What began as a trickle of rumors during the late summer became manifested during Tuesday’s lunch hour when Seattle was officially awarded the 15th franchise in Major League Soccer.
It was definitely a day to celebrate for the loyalists in the thriving local soccer community, who first began pursuit of an MLS team in 1994.
Before a packed press conference atop the 75-story Columbia Tower, the first few details of this long-awaited arrival of top-tier professional soccer was provided by the deal’s major players.
Seattle will begin MLS play at Qwest Field in April of 2009. Season ticket deposits are already being accepted. The team’s nickname will be determined in early 2008 after polling fans via MLSinSeattle.com
The ownership group is a unique blend of sports and entertainment know-how, including three self-confessed longtime soccer nuts.
Movie mogul Joe Roth is the majority stakeholder. Joining him are Adrian Hanauer, current majority owner of the Seattle Sounders; Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports & Entertainment (VSE); and actor/comedian Drew Carey. Hanauer will be the team’s general manager while VSE will handle the ticketing and marketing operations.
And leading the argument that the Seattle MLS franchise will be unlike any other in North American professional sports, a supporters club will conduct quadrennial elections to determine the team’s leadership.
A Formula for Success
Flags of the World“Why Seattle?” asked MLS commissioner Don Garber. “Visionary ownership, a soccer-savvy and international, diverse city, and an ownership which understands how to operate a team. We’re sure this will be a formula for success.”
“Seattle is primed to become the home city of soccer in America,” stated Roth. “I have lofty goals, but that’s the bet I’m making. I believe my partners will be the ones who bring it home.”
Ten years after the state’s soccer community helped vote to fund the construction of a world-class stadium, VSE CEO Tod Leiweke is confident that Qwest Field will prove to be the sport’s best venue.
“We have the loudest stadium in the NFL and in 2009 it’s going to be the loudest stadium in MLS,” Leiweke said. “We have 24,500 seats in the lower bowl, and we believe they will be filled.”
At the press conference, there were renderings of Qwest Field showing decorative draping of the stadium’s upper deck. That deck and the roof over the east and west sidelines serve a second purpose: to collect and redistribute the crowd’s noise. Banners, singing and flag-waving will not only be allowed, they will be encouraged. The MLS average ticket price of under $20 aims to make games accessible to all.
Leiweke praised the patience and persistence of the local soccer community. He noted there were a lot of dreams back in 1997. To have a football team play a championship game here; to host international events and to have a team playing in the premier league. All of those dreams have now been realized, said Leiweke.
“We obviously think there’s a good market here,” he added. “We wanted the right group together; we’re confident that we can fill that stadium and make this a great franchise.”
The original Sounders averaged 18-24,000 to rate among the North American Soccer League leaders between 1974-82. The second-generation Sounders have played regularly at Qwest Field since 2003. They set a USL single-game record with 25,515 a year earlier.
Roth likes the talents each owner brings to the table. Hanauer has built Sounders championship teams two of the last three years in the United Soccer Leagues (second division). Leiweke’s VSE operates the Seahawks, which has won three consecutive division titles and played to capacity crowds the last five NFL seasons.
Beyond his bigger-than-life personality, Carey is passionate about sports and soccer in particular. He also suggested to Roth the notion of both a supporters club and a marching band.
“I’ve worked with actors for 35 years, and I was a little bit suspect at the beginning,” joked Roth, who quickly warmed to the idea. “My notion of this team and Seattle is to turn it over to the community.
“In Barcelona they have a supporters club who get to vote on the general manager every four years. The members literally have a stake in the future of the club.”
Having played the game through his Long Island youth and into his first two years of college, Roth remained active through coaching his son in Southern California.
“I’ve been in the entertainment business for 35 years and for 50 years have had a love affair with soccer,” he noted. “I decided I wanted to do something about it.”
In February, Roth awoke one morning with the desire to run an MLS team. Garber pointed him toward the Northwest. Roth was greeted in Seattle by sunshine on all 12 of his visits over six months. “It’s an intelligent, non-conformist city which will embrace the sport.”
The more he saw, the more he liked. From the Sounders legacy to the great success (more Washington players per capita than any other state) of the youth programs to the fact that Seattle is regarded as the gateway to Asia and the Pacific Rim.
Roth says what he has learned while running Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox and, most recently, Revolution Studios (Black Hawk Down is among its library of 47 films) can translate to the soccer business. Whether it’s movies or sports, the goal is convincing people to leave their homes to buy a ticket for new experience.
Currently a resident of California, Roth will move to an office in Qwest Field and plans to spend at least half of his time in Seattle.
Carey made a whirlwind visit to Seattle on Monday. He broke the news on the supporters club concept while confirming his ownership stake to an overflow crowd at Fremont’s George & Dragon pub. Later, he raised the 12th Man flag prior to the Seahawks won on Monday Night Football.
Following the game, Carey returned to Los Angeles. He hosts CBS game shows The Price is Right and Power of 10. “I’m proud to be working with forward-thinking people like Joe, Adrian and Tod,” Carey said. “And we’re all excited about bringing democracy to sports in America.”
Building the Team
With no coach, no players and no games for the next 16 months, Hanauer nonetheless has his hands full for the foreseeable future. He has already begun scouring the earth for prospective players, scouts and agents. Hanauer and Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer recently returned from a trip to China.
Unlike any previous MLS team, Seattle should promote a core group of players from the Sounders, who will defend their USL championship in 2008. The MLS will allow Seattle territorial rights to an unspecified number of players. Among those returning to the Sounders next season is Sebastien Le Toux, the league MVP.
Both Roth and Hanauer want an aggressive, attacking team. Beyond that, they want personnel who are committed to the team, the city and the community. The vision is a truly international brand; an authentic team and an authentic name which will reflect that.
When Roth joined Hanauer and Leiweke for a Sounders game against FC Dallas in the U.S. Open Cup, it was no coincidence that U.S. National Team goalkeeper Kasey Keller was also a guest.
A native of Lacey, Washington, Keller has since signed for Fulham of England’s Premier League. But come spring of ’09, Keller has apparently expressed an interest in coming home.
Said Roth: It sure would be great if we could work something out, to have a native son as our goalie on opening day.”
Governor Christine Gregoire, herself a soccer mom for 23 years, greeted Garber and the ownership group…An MLS Seattle membership deposit of $50 ensures a place in line and priority to purchase season tickets and club memberships. All deposits will be credited toward those purchase amounts. Fans are encouraged to call 877-MLS-GOAL, visit www.mlsinseattle.com, or stop by the Qwest Field Box Office, Monday-Friday, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Membership prices and locations will be announced at a later date…MLS regular seasons are April-October, followed by playoffs. The MLS Cup championship game will be played Sunday in Washington , D.C. and televised live on ABC. The defending champion Houston Dynamos (featuring ex-Sounder and U.S. national team forward Brian Ching) will meet the New England Revolution…Average MLS attendance rose to approximately 16,500 per game in 2007. Toronto FC, an expansion team, sold-out all 15 home games. Now completing its 12th season, the league broke its total attendance record, surpassing 3million fans…San Jose was awarded an expansion team for 2008 earlier this year. A 16th team will be announced later, and will join Seattle in playing in 2009. Further expansion is scheduled for 2010 and 2012, bringing the total to 18 teams…Other MLS franchises are the Chicago Fire, Chivas USA (Los Angeles), Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, FC Dallas, Kansas City Wizards, Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake and (Washington) D.C. United.