SBJ/20090316/SBJ In-Depth

Sounders already making noise in Seattle

When the Seattle SuperSonics abandoned the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma City, it left a gaping hole in the hearts of Seattle sports fans.

Now, there’s a new kid in town ready to replace the Sonics — the Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer.

Despite the yearlong recession, the Sounders have attracted marquee sponsors and sold nearly 20,000 season tickets for the team’s inaugural campaign at Qwest Field.

“The reaction in town has been absolutely fantastic and our staff is very enthused, engaged and invested in (the Sounders),” said Gary Wright, senior vice president of business operations at the new MLS franchise.

Sounders players celebrate a goal
against the Vancouver Whitecaps
during a training game at Qwest
Field on Feb. 22.

The Sounders have built serious buzz despite 2008 being one of the biggest downers in Seattle’s sports history. Not only did the Sonics leave, but the Mariners finished last in the American League West, the University of Washington Huskies football team lost every game it played, and the Seahawks finished a disappointing 4-12. However, the Sounders organization wasn’t built overnight. It took some major victories in the sponsorship arena to generate the excitement that has captured the hearts of the city’s soccer fans.

Hollywood movie mogul Joe Roth is majority owner of the Sounders and he is joined by co-owners Vulcan Sports & Entertainment (a company controlled by Seahawks owner Paul Allen), comedian Drew Carey, and Adrian Hanauer, who is also the team’s general manager.

The team’s first major score was landing software giant Microsoft as a sponsor in a deal sources valued at $20 million over five years. Microsoft has been a minor sponsor in sports for years and already had relationships with the Mariners and Seahawks before the Sounders came along last year.

“From a national and league perspective, this is our first major sponsorship,” said John Rodman, senior product manager at Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, home of the Xbox 360 video game console.

Rodman said the existing relationship between Microsoft and the Seahawks laid the groundwork for the sponsorship with the Sounders. The new team offers Microsoft a chance to reach fans of a global sport.

“Just in terms of Microsoft’s composition as a company, we have employees all over the world and 39,000 employees here in Washington made up of ethnicities from all corners of the globe,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of energy from our employees around our involvement in a sport that so many of them are passionate about.”

Microsoft indeed is thinking global and the Sounders represent a chance for the company to enhance its cachet as a major sports video game brand among a very important audience, 18- to 34-year-old men, Rodman said.

Comedian co-owner
Drew Carey drove the
idea for an alliance of
fans who can vote on
whether to retain the
team’s general manager.

Microsoft’s sponsorship with the team is multifaceted. The Xbox 360 logo appears on the team’s jerseys, the console is the official video game system of MLS, the home field has been named the Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field, there will be more Xbox 360 kiosks installed at the stadium where fans can play video games, and the upper bowl, which will be tarped off during Sounders games, will bear the Xbox 360 logo.

That the Sounders landed Microsoft as a sponsor during a recession says something about the franchise, said Dan Rascher, president of Oakland-based sports business consulting firm Sports Economics and an associate professor in the sports management program at the University of San Francisco.

“Everyone always goes to Microsoft for naming rights, but they’re always a minor sponsor,” Rascher said. “To me, having Xbox 360 on the jersey is a big thing. And it’s smart that they’re using Xbox 360 because 18- to 34-year-old men don’t care about Windows, they care about video games.”

The Sounders also have developed a unique marketing tool — a membership association, or fan club, called the Alliance, which operates under the “democracy in sports” mantra. Not only has the team gotten fans involved by letting them name the team the Sounders, it also allowed fans to name the membership association. All season-ticket holders are automatically members and non-season-ticket holders can become members for a $125 fee.

The Alliance has a host of powers not seen anywhere else in American sports. Every four years, the association’s members can vote out the Sounders’ general manager. The association also has a say in game presentation and even team play.

The Alliance’s sponsor is Liberty Sports Group, owner of Fox Sports Network Northwest, which airs nearly all Mariners games. FSN Northwest is the title sponsor of the Alliance and also televises and produces all Sounders games, which will be televised on a local NBC affiliate. The team’s games will also be replayed on FSN Northwest.

“Many of the Sounders games will be played at the same time as Mariners games,” said Mark Shuken, president and CEO of Liberty Sports Group. “They’ll be replayed on FSN after Mariners games are over. We’ve got a huge Mariners audience that we think will flow into the Sounders after Mariners games.”

All told, the Sounders have about 30 sponsorships, including deals with Symetra Financial, grocery chain QFC, telecom giant Qwest Communications, Seattle-based medical group Virginia Mason and Seattle-based beverage maker Jones Soda.

Said Rascher: “I think the Sounders really have it figured out.”

Jeff Meisner is a writer in Seattle.

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