For those familiar with the story of Seattle Sounders FC’s ascendancy to the fore of North America’s soccer consciousness, names like Hanauer, Roth, Keller, Dempsey and Scott ring true as part of the Rave Green’s journey from plucky USL upstart to giant of the modern game. The list of those that have contributed to the club’s path is long and varied, but few have dedicated as much behind the scenes as Gary Wright.
On Saturday before the club’s pivotal fixture against Cascadia foe Vancouver, Seattle will pause to recognize one of its founding fathers. A sports industry veteran of more than 40 years, Wright bridges the gap between Sounders FC’s NFL-infused origins and its contemporary MLS success.
Originally named Sounders FC Senior Vice President of Business Operations on March 24, 2008 following 32 years of service with the Seattle Seahawks, Wright helped spearhead one of the most successful launches of a franchise in American sports history. In that inaugural campaign, Seattle set an MLS season record for attendance of 30,897 fans-per-match, with Wright receiving the Doug Hamilton MLS Executive of the Year Award at year’s end. Under his stewardship, Wright helped guide the organization into the top 30 of the best-attended professional clubs in global football, with the team earning continued accolades on and off the field.
Still involved with Sounders FC as a consultant, Wright sat down with SoundersFC.com ahead of Saturday’s match to reflect on his instrumental impact on soccer in Seattle.
SoundersFC.com: What significance does Saturday’s Golden Scarf ceremony hold for you personally as you reflect on your years with the club?
“[The Golden Scarf] ranks right at the top because it’s a real honor from a team that I worked for. To have the Seahawks name the press box after me and then the Sounders award me a Golden Scarf, those are the highest honors you can receive working in an organization. Certainly this is right there at the top.”
SoundersFC.com: Looking back on your time with the club, what are you most proud of?
“The city had a great soccer history, but making the team and the sport so relevant in this community stand out. I didn’t do it, we all did it collectively. This was a tremendous collective effort and I was fortunate to be part of it. This is the greatest soccer city in the United States.”
SoundersFC.com: What makes that culture of soccer in Seattle so special from your vantage point?
“I think it’s a whole bunch of things all coming together. I like to refer to it as some kind of cosmic explosion, where everything came together. You’ve got great, great ownership, a soccer history in town so people understood big-time soccer with the NASL, a fanbase that is young, hip, unafraid of something new – and this was certainly something new – being able to get Microsoft involved with Xbox as the sponsor certainly helped, bringing in world-name players – when you start to throwing all those things in, you have Kasey [Keller], who was a world-class goalkeeper and a local guy – everything was in the mix and all of a sudden you have the secret sauce.”
SoundersFC.com: You bring a unique perspective to the soccer world after a career of professional sports experience in the NFL. For those that are unfamiliar with your love for the beautiful game, how did you come to embrace soccer, and how was your perspective on the game shaped by working in both sports?
“I think that played an important piece as I started because so many people were soccer fans to begin with, and I wasn’t. That all changed for me the first time I saw the game in Spain. Watching the 1998 World Cup in France, Ann and I were both sick, we couldn’t go anywhere, and we had never watched the World Cup. We did, and all of a sudden I thought, ‘Wow, this is a heck of a lot different than I thought it was.’ I had the traditional American sports fan perspective of the game. After seeing it for real and falling in love with the sport, and really becoming so immersed in it, when I would do a speaking engagement I would talk to groups and say, ‘Don’t expect this to be football, basketball or baseball. Don’t look at it through the same lens. Look at it as something different – go to it, then when you walk away tell me if you enjoyed it or don’t enjoy it.’ When people would do that, they would go, ‘Wow, this was fun.’ It’s a different game, it stands on its own two feet and it’s a great game.”
SoundersFC.com: Does that reaction still hold up for you when you watch Sounders match from your seats inside CenturyLink Field?
“Absolutely – I don’t think I have ever taken anyone to a game where they didn’t come away shaking their heads, saying, ‘I had no idea.’ Open up your mind and fortunately 40,000 people open up their minds all the time. It makes it so much fun.”
SoundersFC.com: Have you had any memorable experiences with visitors from other sports at Sounders games having the type of experience that caught your interest in soccer originally?
“I know Pete Carroll was amazed. Just really caught-up in the crowd and the fervor of it all. Seahawks crowds are pretty exciting, but this was early in his tenure in Seattle and I know he enjoyed it. What I used to enjoy is when I would hear from the coaches – and a lot of coaches would go to games – they would say how exciting it was because of the anticipation. It is a game that is extremely hard to score, and there is such a high premium on goals, that each moment gets you to the edge of the seat with your hands on your head. They would just say how intense the game is just from that standpoint.”
SoundersFC.com: Looking back on the launch of the club, what made the organization unique culturally to have the type of immediate impact that propelled it to initial success in 2009 and beyond?
“I think the entire group who put it together – the Seahawks and Sounders ownership group and the management team we had – came to the conclusion that this has to be seen as absolutely first-class. We have to do it exactly how the Seahawks or Mariners would do it and be seen on that level, and I think a very proud moment for us was after the initial press conference. The major newspapers went overboard on how if the new soccer team wanted to make an impression, they certainly did with the upscale press conference and opening presentation to the community. We did it at the Columbia Tower at the top with flags from all over the world talking about the world’s game coming to Seattle. We had the commissioner there, the governor there; it was fantastic. It kicked us off the right way and every moment thereafter we made sure it was first-class.”
SoundersFC.com: A lot of growth has happened throughout the league since that introductory press conference, where do you think Sounders FC and Major League Soccer go from here?
“I think it gets nothing but bigger and better. I think [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber and his staff have done a sensational job in the front office, and I have been a big fan of his for a long time. His leadership is terrific and the Sounders’ leadership is equally terrific. There was no question that the lofty goals will be met – and the goals are lofty. I envision a day where that stadium is sold out every game, and you have to have that goal and that insight to say, ‘Hey, we are really on the world’s stage.’”
SoundersFC.com: Do you have a favorite moment or memory from your time with Sounders FC?
“The one that sticks out the most to me – again, we wanted everything to be first-class, we wanted everything to be authentic and represent what the game is around the world – was when Freddie Ljunberg was standing next to me in the tunnel at a game and he all of a sudden goes, ‘Wow, this is like Liverpool.’ I got goosebumps when he said that because I knew we had made it.”
SoundersFC.com: You’ve worked with so many people across all functions of the club since the beginning, what do you remember most about the people within the organization?
“We’ve been blessed with great, great people, both on the Seahawks side and the Sounders side. Great people in the front office, great people as players and that’s what this is – it is a people business. You have to put people first and form those relationships. I know in my business you’re always asking people to do things for you that need to get done for the club – but life is a two-way street. You have to be willing to give up yourself to them, too, when they need something. You’re able to build really great relationships, and that’s something to really be proud of.”
SoundersFC.com: Closing thoughts before Saturday’s ceremony?
“I am the kind of person who would rather be in the background, rather be watching someone else get the Golden Scarf, but it really is a tremendous honor. It was started to honor those within the game and I never thought I would be getting it, but I am very happy to.”