Seattle: A sound football lesson

“The love of soccer is now a universal language.”

So said then US President Bill Clinton at the opening ceremony of the 1994 World Cup. Hosting the tournament around some of the greatest cities in the USA, we were told, was vital to the development of the game in North America. A chance for Americans to appreciate all the great things we already knew about football, we added.

My parents had a visitor from New York staying with us when Brazil took on the host country in the second round. He, bless, didn’t understand how a country with a lower GNP than his own could be better in one particular sport. The comment reinforced a stereotype already being implanted in us all, everywhere we looked.

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CenturyLink Field, home of Seattle Sounders, with Safeco Field in the background.

The MLS has continued to appear in our media every now and then. Players no longer at the very top of their game in the Premier League have sought moves across the Atlantic, including our own Robbie Keane. Many (not all, no doubt!) admired the publication of the league’s salary list; others suggested franchises might be a way forward for domestic football in Ireland.

Earlier this year I had the chance to travel to Seattle with work. On my first day strolling along the waterfront, having visited the world famous Pike Place Market, I spotted the outline of a stadium on the horizon. I couldn’t resist a peak. It turned out to be CenturyLink Field, the home of the Seattle Sounders and Seattle Seahawks, and it just happens to be right alongside the city’s baseball ground (Safeco Field) in what’s akin to an ultra sports campus.

The Club Shop was open, the merchandise was top class (Adidas – jealous!), and the staff were happy to fill me in on the background. The Sounders and Seahawks have been co-operating for years (though they became independent of each other earlier this summer), and work together to promote both brands.

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Sounders merchandise

Having already given the world grunge (or ‘Seattle sound’!) as well as Starbucks, football has found a real home in the state of Washington. The club has 32,000 season ticket holders, while 64,207 fans attended the derby fixture against Portland Timbers back in July.

The Sounders are actively involved in their local community, with the underage game in the area and, interestingly, have something called the Sounders FC Alliance despite being in private ownership. The Alliance allows supporters play a more active role in their football club than is typical – and Sounders themselves believe this has been critical to their development.

For a more in-depth insight, check out this excellent feature piece by Business Week: http://www.businessweek.com/videos/2013-10-15/sounders-c-suite-with-jeffrey-hayzlett-10-15

Luckily, Sounders had a home fixture against Philadelphia Union while I was in town. The famed ‘March to the Match’ is great to see (fans march from the centre of town to the game singing and chanting in colours).

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The club’s brass band welcome everyone. After going through security (think airport scanners), club reps are available to direct you to wherever your seat is. You can drink beer within sight of the pitch, red carpet greets the teams, the national anthem is played and you’re given streamers to throw at the pitch. The on-screen graphics and stadium announcers are football on steroids compared to what we’re used to.

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Red carpet treatment

When the Sounders score, flames of fire shoot from the top of the goal posts. The announcer will call the scorer’s first name, and the crowd will respond with his surname. Cheese, yes, but it really is enjoyable and the enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.

Looking around, the stands were full of families, couples, groups of friends, women, children, older folk – all the age categories we would love to see at League of Ireland games. There was a genuine sense of collective, in-this-together and everyone was very welcoming to new faces. Awesome may be an overused word, but the experience – genuinely – was awesome and it’s clear that the people of Seattle are very proud of their football club.

The Sounders won 2-1 on the night. Outside back (full back) DeAndre Yedlin is currently being linked with a move to Tottenham, while names like Djimi Traore, Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey will be familiar to fans that watch the Premier League. The latter is their star man and, generally, a cut above the rest of terms of talent. There is no shortage of determination and passion though, as exhibited by the entire US squad during the World Cup that followed.

So the question has to be asked? What can we learn from this club in particular but also the MLS as a league. RTÉ pundits were disrespectful of the US team throughout the tournament, often expressing the view that because MLS players were involved, the the US line up was weaker than other sides. The view has echos of how many pundits view our domestic league – judging from a distance without being familiar with the details.

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Another view of CenturyLink Field

The finances of the League of Ireland itself and clubs that participate in it are consistently the subject of guessing games. If we had a true and accurate picture of all involved year in year out, we could then measure improvement (or otherwise) in a meaningful way. The FAI led the way in introducing the 65% Salary Cost Protocol for the League; imagine if clubs had to publish their total wage bill or individual players’ salaries?

The Sounders are unique in terms of fan engagement, but having heard Tim Connolly of the Green Bay Packers speak at the 2013 Supporters Direct conference at St. George’s Park, it’s also clear we need to stop turning our nose up at what our American friends are doing and start to take on board what works because something is stirring and, like everything in life, we can learn from it…

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CenturyLink Field
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