By J Hutcherson (Dec 5, 2017) US Soccer Players – We all know the Seattle soccer success story. As the vanguard of the Pacific Northwest MLS expansion movement, the Seattle Sounders are the team that draws the biggest crowds. Portland might want to argue that they’ve got the best atmosphere in Major League Soccer, but Seattle has the stadium capacity. The Sounders established a model that allowed for the new attendance leader, Atlanta’s successful 2017 expansion, that also plays games in an NFL stadium.
Seattle as a soccer city bordering on a paradise is almost an old story. People care in that city, pushing the MLS team into prime position. With the Sounders ready to play for another MLS Cup, they’ve added the on-field success to keep their club’s position. It has to help that they’re accomplishing this in a less crowded pro sports market.
The SuperSonics left Seattle following the 2007-08 NBA season. The Sounders played their first MLS season in 2009. That meant competing against baseball’s Mariners in the summer and the NFL’s Seahawks in the Fall. The Mariners haven’t averaged over 30k fans a season since 2007. The Sounders averaged over 43k a game. Yes, the baseball team plays a lot more games than the Sounders, but it makes a statement about soccer alongside fielding a competitive team. There’s no question that the Seahawks take the top spot in Seattle’s sports landscape, but sharing a stadium means there’s no overlap in home dates. Once again, that’s a Sounders advantage.
So what happens if a new pro team shows up in Seattle? Ever since the SuperSonics left, Seattle has been considering options. The city’s arena issue is nothing new. Instead of following the trend and building something new, they refurbed their existing arena in the mid-90s. That ended up not being enough to hold onto their basketball team over a decade later. Now, the focus is on rebuilding their existing stadium with a different league in mind.
On Monday night, the Seattle city council voted in favor of a memorandum of understanding that would lead to a renovated Key Arena. That $600m idea has a familiar name for MLS fans involved. Tim Leiweke, the former head of MLS team owners AEG and later MLSE, is now a co-founder of Oak View Group. As the Seattle Times’ Geoff Baker explains, their goal is an NHL team in a renovated Key Arena. That hockey team, either through expansion or relocation, would be in Seattle for the 2020-21 season. The return of the NBA is also on the table.
What this means right now for the Sounders is irrelevant. Their focus is on winning back-to-back MLS Cups. Whatever might change in their market is a big picture item that can wait for the 2017 MLS season to finally end. Their hope is that end comes with them once again lifting a trophy in Toronto.
In the meantime, what it raises is an old scenario running hand-in-hand with MLS success stories. Is the soccer success story because of what’s happening with other pro sports teams in a city, or in spite of it? That is a tough question to answer, especially since it tends to downplay real success. In other words, it’s unflattering even when there’s evidence to support the argument.
For example, in December of 2017 we have no idea what a successful Seattle Mariners baseball team would do to Sounders attendance and appeal. It hasn’t happened during the Sounders era. That could also change. Seattle is one of the teams hoping to get Shohei Ohtani, a Japanese star who pitches and hits. There’s every expectation that whatever team signs him will be looking forward to the boost he’ll mean in their market in 2018. Considering the state of the Mariners, that would be substantial in Seattle.
Or take Portland, Seattle’s rival three hours to the south. They have two pro teams, the MLS Timbers and the NBA Trailblazers. Well before the Timbers played their first NBA season, the Trailblazers were on a run of only rarely getting out of the first round of the playoffs. They haven’t been to a conference final since 2000. Even a division title in 2015 meant a first-round playoff exit. For the last two seasons, they’ve been the team the Warriors beat en route to the finals. There’s no competition from the NFL, MLB, or NHL. It’s the same in Salt Lake City and Orlando. How does that change if another league decides to set up shop in those cities?
For Seattle, this is quickly becoming less about theory and more about their future. Getting a new team in a market alongside what amounts to a new building for them to play in is exciting. It doesn’t necessarily matter if that team is strong early on. They disrupt a marketplace simply by existing. What this might mean for Seattle Sounders soccer is a question the MLS club has no choice but to ask.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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