By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — The best part about Sounders FC drawing 66,000-plus this evening isn’t the fact that a regular-season Major League Soccer game will have a crowd of 66,000-plus, it’s that nobody who has been paying attention will be all that surprised by a crowd of 66,000-plus for an MLS game.
“No, it doesn’t surprise me anymore,” said Sounders midfielder Brad Evans, who has been when the team since its inaugural season in MLS in 2009. “If we had five, ten thousand every game then got 60,000, then it would be a surprise, but it’s just a testament to what this club has done over the course of four short years. How much it’s grown is pretty phenomenal. It doesn’t surprise me, but it’s still an honor to be a part of it.
When Seattle hosts the Portland Timbers at a sold-out (or very close to it) CenturyLink Field this evening, it will be a historic occasion. The crowd will be Sounders FC’s biggest for a league game, and with a decent walkup crowd, it would surpass the 2011 friendly against Manchester United as the biggest crowd for any soccer game in the state. But more importantly, Sunday’s game says a lot about where the club and the MLS are heading in the future.
“It’s going to be a tremendous spectacle,” said Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid. “It’s something that people who say, ‘Hey, is soccer going to make it in this country?’ You’ve got to come to the game on Sunday and you’ll see if soccer can make it in this country.”
Sunday’s game will be the latest — and to date most impressive — example of how Sounders FC has managed to defy decades of evidence that shows that soccer can’t succeed in this country. Sounders owners and executives had high hopes for the franchise when it launched, but have still found themselves recalibrating expectations on an annual basis.
Seattle averaged 30,897 fans in 2009, by far the most in MLS history. The question back then was whether Sounders FC could maintain that level of support, but instead attendance has only grown. The team increased capacity in CenturyLink in 2010 and saw the average crowd climb to 36,173. Last season that number grew again to 38,498, and with the bump in attendance Seattle will get from today’s game, this season’s average will be over 43,000.
That number isn’t just impressive by American soccer standards, it would also hold up pretty well in the top leagues in Europe. Sounders FC’s average this season would have ranked sixth last season in the English Premier League, fourth in Italy’s Serie A, fourth in Spain’s La Liga, and 11th in German Bundesliga. Earlier this summer, Seattle drew crowds of 60,908 and 55,718 in back-to-back league games against Los Angeles and Vancouver, both of which exceeded the attendance for this summer’s friendly against Chelsea FC, an English giant fresh off winning the UEFA Champions League crown.
So yes, expectations were high from the beginning, but even if huge crowds feel almost commonplace now, nobody saw it coming four years ago.
“No, (our goals were) more modest for sure,” said Sounders general manager and minority owner Adrian Hanauer. “Look, we knew it would be successful, but even in our wildest dreams, having three games this year averaging 60,000 is probably beyond what even my big-thinking majority partner Joe Roth would have envisioned. But for sure we had our sights set on big things for this franchise.”
And if Roth, the team’s majority owner, couldn’t have envisioned it, you know it’s a little crazy. Roth, after all, made his riches as a Hollywood producer. He’s the former chairman of 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios. The guy clearly knows how to think big and has an imagination.
So just how did Seattle do it? How did Sounders FC become the franchise that has shown that soccer can succeed and be profitable in a country that has for so long written the game off as a fringe sport, setting the table for future success stories in Portland and Vancouver?
There is no one reason for Seattle’s success, but a lot of has to do with the business model created by Hanauer, Roth and minority owners Paul Allen and Drew Carey. By partnering with the Seahawks, Sounders FC has a marketing department and facilities at its disposal that are unheard of in American soccer (when teams like Manchester United and Chelsea rave about training at Seahawks headquarters on the shores of Lake Washington, you know it’s a first-rate facility).
Sounders FC also inadvertently timed its entrance onto the Seattle sports scene incredibly well. When Sounders FC opened its first season in March of 2009, sports fans in this region were still reeling from an incredibly depressing 2008. The Mariners became the first team in baseball history to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll, the Seahawks went 4-12 in Mike Holmgren’s final season, the Huskies and Cougars both enjoyed historically bad football seasons, and oh by the way, the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. If not for the Storm making their annual trip to the playoffs, Seattle sports fans would have had absolutely nothing positive to cheer for that year. Then came the Sounders, the perfect salve for hurting fans looking for something good to grab onto.
And winning, more than anything, has played a role in Sounders FC’s sustained success. If Seattle wasn’t headed to the playoffs for the fourth time in as many seasons, if it hadn’t won three straight U.S. Open Cups, it is highly unlikely that attendance and interest would continue to grow. But even as people in the Sounders’ camp are enjoying their success, they’re equally encouraged by what they’re seeing league wide. Success stories like Portland, Vancouver and Montreal have helped MLS grow its attendance, and TV rights fees, both for the league and international soccer, continue to grow in the U.S..
“First and foremost, it speaks volumes about the league overall,” Hanauer said. “We wouldn’t be here without the partners who have come before us and plowed the soil and gotten us to a point where something like this is possible. Certainly our fans here continue to amaze us, and Sunday will be another example of that. I personally have never been as bullish as I am today about the continued growth of the league.”
A growing team, a growing league, it’s all part of the four-year Seattle soccer success story that has exceeded even the highest expectations. Four years ago, 66,000 for a regular-season game would have been a pipe dream. Now? It’s just another step in the impressive growth of the league’s model franchise, albeit a very big one.
“It’s going to be great, you know?” Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso said.
Oh yes, Ozzie, we know.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.