x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Seattle Sounders making plenty of noise in Major League Soccer

Seattle Sounders have broken MLS attendance records every year since their first season at the 67,000-seat CenturyLink Field in 2009.

Sounders FC fans participate in the March to the Match before a game in Seattle last week. George Holland / AP Images
Sounders FC fans participate in the March to the Match before a game in Seattle last week. George Holland / AP Images

SEATTLE // Many seem oblivious to the moderate but unmistakable summer warmth, their sweaty necks wrapped in souvenir Sounders scarves because, well, that is what a true follower wears.

The scene, played out to a soundtrack of singing and chanting, unfolds not at the entrance gates to the stadium but behind a hand-held banner at a town square two blocks north. The most avid devotees long to be first in line for the March to the Match, one of several rituals observed by a fan base as fervent about soccer as the rest of the planet is about the sport otherwise known as football. The Sounders draw an average home crowd of 40,520, nearly twice as many as the next highest among 19 members of Major League Soccer, the most prominent circuit in North America.

No overnight sensation, the Sounders have broken MLS attendance records every year since their first, in 2009. Also, enough Seatteites tune in on their televisions to record higher viewer ratings than in any league city.

Seattle is located in the north-west corner of the US, and the origins of the city's attachment to soccer can be traced to 1974, the birth year of the pre-MLS Sounders of the long-dead North American Soccer League.

The National Football League and Major League Baseball had yet to arrive, and pro basketball was in its infancy. So the locals had not formed other sports allegiances.

"We were a fairly young city in terms of professional sports," said the software developer Eric Gilbertson, who was a youngster when the Sounders made their debut. For top-level teams, "We might have been considered a clean slate."

Other conditions made soccer ripe for success. The city was seeded for growth when the team sent out first-generation players to conduct clinics, sign autographs and mingle. Hospitality is a core virtue among Seattleites, and they appreciated the effort.

A predisposition to physical activity and the outdoors accelerated the acceptance.

Further, Seattle residents tend to be well-educated, plus inclined to travel overseas. As a result, they are exposed to more entertainment options than many other US metropolitan areas and exhibit a greater willingness to taste-test them.

After all, this is the cradle of grunge music and the home of such visionary companies as Microsoft and Amazon. If the beloved global sport that much of America still disdains were to flourish, why not in the city where Starbucks was launched?

Francisco Marcos, a US soccer executive, attributed Sounders fever in the early stages partly to the region's "counterculture bent", noting that young adults "revel in going against the grain". He added: "Many in the mainstream American media back in the 1970s used to characterise [soccer] as some sort of communist conspiracy."

Many players from the original Sounders of the NASL, with whom Marcos worked, remained in the area to live and coach. Spreading the word came easily.

As for the team's current success, Marcos and Paul Swangard, a sports marketing expert at the University of Oregon, chose metaphors from nature to tie in factors such as the urbanity and the recent departure of the NBA's Sonics to Oklahoma City, leaving a void.

Marcos said: "The stars seem to have aligned properly."

Swangard said: "It was a perfect storm. Seattle sports fans were ready to embrace a new team that had a strong connection to the community."

Now, said Gilbertson, "the Sounders are part of the daily culture here. You walk down the streets, you see Sounders gear all over the place. People have adopted the team."

Gilbertson, 45, is a director of Emerald City Supporters (ECS), the franchise's primary fan group whose dues-payers are afforded a prime spot in the March to the Match parade. ECS is endorsed by the Sounders, which reflects their desire to operate as a European-style "football club" and not just a soccer team.

"The way the Sounders tapped into that through fan engagement is a case study for our industry," Swangard said. "It is a well-rounded formula … relying as much on the core base of passionate supporters as it does good management decisions."

Sounders followers are extended, however slight, a sense of ownership. The season-ticket holders vote every four years on whether to retain or dismiss the general manager.

The Sounders Alliance is a council, chosen by election, that offers suggestions to management, some of which are heeded. The team reduced its number of friendlies, the alliance attesting that exhibition matches sprinkled in among the regular schedule were detrimental in the quest for a first MLS championship.

And ECS, according to Gilbertson, persuaded ownership to convert seating behind one goal from reserved to general admission to accommodate members who wish to congregate at matches.

While ECS and other loyalist affiliations here pattern themselves after the European model, there is one stark contrast: hooligans or ultras are rare, far outnumbered by the well-behaved. To keep its fans in line, the 3,500-member ECS deploys its own security staff. "Bad apples", he said, are shown the door.

For most games, the upper deck at the 67,000-seat CenturyLink Field, also home to the Seattle Seahawks, is cordoned off, and nearly every available seat is occupied. No area is rowdier than Sections 121-123, where the ECS crazies wave enormous flags and cram in as many songs during two hours as native sons Pearl Jam perform at a concert.

During the 12th minute, they break loose with Roll In, Columbia to commemorate the 1974 Sounders' first goal, scored by a Colombian. The 74th minute, timed to the year of the initial season, triggers Sounders 'Til I Die. In between, the playlist varies, determined in part by the acceptance of songs tested by ECS members.

What else would you expect from a team that allowed locals to select the nickname and that recently announced a design contest for next season's scarf?

"The democracy in sports," said Gilbertson, quoting the minority owner Drew Carey, who initially proposed the GM referendum.

Carey, though a famed comedian and TV star, is a pauper alongside some fellow owners. Joe Roth is a Hollywood movie producer and onetime chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Another is the Microsoft co-founder and NFL Seahawks owner Paul Allen, the 53rd wealthiest human, worth US$15 billion (Dh55bn), according to Forbes magazine.

The pace of ticket sales for the home debut of Clint Dempsey, perhaps the premier American player, who was acquired from Tottenham Hotspur, suggests that the MLS single-game attendance record of 69,255, set by Los Angeles Galaxy in 1996, could be toppled. (The Sounders hold down No 2.)

The stadium will become a blue-and-green palette and a sea of scarves, with nonstop singing from the south end zone and constant cheers from other sections. Almost enough to transport a first-timer to a match in Brazil or Germany or wherever the sport of football rules uncontested.


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