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SBJ/March 14-20, 2011/In DepthPrint All
It's been 31 years since Brian Schmetzer donned the blue-green jersey of the Seattle Sounders to play against the team's North American Soccer League rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers. Now an assistant coach for Major League Soccer's Sounders, Schmetzer remembers the NASL's Cascadia rivalry by the huge crowd at the Kingdome.
One game against Portland in 1981 brought in 24,065 fans, and a 1982 match against Vancouver attracted a crowd of 29,488, which surpassed that year's home average by 17,000. A memorable away game at Vancouver's BC Place in 1983 attracted 60,342 fans.
"Back then the Canadians were really rowdy, they brought huge banners and a lot of fans," said Schmetzer, 49, who played with the original Sounders from 1980 until the team folded in 1983. "Fans would travel — we'd have a lot of our fans drive to [away games]. The Portland fans would bring buses filled with people up [to Seattle]. Some guys would dress like lumberjacks. It was a big party."
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS FC Home: PGE Park,
11,500 (will cap at 12,000)
Ownership group: Shortstop LLC, majority owner Merritt Paulson
Key sponsors: Alaska Airlines (jersey), Widmer Brothers Brewing, Providence Health
Home: Qwest Field, capacity, 35,500
Season-ticket sales: 32,000
Ownership group: Joe Roth (majority), Adrian Hanauer, Paul Allen, Drew Carey
Key sponsors: Microsoft Xbox (jersey), Samsung Mobile, Virginia Mason Sports Medicine, Seattle Bank
Home: Empire Field, capacity 21,000
Season-ticket sales: 15,500 (will cap at 16,000)
Ownership group: Greg Kerfoot, Steve Luczo, Jeff Mallett, Steve Nash
Key sponsors: Bell Canada (jersey), BMO, Budweiser, EA Sports
The party atmosphere and enormous crowds look poised to return to the Pacific Northwest, as the Timbers and Whitecaps make their MLS debut this week, following the successful launch of the Sounders two years ago. It's a region — and fledgling MLS rivalries — that represents seemingly unlimited potential for the league, and could surpass the Northeast and Southern California as a hotbed for professional soccer in America.
The Pacific Northwest has been fertile country for MLS. Seattle is the league's top-performing team in both attendance and national television ratings, and though Vancouver and Portland have yet to play a game, both teams already rank in the top five in season-ticket sales. All three teams enjoy 30-plus years of soccer history and an established and passionate fan base. And the long-standing rivalry between the three cities has not cooled. The Timbers went so far as to erect a billboard a few streets over from Seattle's Qwest Field that proclaimed "Portland, Oregon: Soccer City USA," and the three clubs sold out of 5,000 tickets to their preseason tournament, the March 4-6 Cascadia Summit, in just two hours.
"Seattle is already on a pedestal amongst the other teams," said David Nathanson, executive vice president and general manager at Fox Soccer Channel. "These two teams are new, but they have a fan base that has been established for many years. [MLS] is creating one of the biggest regional rivalries that exists in the sport."
Finding its footing
The popularity of soccer in the Pacific Northwest is not tied to any single reason. Former Chicago Fire President John Guppy, who now runs soccer consulting agency Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, attributes the region's affinity for the world's game to "a little bit of good fortune."
"All three [teams] are perfectly primed for soccer fandom — all three markets have soccer history and are in drivable distance [from one another]," Guppy said. "These aren't big cities like New York or Chicago, where it's hard to find relevance amid other entrenched sports that have the advantage. [Soccer] has always been there, and this latent interest has now been uncorked by the MLS."
For Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, the journey to MLS marks a choppy three-decade history with North America's shifting soccer leagues.
CRAIG MITCHELLDYER / PORTLAND TIMBERS
It took only two hours for fans to buy up all of the 5,000 tickets availabile for the three clubs' preseason Cascadia Summit held March 4-6.
"The potential for doing a deal and getting into MLS really helped draw me [to Portland]," Paulson said.
Like Seattle, Vancouver saw its NASL success (five division titles and the 1979 Soccer Bowl championship) crash when the league crumbled in 1984. Bob Lenarduzzi, who played all 11 seasons with the NASL Whitecaps, helped resurrect the squad in 1986 under the name "Vancouver 86ers" with the Canadian Soccer League.
Lenarduzzi, now president of the Whitecaps, said the team's player budget through the 1980s and 1990s was around $200,000 — roughly one-fifteenth of the current MLS salary cap — and that many players agreed to go without a salary.
"It was a roller coaster," Lenarduzzi said. "We almost folded on two occasions."
But each team's resilience helped further the growth of soccer in their communities. Seattle now boasts one of the largest youth soccer communities in the country. In 2001, the Whitecaps launched a professional women's team, which currently competes in the USL W-League.
The Timbers stoked the Northwest rivalry by erecting this billboard a few streets over from Seattle's Qwest Field.
Gradually, he said, "When you flew into town you could look down and see goal posts starting to rise [on soccer fields] around town. In each of these cities, the NASL served as a catalyst for growing the sport. Most of us take great pride in how far [soccer] has come since then."
Hoban later became the first soccer-specific employee at Nike, whose headquarters in Beaverton sits adjacent to downtown Portland. Also present in Portland is soccer giant Adidas, whose American headquarters sits across the Columbia River from PGE Park, home of the Timbers.
Having two sports marketing powerhouses in its backyard helped further fuel the rise of soccer in the Northwest. Nike has a strong presence within the youth and amateur soccer markets in the region; Adidas, on the professional level, now has a $200 million partnership with MLS that runs through 2018.
Antonio Zea, Adidas America's director of soccer, said each of the three MLS markets in the Northwest has its own nuance, which requires different marketing strategies for crafting jerseys and apparel for those markets.
"Portland is very grassroots, very local," Zea said. "Seattle is a bigger market so there are international [fans], and they have been able to pull fans that were Seahawks fans to follow soccer. Vancouver is very heavy with youth soccer and is also very cosmopolitan."
Portland has sold approximately 11,500 season tickets for 2011 — the club will cap ticket sales at 12,000 in 20,000-seat PGE Park — and the club has secured all 23 luxury suites to multiyear contracts. Its seven founding partnerships include nationally recognized brewer Widmer Brothers Brewery as well as health care provider Providence Health Services, the state's largest private employer. Its jersey sponsorship with Alaska Airlines netted the league its first airline sponsor.
Vancouver has sold more than 15,500 season tickets to see the club play at Empire Field, which seats 21,000 for soccer and where the team will play before moving into the 54,000-seat BC Place in September. The Whitecaps will use 20,000 seats at BC Place for its regular-season games. The team also has sold 23 team partnerships, including founding partnership deals with major Canadian brands such as Bell and BMO, as well as Budweiser and Electronic Arts. Canadian broadcaster TSN will televise 13 games nationally.
"When we were awarded MLS entry [in 2009] we wanted to generate interest, so we put 5,000 tickets up for sale on a Saturday at like 10 a.m.," Lenarduzzi said. "By the end of the weekend, we had sold every one."
Seattle averaged home attendance of 36,173 in 2010, only its second season in the league.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said he is "pleasantly surprised" with the sales successes in the Pacific Northwest, and that he expects the region to thrive with the added exposure of playing in the league.
"We have the opportunity to take [the teams] to the Division I level with all the benefits that come along, like national television, vibrant commercial opportunities and modern stadiums," Garber said. "It starts with having a successful minor league operation. The caretakers of the old NASL brands kept the sport alive in [the Pacific Northwest]."
Stoking the rivalries
The old NASL might have kept the sport alive in the Northwest, but now it's up to MLS and the teams to reach the next level and build on the rivalries that drew such big crowds decades ago. One template to achieve that comes from overseas.
In Europe and South America, intercity rivalry games (called derby or darby matches) generate enormous attention and revenue. The Manchester Derby between Manchester United and Manchester City this year attracted 75,000 fans, and holds as much significance to local fans as playoff or championship games.
The Timbers warm up during a training session at the North American headquarters of Adidas in Portland.
The teams enter with their derby established — in 2004 fans started the Cascadia Cup award, which went to whichever then-USL team posted the best record against the others. The fan base has a tradition of traveling en masse to away games. And the Timbers, Sounders and Whitecaps will play each other twice a year, meaning six opportunities for a rivalry game.
"This is what soccer is like in other parts of the world, and for the most part we haven't been able to replicate that here yet," said Jeff L'Hote, president of the soccer consulting firm LFC International and author of the book "Soccer in North America: The Commercial Opportunities."
The popularity of the impending rivalries forced the league to change a rule that required teams to set aside only 150 tickets for visiting fans, raising the number to 500 for the Pacific Northwest teams. Garber said the decision came after meeting with the teams and their supporters groups, which lobbied the league for additional tickets.
Various media reports said that Sounders owner Joe Roth opposed the rule. However, Roth, who purchased the Sounders in 2007, disagrees.
"I opposed opening up [ticket sales to away fans] completely," Roth said. "People were saying they wanted 20,000 fans from Portland up here. We want to keep home-field advantage."
Roth said he supports the league's 500 ticket rule and said that, if demand is great enough, the team would consider opening up all 67,000 seats in Qwest Field for the rivalry matchups. Currently, the team opens 35,500 seats for Sounders games.
Building a model
Garber said his goal with the ticket rule is to respect each team's ability to monetize home games against a rival, while also creating the exciting atmosphere of a European derby game. He said the league would reassess the 500-ticket rule at the end of the season.
Already, the Pacific Northwest teams say their supporter groups are planning to charter buses and form convoys to travel to the rivalry games.
Bell Canada has Vancouver's jersey deal while Alaska Airlines sponsors the Timbers.
"You can't manufacture a rivalry, it has to be authentic," he said. "The passion has to come from the fans."
Garber said his hope is for the rest of the league to try to replicate the Pacific Northwest's emphasis on derby games. There are a handful of lesser-known MLS derbies, such as the Brimstone Cup between FC Dallas and Chicago, the Trillium Cup between Columbus and Toronto, and the Atlantic Cup between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls.
Garber pointed to a potential I-95 derby between New England, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and a mountain states match between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids.
"Soccer is driven by rivalries, but most Americans don't realize how big rivalries are in international soccer — sometimes it is neighborhood versus neighborhood, not just city versus city," Garber said. "We have an opportunity with [the Pacific Northwest rivalry] to gain a distinction against some of the other sports in this country. It's a chance to show the other teams what can happen if they can replicate that passionate environment."
Sporting Kansas City’s new $200 million stadium, which opens June 9, will include a sports bar that will be open to club members even on non-game days.
“We want it to be a sports bar where people will go to watch the Chiefs, the Royals or an EPL game,” said Robb Heineman, president of Sporting Kansas City. “We want to bring the tailgate party inside, and I think it could become a nighttime hangout as well.”
The team has yet to name the eatery and is looking for a potential sponsor for the concept. The restaurant will house long beer-hall style tables, a DJ booth, 85 flat-screen televisions and room for 2,000 people. It also will feature large glass garage doors facing the playing field that will be open on game days. Delaware North Sportservice will operate the 8,000-square-foot restaurant.
Heineman said the restaurant is a key piece of the team’s rebranding effort — in November it changed its name from the Wizards — and is geared at attracting the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
The New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox operate in-stadium restaurants that are also open to the general public on non-game days. The concept is new to MLS.
Chris Bigelow, who operates a concessionaire consulting business in Kansas City, said in-stadium restaurants present a series of challenges for a franchise.
“There are very few stadium restaurants that do well on non-game days because there has to be some reason to go there, unless it’s the greatest food in the world,” Bigelow said. “It’s not a huge revenue center for the team, and eventually they ask themselves ‘Why are we doing this?’”
Heineman believes the team’s membership club concept will steer regular business to the restaurant. Fans who sign up on the team’s website and social media pages gain free club membership. The team will provide free tickets to fans who travel to away games, and will allow fans to watch three free games from inside the membership club during the season. “We’re looking for deeper engagement with our fans,” Heineman said. “It’s not just about soccer matches. We want our brand to be a social thread that runs through their life.”
The stadium was designed by Populous, which has its corporate offices in Kansas City. Jon Knight, a senior principal at Populous, believes the restaurant concept will work because of the stadium’s design and location. The stadium is 10 miles west of the city center, near Kansas Speedway and the Legends shopping mall.
“It’s a highly trafficked area; Legends is extremely busy on the weekends,” Knight said.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Sporting Kansas City
SPORTING KANSAS CITY
San Jose Earthquakes
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
On the drawing board:
• The Montreal Impact makes its MLS debut in 2012 as the league’s 19th team and will play at Saputo Stadium. The stadium, built in 2008, will undergo roughly $23 million in improvements in order to transition to a 20,000-seat soccer-specific configuration. The upgrades include new amenities, more permanent seats, wider concourses and improved player facilities.
• D.C. United: In December, the city of Baltimore released a 125-page soccer stadium feasibility study aimed at wooing D.C. United with a new field that would be part of a $1.1 billion redevelopment along Westport. The team currently plays at RFK Stadium.
• New England Revolution: COO Brian Biello told reporters in December that the club is looking at “a few sites” for stadium construction. The team now plays at Gillette Stadium.— Compiled by Fred Dreier
After months of searching, MLS hired Findlay in January to the position of chief marketing officer for the league and Soccer United Marketing. Findlay comes to the league after a 20-year career in marketing highlighted by stints with Unilever and PepsiCo, where he helped launch Diet Pepsi Max. He will report to MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
The former founder of the minor league Golden Baseball League joined the San Jose Earthquakes as team president in October 2010, and since then has led the team’s charge toward building a new 15,000-seat stadium in San Jose. The team has a site and government approval; Kaval’s biggest hurdle now is securing the funding for the $60 million project.
Formerly the president of Soccer United Marketing, Quinn left the league to join FC Dallas in June as team CEO and president. Known as a savvy marketer, Quinn has his work cut out for him, as Dallas posted the third-worst attendance in the league in 2010, with ticket sales dropping 13 percent from 2009. The team launched a promising new ticket strategy in early 2011, and is predicting a 300 percent increase in sales.
In late 2009, Barber left his post as executive director of Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League to join the Whitecaps as CEO. For the team’s MLS debut, Barber said he hopes to lure two European clubs to play friendlies against Vancouver. He also has hinted at recruiting a designated player to the team.— Compiled by Fred Dreier
Following the FIFA announcement that Qatar won the 2022 World Cup, MLS dropped plans to adopt soccer’s international schedule, which runs from late summer until spring. With the addition of clubs in Portland and Vancouver, MLS has expanded its spring through fall schedule from 30 to 34 games this season. If the new schedule is a success, will MLS ever again contemplate a shift to the international schedule?
Facing criticism for the 2010 postseason, in which six teams from the Western Conference and only two Eastern Conference teams qualified, MLS has expanded its playoffs. This year 10 teams will make the postseason (up from eight last year), with the top three teams in each conference claiming automatic bids, and the remaining four spots going to the highest remaining point totals.
The Cosmos have enlisted the help of Pelé, shown here with former Cosmos owner Peppe Pinton (left), USSF President Sunil Gulati, and team Chairman Paul Kemsley.
Reserve a spot
For 2011, MLS has resurrected the reserve league to improve its player development. The reserve league is split into three six-team conferences, and features a 10-game season and eight-team playoffs. Players from each team’s academy and regular roster can play in the league. The league’s creation coincided with MLS expanding rosters from 24 to 30 players. MLS previously disbanded its old reserve league in 2008, leaving many wondering whether it is here to stay.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber (second from right) celebrates with Montreal officials.
With MLS adding Montreal as its 19th team in 2012, how will the league continue its expansion? Will it invite NASL and USL clubs to step up, or look for new expansion organizations? Do untapped robust soccer markets still exist in North America? What type of markets should MLS try to develop? Should the league shoot for 30-32 teams like the other major American leagues?— Compiled by Fred Dreier