they’re doing something right

To be considered a truly great, a club must prove itself successful both on and off the pitch.

Seattle Sounders 3 Time US Open Cup Champions
it's not just seattle's three straight open cup titles that make their club so great.

Any club can buy a trophy given the right investment, but trophies are worthless if the financing of those investments proves to be a horribly done. Just ask Portsmouth. And even if you can buy a club and subsequent trophies with what you think is intelligent financing, if you can’t capitalize on the opportunity by improving your popularity, then it can all still come crashing down. Just ask Blackburn Rovers. So when a club actually does everything right on and off the field — especially when it’s in the wilds of American soccer — it’s right to stand up and take notice.

Seattle Sounders FC, please stand and be recognized.

Last week, the Sounders defeated the Chicago Fire 2-0 to win their third straight US Open Cup title. This three-peat alone is impressive enough. It’s only the third time in the tournament’s 97-year history that a club has won the title three years on the trot, the last being New York Greek American, who hoisted the trophy each year from 1967 to 1969. And considering the men in various shades of green have only been in the top-tier of the North American Soccer pyramid for the three years… and well, I’m officially weirded out by the number of incidences of the number three in this paragraph.

But the world’s second oldest cup competition isn’t the only place the Sounders are experiencing on-field success. They’ve made the playoffs each year they’ve been in MLS and will do so again this year, and became the second ever MLS team to win their CONCACAF Champions League group. There aren’t many sides in the league that can claim near as many accolades despite having been around for four to five times longer.

So while three trophies in three years is a truly amazing feat — one I’m sure the fans of more prestigious clubs such as Arsenal could definitely appreciate — what makes the Sounders stand out from the hoards of normal clubs around the globe is what they’ve been able to do off the pitch.

A good deal of what makes them such an amazing club, first and foremost, is their incredible fan support. Though having a rabid fan base seems to come with the territory in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle’s following is leaps and bounds ahead of even their closest neighbors. Perhaps the reason they’re the only side in MLS that uses an NFL stadium that the league isn’t pushing to build their own soccer specific stadium is because they can damn near fill it every match.

Including their Open Cup and Champions League home matches for a total of 27, the Sounders have drawn over 830,000 fans this season, breaking their own the MLS attendance record for the (here we ago again) third year on the trot. The linked article above also provided a measuring stick to which we could benchmark the Sounders’ pull, including these eye-opening stats:

  • Compared to their European counterparts, they do remarkably well:
    • In the Premier League, their average attendance figures would see them as the 7th highest drawer in the league.
    • In the Bundesliga, they’d finish 12th.
    • And the Sounders would draw the 4th highest average in Serie A.
  • Their numbers are better than 56 of 60 NBA and NHL teams, even though each of those teams hosts 41 matches a season.
  • Taking into account just their MLS home matches (17), they still out draw 30 of 32 NFL teams.
without their fans, would the sounders be "just another" MLS club? maybe.

But how do you garner that kind of support in the first place, at least without bribing the fans?

Unlike Portland and Vancouver, Seattle don’t have the advantage of being one of the only pro-sports team in town. Because the MLS season overlaps directly with the schedules of MLB’s Mariners and the NFL’s Seahawks, the Sounders have to compete with them for the attention of the city’s residents and sports fans all year-long. Being able to engage the city’s fan base therefore became paramount to the team’s overarching goals.

From the very beginning, the MLS franchise in Seattle did just that. In 2007, the expansion team’s ownership group allowed the fans to select the club name through an online vote. But when “Sounders” wasn’t included as an option to “look to the future” and help “position the club globally”, there was so much public outcry that the owners had to make way for a write-in option in the online poll. The poll results saw write-in votes for “Sounders” account for a staggering 49% of the total.

Inspired by the city’s passion for a team not yet playing (Though technically, its predecessor A-League club and several of its current players were playing), minority owner Drew Carey persuaded his fellow owners to allow the fans a continued say in the club’s affairs. And thus, the nation’s first professional sport supporters trust was born: The Alliance. Through this system — and much like in Spain — should season ticket holders and paying members feel that the Sounders’ general manager is doing a crap job, they can vote to have him sacked.

But the club doesn’t stop there.

Emulating the tradition of many English clubs, prior to each match the Sounders largest supporters group — the 2200 paying-member strong Emerald City Supporters — conduct a march from Occidental Park to the stadium. The club saw it fit that this kind of march deserved a band, and created the 53-piece band called the “Sound Wave” to lead them in and play throughout the match.

Early on last season when the Sounders were spanked at home by the Galaxy, management made the bold choice to refund season ticket holders due to the poor showing. Sure, it was just a one game credit towards the purchase of this year’s season tickets, but shit… the Cincinnati Bengals would need to be giving away free season ticket packages for the next three years to make up for all of their poor play they’ve shown over the last decade.

At home matches, the club allows for massive banners to be unfurled by the supporters, something that at times has been banned by other teams. They’ve partnered with craft brewer Redhook to bring better beer to the stadium. An annual charity auction is held where fans can bid for dates with Sounders players.

seattle sounders' freddy montero
the income generated by the club's massive support allows seattle to hang on to star players, like the mercurial freddy montero.

Simply put, you just don’t see any other pro sports franchises in this country doing things like this. And the crazy part of all of this is that the off-field efforts Seattle makes are actually paying dividends for them on the field.

For each new fan they recruit to their first game, each person that buys a jersey, and each sellout they achieve, that equals more money they can invest in on-field talent. Couple that with the increased corporate sponsorship that is drawn to their rapidly growing fan base, and Seattle is able to improve their squad that much more. Assuming all goes to plan, that on-field talent will produce results and win trophies, which in turn helps to recruit even more fans. As the great Mufasa once said, “It’s the circle of life, man”… or something like that.

It shows that investing in your fan base — making them feel like more than just spectators — can be the same thing as investing in your team.

So as I stand here and take notice of a great club running itself in an honorable fashion, I would be foolish to suggest that other MLS teams aren’t at least trying out some of the Sounders methods. It would be equally stupid to assume that each club is working under the same set of circumstances. After all, Kansas City is by no means a Seattle.

If nothing else, Seattle Sounders FC is a template for other clubs to use as they strive towards. A blueprint for MLS success of sorts. The Sounders are there the for the also-ran’s and the almost-there’s to say, “They’re doing something right, and we need to do that too.”

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