour or homage to the fact the franchise is not beginning now, it’s continuing. It's back to a major league-type presence like it was in the North American Soccer League.”

Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer led repeated bids to secure Seattle's entry into Major League Soccer.

Going on attendances alone, joining the burgeoning MLS proved to be transformative for the Sounders. As recently as 2008, the team played their home USL matches in front of a few thousand spectators; by 2010, the number of season ticket holders was increased to 32,000 as the club began a run of 127 consecutive MLS home sell-outs. “When you think about it - 3,300 people to 45,000 people in eight years - that’s stunning,” smiles Wiley.

The Sounders’ recent internal growth has been equally strong. 15 years ago, when Wiley first arrived in Seattle from his previous job in communications, the team employed just six people in a family-owned building. Today, two years after the team severed operational ties with the Seahawks, the Sounders front office staff numbers 80-plus, with the majority operating out of new downtown offices located a stone’s throw from CenturyLink Field. As the man tasked with overseeing all business operations, Wiley (below) has personally overseen the process of relocating and embedding the team into their new headquarters.

“We came here with about 30 staff members two years ago and now we’re up over 80, so its been a lot of on-boarding, a lot of education, a lot of ‘this is what we’re doing’ and ‘here’s why we’re doing this’,” he reflects, sitting in his office whose walls are decked, like much of Sounders HQ, in all manner of sporting memorabilia.

“Its a singular focus of, again, growing and taking care of the fans and being a good member of the community. We wanted to make sure we’re making our staff mindful of that and that’s how we want to be known as an organisation.

“The first year of transition was mostly making sure that things ran well here, that we had a phone and a computer. It's only been in the last six months that we’ve truly been able to say: ‘OK, we’re here, we’re established, we’re two years into this.’ The staff is now at a level that we can start to think about and dream as far as a five-year plan or ten-year budget, areas of focus and emphasis for the organisation.”

Wiley is adamant that a large and fervent fanbase will continue to underpin the Sounders’ growth, such is soccer’s place in Seattle’s sporting identity and cultural fabric. “Seattle is a different, unique city,” he adds. “People here like things that are different. People here like things that are European and global and worldly, and that’s football, that’s soccer. We’ve been able to do a good job of capturing the attention of a lot of folks in town through the truly unique nature of the game.”

The Sounders’ success is also a product of serendipitous circumstances. Despite its long and storied sporting heritage, Seattle notably lacks major professional ice hockey and men’s basketball teams. In many ways, that lack of competition for eyeballs, airtime and investment dollars has enabled the Sounders to cut through and prosper, even if their city is by no means large by North American standards. The Sounders were also, to some extent, fortunate in that when the franchise launched in MLS throughout 2008, the Mariners baseball team were coming off the back of a dismal season and the Seahawks were far from the Super Bowl-winning side they would go on to become in 2013.

“People say, ‘What’s the perfect time to enter?’” muses Wiley. “As far as the sports landscape in town goes, that was a pretty good time for us to start a franchise.”

The Sounders' average attendance of 44,247 put them 28th in the global rankings in 2015.

With home market ascendancy assured - and another season of league-leading attendances likely - the Sounders organisation are now actively stepping up their international brand building efforts. Initially, says Wiley, that effort has been predicated on “strategic and thoughtful” communications coupled with industry-facing thought leadership, with Wiley himself acting as something of a cheerleader for the Sounders brand.

“The metrics that we’ve had, and the success that we’ve had as young of a franchise as we are, have afforded us a platform and a chance to go and talk to others around the world about what we’ve done and why we’ve done it,” he says. “It's fun to go over to the UK, to a conference, and to have people know and have heard of the Sounders and be aware of our attendance figures and the success that we’ve had as a business and as a team in the pitch. That’s humbling and that’s cool. But we don’t want to rest on those successes.”

As for those Forbes numbers - specifically the US$245 million franchise valuation - Wiley refuses to confirm or deny their accuracy. He does, however, acknowledge the way in which they highlight the strength of what the Sounders organisation deems most important above all: the fans.

“What that says to me, as a fan-centric club and a club that has always wanted to take care of our fans and trying hard to do that, it just says that we have a great fanbase,” he says. “Many of our fans have been Sounder fans back into the 70s and 80s; for decades, they’ve been Sounder fans. What that number says to me is we, as employees of the Sounders and stewards of the Sounders brand, should be very thankful for the fans who have supported our franchise.

“What happens in the stadium prior to a match is electric, and the fans are the ones who lead all of that for us.” 

“We can throw some pretty cool numbers at people to make us sound like we know what we’re doing, but that’s all because the fans have come and supported what we’ve done.”

‘Taking care of our fans’ is something of a mantra for Wiley, who repeatedly insists that catering to the Sounders fanbase characterises the DNA of the organisation. Attention to detail, he says, has been key in that regard, from the decision to allow fans to elect their general manager, to the club’s tradition of sending every season-ticket holder a team-branded scarf at the beginning of the year.

“There was a lot of history and tradition with the Sounders brand that spanned well before the major league Sounders were born,” he notes. “We’re only seven and a half years old but we’ve worked hard to establish some traditions that we want to make sure we can take into years to come.”

While Wiley may not be alone in championing that kind of ‘fan-first’ policy - such a line is textbook throughout the sports industry, but especially in MLS - the Sounders approach is perhaps not the norm. Whereas many of the league’s teams see their future in soccer-specific facilities better suited to league-wide average crowds of around 20,000 - as Forbes notes, 16 of the 20 MLS teams are slated to play in purpose-built stadiums by 2018 - the Sounders have no such plans. Last year they signed a ten-year extension to their lease at CenturyLink Field, keeping them at the second largest venue in MLS until at least 2028.

“We talk about it, we discuss it, but 2028 is a long time away,” Wiley says, when asked if the Sounders could look to pursue a stadium project of their own in future. “Whether I’m here or any of us are here, who knows? Ultimately our goal is to sell out [CenturyLink Field] on a consistent basis in the next ten years, and that’ll get us real close to 2028 and then we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

The Sounders extended their lease at CenturyLink Field last year, keeping them at the venue until at least 2028.

There can be no overstating the role CenturyLink Field has played in the modern-day Sounders’ emergence as a domestic force. With a total capacity of 67,000 seats, including around 39,000 in its MLS configuration, the downtown stadium has not only helped to add decibels to the side’s much-feted matchday atmosphere, it has also been something of a liberating factor for the Sounders’ sales staff. In particular, the team’s annual series of full-stadium matches - attractive late-season fixtures normally reserved for ties with local rivals like Portland and Vancouver - have proved a masterstroke, enabling them to simultaneously showcase Sounders soccer to casual fans, skew their annual average above 40,000 per game, and drive home their ‘best-supported MLS team’ positioning.

“What happens in the stadium prior to a match is electric, and the fans are the ones who lead all of that for us,” says Wiley. “We help and supplement, but what happens with the fanbase, and I’ve been to a lot of matches in the UK and around the world, and what happens at our stadium is pretty cool.”

Selling out an NFL facility may sound like a unachievable dream for a US soccer club, but if anyone is going to achieve it, it will be the Sounders. The team is currently leading the MLS charge when it comes to taking on soccer’s global powerhouses, but Wiley knows numbers - not just attendances, but commercial, social and other tangible performance metrics - will be the measure by which many will gauge whether the gap has been bridged. Until those numbers start to match up across the board, he says, it is difficult to truly benchmark the Sounders organisation against the global soccer standard.

“We’ve talked a lot as a senior management group about that very recently,” he reveals. “In that, who are we trying to become? What are we trying to be? We threw around some clubs around the world - are we like this club? Are we like that club? Can we be this club? Ultimately, this is still a work in progress but we’re going to focus on us.

“Hopefully we’ll continue to grow, the numbers will speak for themselves. It's highly likely we’re going to lead MLS in attendance this year and we’re thrilled about that, but if we’re not growing, then we’re not thrilled about that. So we want to make sure we focus on us and our business and continuing to grow. Whether that means we go into the top 25 in the world attendances this year, great. If that means we get invited to go to another conference, great. But we want to sell out the stadium within the next ten years. We want to continue to be good stewards of our brand. We want to take care of our fans.

“Our league has done great work in the last couple of years with getting a lot of our matches on international television. I was in London last year and went to pub and I was able to watch one of our games just randomly on Sky Sports. It's things like that, and it's us continuing to play good soccer and have big crowds sitting in the stadium, that is going to continue to capture the attention of the world.”