On a recent scouting trip with owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer, Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid was amazed to look around and see so many people wearing rave green Sounders gear.
In all directions that he turned he saw the Space Needle in the crest of the Seattle Sounders FC and it occurred to him that the phenomena that struck Seattle in 2009 had not slowed, but rather picked up steam by the club’s third year.
“Did you think it was going to be like this?” Schmid quietly asked Hanauer.
“I couldn’t imagine it,” Hanauer responded.
Through May 31, 2011, the Sounders attendance at CenturyLink Field was tops in MLS, over 13,000 more than then second best attended club, the LA Galaxy. With an average attendance of 36,268, they are on pace to eclipse last year’s record-setting mark of 36,113. And with two matches with expanded capacity, including tonight’s match against the New York Red Bulls, those numbers will only grow higher.
“It never ceases to amaze me or anyone, what’s happened,” Schmid said.
The Sounders, while vastly ahead of the field, are no exception when it comes to growth in the league. Of the 14 clubs that played home games in the same park in 2010 and 2011, 11 have seen increases over their 2010 figures through May and as a league the numbers are up 8.1 percent. When the statistic-skewing attendance figures from two matches played at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia are excluded, the increase becomes even more remarkable at 10.6 percent and only the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire have seen significant drops in attendance from the 2010 season.
To put that in perspective, Major League Baseball has seen a league-wide drop of 1.3 percent with only 12 of their 30 teams seeing increased numbers over 2010. The Sounders FC’s attendance figure would rank ninth in the majors, barely behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers. After Thursday’s match, the Sounders could even surpass the Boston Red Sox and position themselves in sixth on the MLB list.
In England’s Premier League, Seattle would also rank ninth, within striking distance of Aston Villa and ahead of clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Everton.
“What Seattle has been able to achieve is to make their games an ‘event’... a ‘happening.’ I just think that's harder to achieve in cities that have numerous other entertainment amenities at local's fingertips,” said Patrick Rishe, a sports business analyst and frequent contributor to Forbes magazine. “And, (CenturyLink) Field is a beautiful facility, so that helps draw people in, and they can enjoy themselves at local establishments nearby before and after matches.”
Over 45,000 are expected in attendance tonight when the Red Bulls make their way to CenturyLink Field. While it is a team that will be playing without four of their star players – Thierry Henry because of suspension and Rafa Marquez, Time Ream and Juan Agudelo because of international duty – the fans have shown that they are coming to the park to see the Sounders and not their opponents.
“The cool part about it is that our fans are coming to watch the Sounders. They aren’t coming to watch Thierry Henry,” club captain Kasey Keller said. “More importantly, our fans want to leave the game knowing that we have three points.”
The ownership looks at the match as an opportunity to further grow the booming fan support and possibly increase the capacity for the 2012 season.
“Hopefully it’s a fantastically entertaining, open game. Both teams are fighting for positions in their respective divisions, so I’m not sure that you’re going to get quite as free-flowing a game as was in Portland,” Hanauer said, referring to a 3-3 draw between New York and Portland on Sunday. “But hopefully both teams play some good soccer and we can send 10-15,000 newly exposed fans home with a win.”
As for the team, they are on board and hope to see even more of a crowd cheering them on with each passing year. The novelty of having 36,000 supporters behind them has far from worn off.
“It’s always amazing. I never grow complacent walking out on the field. I know the players appreciate it every time they walk on the field. They realize that it is a gift and we don’t want to take the gift for granted,” Schmid said. “The thing we appreciate most of all is that it hasn’t been a one-game or a one-year wonder. It’s been three solid years and we want to turn three into four, into five, into ten, into 20 and into a situation where it is normal and we never grow complacent as to what we see.”