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Volume 21 No. 13
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Sounders plot to regain superiority in MLS

Seattle’s reign as MLS’s top-drawing team ended last year when Atlanta United broke records.
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In the buildup to Atlanta United’s inaugural season in MLS, the Seattle Sounders had a frequent guest to their office: Atlanta United President Darren Eales.

“We love helping other teams, and teams helping us when we came into the league gave us a real advantage,” said Sounders Chief Operating Officer Bart Wiley.

But as the season started and Atlanta began to smash not only expansion club business records but league records as well, Wiley jokingly said the tone changed: “We answered a lot of questions for Darren, but it got to the point where we said you know what, Darren, we’re not answering any more — we need to come and ask about some of the things you’ve been doing.”

By year-end, Atlanta not only had ended Seattle’s eight-year reign as the top-drawing MLS club, it also broke the club’s average and total attendance records. Atlanta also topped the Sounders in merchandise revenue, something only done by recent expansion teams in Orlando and New York City.

“It’s the first time in nine years we won’t lead the league in attendance, and while it’s fantastic for the league, we don’t want to be second,” Wiley said. “It lights a further fire under us.”

The moment comes at an important time for the Sounders. Amid their run as one of MLS’s most successful clubs both on and off the field, the Sounders are undergoing several changes to boost their business and accomplish a 10-year vision laid out this past summer.

Perhaps the biggest effort for the club is selling a combination of its jersey, training facility and match-day pitch rights. In August, the Sounders hired Endeavour to assist with the process. The club’s current deal with Microsoft’s Xbox for jersey and pitch rights ends following the upcoming season, while its training facility does not have a title sponsor.

Sources estimate this package could be worth more than $10 million annually, making it one of the most valuable sponsorship rights packages across the league. Recent valuations of jersey sponsorships for potential MLS expansion clubs have broached $5 million annually, while the average MLS jersey deal is around $3 million.

Wiley said the club is working closely with Endeavor and is pleased with the progress, albeit it is not close to a deal. It is also talking with Microsoft about a potential renewal.

In other business moves, the Sounders recently implemented CRM and business management software from Kore, and made several hires to build out their business strategy and analytics department. It signed a partnership making SeatGeek its primary and secondary ticketing platform in September. Wiley said the team believes its investments will pay off next year in terms of new ticket sales.

It also will look to bridge that gap created by Atlanta by selling upper-bowl season tickets in two additional sections of CenturyLink Field. While CenturyLink has a capacity of 67,000, the Sounders have limited seating to roughly 41,000 lower-bowl seats for most games, a sellout number it has reached an MLS record 165 consecutive times. Part of the team’s 10-year plan is to sell out the entire stadium consistently. Seattle averaged 43,666 fans last season, up 2.4 percent from 2016 when it averaged 42,636. Atlanta averaged 48,200 in its debut season.

The Sounders also are negotiating new television and radio deals, and discussing plans to potentially move into digital streaming of the team’s games. Its current rights holders are Q13 Fox and Root Sports on television, and CBS Radio’s KIRO Radio 97.3 FM and El Rey 1360 AM.

After the team clinched its second consecutive spot in the MLS Cup Final this past season, the Sounders held an all-staff meeting to celebrate the moment. But Wiley said the message was clear: “We said this is exciting and you should enjoy this, but we need to leverage this opportunity to grow our business and what levers we can pull to do that.”