Oct 29, 2009

Can Seattle do for soccer what it did for $5 lattes and grunge music?

If you've been anywhere near Major League Soccer this season you will have heard of the Seattle Sounders FC, the league's newest club. Not so much for what they've done on the field--this being MLS most clubs do pretty much the same thing--but for the attention they've attracted locally.

Sounders fans
The team is a massive hit in the Pacific Northwest, where it has become a pop culture phenomenon. More on the cultural impact in a bit. First some numbers to put the Sounders success at the gate into perspective:

  • The team averaged 30,943 spectators for its 17 regular season home games this season. That is an MLS record--not for an expansion team, for all teams, all time.
  • That number is higher than it is for German champions Wolfsburg, French champions Bordeaux and Premiership side Fulham FC among others, according to this Wikipedia table, which is probably wrong (did Juventus really average 21,000 fans last season?) but whatever.
  • Perhaps most impressive of all: The Sounders are the first U.S. soccer club to rank in the top 50 in the world for average regular season attendance (they're 50th but still).

The club has a FC Barcelona-type ownership structure, which came about at the behest of minority owner Drew Carey (yes, that Drew Carey). Carey also thought up the idea of having supporters march into the stadium en masse on game days accompanied by their very own marching band, the Sound Wave. This concept marries traditions from Latin America with those from U.S. sports and is precisely the type of thing America needs to do to make soccer its own.

Seattle may be the perfect place to launch such initiatives. It was here, after all, that Starbucks began charging (and receiving!) outrageous rates for coffee on the premise that it would provide patrons the "third place" that had been sorely lacking from U.S. culture. The flannel shirt, grunge music and self-loathing were all popularized here. Why not soccer?

Of course, Americans have had various love affairs with the sport in the past, but all were short-lived. There was Pele and the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League, which peaked around 1978. The 1994 World Cup caused a stir when it was held in the U.S., as did its 2002 incarnation when the U.S. national team made a run to the quarterfinals. The history books tell us of other "golden ages" in the more distant past.

Is this merely another "false dawn" in American soccer? Or is the sport finally, finally making sustainable inroads with the U.S. public? In other words, is this the $5 latte, which is alive and well nationwide despite the recession, or flannel shirts, which are not (though I heard somewhere they're making a comeback. Or maybe I just dreamed it).

Only time will tell. There is probably evidence on both sides, but consider this: The Philadelphia Union, a club that begins play next season (in its own soccer-specific stadium to boot) had sold 6,000 season tickets by May and has a fervent fan base ready to go. New York's MLS franchise will open its own soccer-specific stadium (in New Jersey, but still) that is attracting rave reviews from players and fans. Even the local business community is anteing up. If the "Sounders phenomenon" catches on in those cities, soccer will be a lot harder to displace from the American imagination.

Photo supplied by AmericanSoccerNews.net


  1. The attendance record is very impressive. I was watching some big name club match last weekend (in EPL I think) and was surprised when they announced the paltry attendance. And I've seen lots of televised South/Central Americas games where the stands are virtually empty.

    The Sounders team, for their part, have played good soccer. Good, but not great.

    If teams in the MLS like the Sounders can combine full stadiums with top tier soccer play, then I think they'll have reached the tipping point, and soccer in the US could blow up.

    I've talked to many avid soccer fans who ignore the MLS based on the lack of top quality play. Let's face it: We're a big country. We have more soccer fans in the USA then there are in England, for example. The soccer fans here, so far, just haven't been head over heels about local professional soccer.

    Except in Seattle!

  2. Accuracy counts here, and credit should be given where credit is due. Marching to the match is common throughout the world amongst supporters groups, and the ECS have kept that tradition going. First with the USL Sounders, and then with SSFC. The front office (including Drew Carey) did NOT come up with the idea, they merely recognized a good idea when they saw one and jumped on the bandwagon.

  3. it's true the quality of play in MLS leaves a lot to be desired. I was half joking when I said all MLS teams play alike. In reality a few (Houston, Chivas and Seattle come to mind) do seem a bit more organized and less mistake-prone than others. But with all clubs controlled by the league, there is going to be parity by design.

    There is also the question of whether the American public can embrace something that is so clearly second rate (at least compared to the English Premier League, which many of us now watch regularly). Some arguments have been made that American consumers will only pay attention to things that are first-rate, but then what about college football and basketball, which are massive and generate billions even though the players are amateurs?

    Seattle has shown the sport can be successful on a local level. Now let's see what happens elsewhere.

  4. I know marching to the match is common but marching to the match accompanied by a proper band that is part of the team? I certainly never saw that in Europe.

  5. The marching band itself is Drew Carey's idea. Marching with the ECS was the FO's idea. The march itself was spearheaded by the ECS.

  6. It sounds like the Sounders are getting it; allowing those who want to emulate aspects of the international game to do so, while also instilling American ideas (i.e. marching bands) into the mix. Pandering (maybe a bad choice of words) to only one segment of a potential fanbase, be it family types or wannabe "uberfans" (just made it up; feel free to use it :-) ), is bad for business, period. MLS needs to go after Clem and Bubba (whose kids play soccer every Saturday morning) as well as Winston, the teenaged geek who lives in his parents' basement, posts to soccer bulletin boards (hey, wait a minute, I resemble that!) and insists that all American teams should clone the team names from the EPL and Bundesliga. The NASL Sounders packed out Memorial Stadium and drew big in the Kingdome back in the 70s, when soccer was still a novelty. Here's hoping that the MLS Sounders pick up where their forefathers left off, and continue this trend. Maybe this time, it'll last a lot longer.

  7. Seattle had a great inaugural year. Making to the playoffs in the first season is very impressive. I've seen some of their games on tv and i have to say that i am very impressed at the atmosphere that the club has created. I never knew that city had a strong soccer base. The march is very similar to styles of south american club teams. Its a great start for an uprising of soccer in America.