While many Unite States soccer fans point towards the growth of Major League Soccer, most soccer fanatics around the world continue to view the MLS as the place where good footballers go to earn their final paycheck. And while that may be partially correct in looking at guys like David Beckham and Thierry Henry, and most recently Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, there is one organization that stands out above the rest within the league, the Seattle Sounders.
The Seattle Sounders’ average attendance last season was 43,734 which would have put them sixth in the English Premier League (behind Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Liverpool) and the 27th most supported in the world. In fact, the Sounders double the attendance figures of the next best MLS team. And yet many soccer fans around the globe don’t realize that because the organization is relatively brand new. So how have the Seattle Sounders been so successful so quickly in putting butts in seats and filling an NFL stadium every single home game?
Let’s first look at the top. The executive team is a crossbreed between the Seahawks and the Sounders. The vast majority of the organization’s employees, from ticket sales to corporate sponsorship sales to the business development team, work for both organizations simultaneously. This co-existing business relationship is rare for MLS teams that share a stadium with an NFL team. All business decisions are made with both organizations in mind. It is not until the actual technical aspects (scouting, player development, etc) where the Seahawks and Sounders organizations divide.
Secondly, the organization is run very democratically. There are 41 “alliance” season ticket members that sit on a council (voted on by all season ticket members) who meet with ownership on a quarterly basis to talk about strategy. The key, according to senior management, is keeping the fans engaged and excited because that ultimately drives everything. The decision to acquire Clint Dempsey was heavily weighed in on by the fans who wanted to see it happen. Moreover, every four years, the General Manager’s job is voted on by the fans, a practice implemented by Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Spanish Primera League.
When the franchise was bought in 2007, there were so many smart owners investing large amounts of money. Nonetheless, the Sounders seemed to pick up on some vital details involving fan engagement that helped elevate the club considerably higher than all others. For instance, the Sounders organization utilized their biggest supporter club “Emerald City” to lead a “March to the Match” an hour prior to every game to generate a true home field advantage, generally attracting three to eight thousand fans.
This group gets particularly rowdy when the Portland Timbers come into town. The Seattle-Portland “derby” is considered the best rivalry within United States soccer as it has spanned across several leagues including the USL, A-League, the NASL and now the MLS. The MLS has seemingly keened in on this notion of rivalries growing the game with the addition of New York FC this year (with the NY Red Bulls right next door) and Los Angles FC coming on in 2016 (with the LA Galaxy being right next door).
Joe Roth, the majority owner of the Sounders, explains his research on developing the Seattle Sounders organization from a minor league team to a major league team practically overnight, “I didn’t pay much attention to the past. I did my homework on Seattle. What I found out was that Seattle has the highest per capita youth soccer participation in the United States, an adult league that had 60,000 people, a minor league team that was drawing five to eight thousand fans while other minor league teams were drawing a thousand fans and that AC Milan came over here on two weeks notice and completely sold out the stadium.”
At the end of the day, the way any businessman measures a business is the bottom line; that is the profitability. The team is worth five times the value it was when they started, where now the organization is estimated to be worth roughly around $150 million. Roth points to their fan base as an advertiser’s dream with their focus demographics being 18-49 year olds, 60% male/40% female, and an average income of over $100,000. Roth says, “Soccer is generational. Twenty years from now, this will be like the Washington Redskins where the only way you can get a ticket is inherited.”
Roth is perhaps the most passionate owner in the league today. When the Sounders lost 4-0 to the Galaxy in their first year, he was so disgusted he gave every fan their money back on their tickets, costing the organization $1 million. He says “If you’re not willing to stand out here and be part of everything, than you’re missing something.” Over the years, the Sounders ticket pricing has stayed relatively stagnant, ranking 7th in the league. According to Roth, “professional soccer in this country is very price sensitive, as it has gotten to the point of something like Notre Dame football.”
While most sports businesses look at their organizations through pie charts, spreadsheets and diagrams, the Sounders are unique in that they measure their organization’s value in their stadium. They measure their success in their fans; fans that are buying food and merchandise, who are promoting the brand organically. The team set up shop in a city rich with soccer enthusiasm and they partnered with an NFL organization that already had strong connections in the sports world and then they let the brand loose … they gave it to their fans.