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Perfect pitch

Expansion Sounders are hitting all the right notes

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / August 20, 2009

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SEATTLE - The party begins about four blocks away from Qwest Field. Just beyond the parking lot, a Starbucks, and an antiques gallery, hundreds of fans gather in Occidental Park on game day. They wave green scarves and march behind a band of drums, chanting all along the way on the 10-minute walk to Qwest, where they typically join more than 20,000 other fans.

Rain or shine, they make the march before each home game. This isn’t for the playoffs, the Seahawks, or the Mariners. They gather for the Sounders FC, a Major League Soccer team.

In Seattle, soccer has become the star.

In their first season, the Sounders have set an MLS record for attendance, drawing an average of 30,204 fans a game in a league that averages 15,764 among its 15 teams. Not to mention, the league average is slightly down from last season’s 16,460. Across the street, at Safeco Field, the Mariners are drawing an average of 28,500 fans.

Members of the Sounders front office say they don’t have a magic formula, but something is happening in the Northwest.

MLS commissioner Don Garber calls the Sounders’ success a “perfect storm’’ based on events that led to the team’s existence. From an ownership group that includes Hollywood connections to a core group of fans that supported the Sounders at various levels to the loss of the NBA’s SuperSonics, anything was possible.

All of it created “perhaps the most successful launch of a sports team in US history,’’ Garber said. “It’s hard to imagine a league that has had a team be as successful as this was.’’

Tonight, the Revolution will get their first look at the phenomenon. They even sent their front office staff to meet with members of the Sounders and observe the operation this week.

All the surveys and studies suggested reasons for optimism, but no one was prepared for this type of success.

“You just walk around downtown and you’re going to see Sounders [memorabilia] on people, you’re going to see signs in bars, and it just has the feeling of a true professional sports franchise, and you don’t have that in every MLS city,’’ Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. “There are many factors that go into that, from the ownership group, to the relationship with the Seahawks, to the professionalism of the stadium and training facility. It’s a whole concept, and a lot of pieces have fallen into place to make that happen.’’

The stars align
Getting people out of their homes is what Hollywood producer Joe Roth does. And as an avid soccer fan, he wanted to take that skill to a professional team. Roth founded Revolution Studios, which released films such as “Black Hawk Down,’’ “Anger Management,’’ “America’s Sweethearts,’’ and “Christmas with the Kranks.’’

Garber encouraged Roth to visit Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle to see which would be a fit for him.

Roth’s passion for soccer only grew as he visited the cities. When he reached Seattle, everything about the setting made sense.

Adrian Hanauer was a majority owner of the Sounders, who were then part of a minor league. They had access to Qwest Field, which was built with soccer in mind. Hanauer was looking to make the jump to MLS, and Roth liked the potential. The ownership group included Roth, Hanauer, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who brought along Vulcan Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Seahawks.

Then Roth heard that “The Price is Right’’ host Drew Carey was interested.

Carey developed a love for soccer while living in Los Angeles in 2003. As a native of Cleveland and an avid sports fan, Carey couldn’t bear to support the likes of the Dodgers and Lakers. So he sought out the one sport Cleveland didn’t have: soccer.

“I didn’t want to piss anybody off in Cleveland, so I started watching it,’’ Carey said.

The Los Angeles Galaxy became Carey’s team. Three years later, he went to Spain to film a documentary for the Travel Channel about FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. In the midst of filming, Carey became fascinated with the relationship between the clubs and their fans. Each team allows its fans to vote every four years on the fate of the team president, among other issues.

If Carey ever owned a club in the United States, he thought, he would want fans to have a say.

The voice of the fan
The day before Carey filmed his first episode of “The Price is Right,’’ he and Roth met for lunch.

“You would think you’d talk about movies or something, but all we did is talk about soccer and the MLS and what we like about it,’’ Carey said.

Carey had two requests: the fans get to vote on the general manager every four years and the team has a marching band.

While the marching band wasn’t a deal-breaker for Carey, he was adamant about the fans having a say in running the team.

Roth agreed to the idea. The partnership led to a group that came up with out-of-the-box ideas to not only keep the core soccer fan but engage others.

Season ticket-holders get a vote every four years to oust the general manager, Hanauer, if they want. But ownership picks the successor if the GM is voted out. Fans voted for the team name and have a council that meets with front office officials a few times a year.

If a fan has a vested interest in the team, then during the lean years, they are more likely to stay around, Carey figured.

“The only option you have as a fan besides writing angry letters is don’t go to the game,’’ Carey said. “I’d rather have them say, ‘We’re getting rid of the general manager, but we’re still going to come to the game because we have a say.’ ’’

The team also has season ticket-holders fill out a survey that includes questions about standing preference and cheering. When they select their seats online, the grid shows whether they would be sitting with like-minded fans.

Among other fan ideas was the march to the stadium, which begins about an hour and a half before the game. Officials estimate about 1,000 fans make the trek, one that leaves first-time visitors “blown away,’’ Roth said.

Support is impressive
No matter what quirky idea made its way to the drawing board, the fans had to be the priority, said Gary Wright, the Sounders senior vice president of business operations.

Wright was with the Seahawks for 32 years but considered himself a diehard soccer fan. When talk of the Sounders joining MLS turned to action, Wright found himself overwhelmed with excitement.

“This is a big community of soccer fans, so that’s why none of this has surprised me at all,’’ Wright said.

Staff members made trips to area pubs and reached out to fans, drawing on an idea used in Toronto. The Sounders have sold 22,000 season tickets and have a waiting list of about 4,000. Each game this season has sold out. In July, the team opened up an additional 4,000 seats that quickly sold.

The support was enough to encourage coach Sigi Schmid to leave the Columbus Crew, whom he led to the MLS Cup last season. And players like Keller were impressed by the support.

Keller, who grew up in Olympia, Wash., played in Europe his entire career (most recently with Fulham) before signing with the Sounders.

“For me, it’s made the transition from Europe so much easier because this is what I’ve been used to, playing in full stadiums, playing in cities that care,’’ said Keller. “I went to dinner with my family [Monday], and we’re waiting for our reservation, and I’m taking pictures with people in the street. That’s Seattle. You can’t avoid that and that’s a good thing because that’s the way it should be for a professional athlete in a city.’’

On top of it all, the Sounders are winning. They enter tonight’s match against the Revolution second in the Western Conference at 8-5-8 with 32 points, 7 points behind Houston.

The Sounders stop short of saying they have everything figured out, but they like where they are going.

“You never get smug or think you’ve got it accomplished,’’ Wright said. “Everything in sports can be very fragile, so you have to keep your eye on the ball at all times and stay vigilant and just every detail has to be examined and reexamined.

“You keep your focus and you don’t take anything for the granted, especially the fans, because they’re the engine that’s driving this.’’

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