Gary Wright gets it. He not only understands why the world is crazy about soccer, he’s crazy about it too. Wright wants the local community to be just as crazed and care just as much about Seattle Sounders FC as Scousers care about Liverpool and Catalans care about FC Barcelona. Because he gets it, because he’s been a key behind-the-scenes player in Seattle professional sports for more than three decades and because he understands that the fans are just as vital as the players, Wright was chosen to head the club’s business operations.
You took a pass on soccer several times. Then one night, as the story goes, you find yourself sick and in Spain, and suddenly everything clicked, is that right?
It was the only thing I could get on television that was in English. I had never given soccer any chance before. I like atmosphere, pomp and circumstance, and it was the opening of the (1998) World Cup in France. The pregame ceremony was terrific, and then I started to watch the game. I was amazed at two things, the skill level of the players, and the toughness of the players. The guy who immediately jumped out in both levels was Zinedine Zidane. I decided to watch again the next night, and it turned out to be Brazil. I don’t remember who they were playing, but it didn’t matter. They put on such a show, that I was absolutely hooked.
You got hooked, but then what?
Timing is everything in your life and life experiences. We got back home and watched the World Cup final and Zidane scores two goals and France upsets Brazil. The celebrations in the city were sensational, and the next day, in USA Today, there was a full-page ad with a picture of (Argentine striker) Gabriel Batistuta. The ad said, ‘If you enjoyed watching Batistuta play in the World Cup, imagine watching him play all season. Sign-up for Fox Sports World.’ I made an immediate phone call and made sure I got that channel, and I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve watched since.
What was your first in-stadium exposure to the game?
I believe it was England-Brazil in (the old) Wembley Stadium. I had become hooked on the game, and we were going to Spain for another trip. We had our boys with us, and they were young adults. We all go to the game and sit behind one of the goals. Michael Owen scores right in front of us. From then on, my son Steve became the huge Michael Owen and Liverpool fan, and when he had his first child he named him Owen, after Michael Owen.
Your conversion to the game was perhaps serendipitous. Have you brought your family and others along?
I don’t know if I was dragging my sons along at first, but they tolerated their father. Once they saw the atmosphere and the festiveness of it, it was easy for them to get excited about the game. Now both of them are big fans. I’ve got some other friends that I won’t say I converted, but I helped convert. I helped them give it a chance, and give them some exposure. Once you go and you see it, it really does get into your blood. Anybody who went to the Mexico-China game, you had to absolutely love it, and the score was 1-0. The people who say there’s not enough scoring, they need to watch the game, understand the game and they need to understand that it’s different. It is what it is. Give it a chance and you will love it.
It’s interesting that, although the Seahawks’ original ownership had much in common with that of the Sounders, you were relatively unfazed by that era?
I not only went through that unfazed, I didn’t watch it at all. A little secret of my past that very few people know is that back in 1974-75, for about a month, I worked for the L.A. Aztecs. The franchise wasn’t run very well, and I didn’t gain an appreciation for the game at that point. When we moved up here (in 1976) with the Seahawks, I just never gave it a chance. I still kick myself. Can you imagine having the opportunity to see Pele perform in person and not giving it one thought about going to the game? Now you see Harry Redknapp is coaching at the highest level, and to think here’s a guy who played here in Seattle. I just shake my head that I didn’t give it a chance.
You’ve obviously been involved with sports throughout your career, and the last 32 with the Seahawks. How will your NFL experience come into play with soccer?
I’ve seen this franchise at its highest, and I’ve seen it at its lowest, and I know the differences. All of that experience really helps. The fans are important. We know this is about treating people right and understanding them, whether it’s the fan at the top of the stadium or one in a suite, whether it’s your starting quarterback or a player who barely made the roster. You need to treat people right, respect them and understand that they are all part of the event. We all need to pull together to make it work.
Because this club hopes to blaze a new path not only in sports but MLS, do different dynamics come into play when making decisions?
The first thing we always have to keep in mind is the fans. Nothing exists without the fans. This game is predicated on the fans. The atmosphere is unlike some other sports. It’s definitely created by the fans. The Seahawks’ relationship is the same way. This is a town where the fans create so much of the atmosphere. The people understand that here, but we always have to keep that paramount. The second most important thing is the product. But you have to take care of the people first, and you have a good process set-up, then the product will also fall into place and be very good. It’s those things in order: the people, the process and the product. If we do those things right, we will have a very successful franchise. Something that Drew Carey brought to us, the Democracy in Sports, that helps differentiate us to some degree. The naming of the team could not have worked out any better. That was great; the fans got what they wanted. That was perfect, and I think that was Democracy in Sports.
When did you feel moved to become more vocal about soccer within in the Seahawks organization, to make calls to Don Garber and so on?
The promise from the Paul Allen folks was to bring big time soccer to this region. I love the sport, and when we were planning on opening the stadium I thought it was natural that soccer be the first event, and everybody else agreed. I also thought it was important that we bring in major events, because if you make a promise, you better keep it. Knowing Don Garber and having that stadium, I said, ‘Hey, your predecessor made the commitment to bring a team if we built the stadium.’ Certainly it took a long time because they wanted to get it right. And we do, we have something really, really special in our ownership group. You can’t ask for better people doing things for the right reasons. They are all such quality people, the owners as well as our upper management.
What kind of organization do you hope to build and explain how this arrangement is different from that of other clubs?
I would never compare us with other teams. We hope to learn from other clubs, from MLS and around the world. We want to be competitive and be the best on the field, no question. We want to be the best organization that we can be, and do everything first class. Are we going to make mistakes? Sure, we’re human. Yet we want to keep mistakes to a bare minimum. And if we make a mistake, stand up, admit it and get it corrected.
What’s your hope, your dream for Seattle fans and Sounders FC?
For me, it really hit home during the Mexico-China game. When the players came out on the field, with the tremendous reception that the fans gave the team, I started to get misty-eyed, just a little bit. I thought, ‘Next year, when this happens, I’ll be bawling, an absolute basket case.’ I can get emotional, and it was just thrilling to see the emotion and the love of those people for their team. I feel that and I see that. I know what this community is like, the soccer community and the sports fans, and those people have that same kind of love for their teams. We want to capture that enthusiasm for 2009. For 2019 my dream is to be in Japan, watching us compete for the World Club Cup. To see us playing against AC Milan or Barcelona or Real Madrid or Boca Juniors for the championship–there’s a process to do that, it’s realistic and that’s the dream.