Changing Times in Seattle

Seattle exits the 2013 MLS playoffs to Portland. Credit: Joshua Weisberg - ISIPhotos.com

By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 12, 2013) US Soccer Players – Let's talk about what it means to be in a competitive sports marketplace. In the United States, that requires looking past your own sport. Unless it's Los Angeles or New York, competing locally isn't soccer-specific. Major League Soccer's teams have to be aware of their direct competition. That's teams drawing the attention, the attendance, the ratings, and the local money.

Pick a market, and normally there's one pro sport outdoing the rest. For those keeping score at home, there are only 14 examples of the same city winning titles in more than one major league in the same season. The National Hockey League became the second major pro sport in 1917. It took decades for new leagues and expansion to spread major league status to cities all over the country.

There's a reason we don't see dynasties in multiple sports in the same city at the same time. Markets can only support so much, especially in the long term. Interest fades and, hopefully, revives before an owner decides a team is better off somewhere else. That's normally a market without the level of competition that turned a once valuable franchise into a struggling business.

The Seattle Sounders moved up to MLS at an opportune time in their market. Basketball left for Oklahoma. Baseball wasn't drawing after years of stagnation. The Seahawks missed the playoffs a few months before the Sounders debuted. There wasn't likely to be a better set of circumstances for a team trying to position itself in a market.

Yes, the Sounders didn't start from scratch and were already using an NFL stadium as a lower division team. Still, their MLS moment came at an advantageous time. The Sounders played to that advantage, becoming the only team in the league to turn soccer-specificity into a nonissue.

As a pro sports market, Seattle is NFL, MLS, and then MLB. That reordering speaks to the long-term ambitions of pro soccer everywhere else in the country. So what happens when the baseball team tries to take back its market?

If you're a sports fan of a certain age, you remember when the Seattle Mariners meant Ken Griffey Jr and a contending team. Then it meant Ichiro Suzuki and a contending team. The formula was simple. Superstar plus contention to make sure the fans showed up at the Kingdome and then Safeco Field. Without a playoff appearance since 2001 and a good season since '07, baseball slipped noticeably in Seattle. This was a team averaging Sounders style numbers through 2003. It's probably worth the reminder that the Sounders don't play 81 home games a season. A decade later? The Mariners averaged 21,747 in 2013, 25th out of 30 teams. Imagine, a Seattle pro sports team that doesn't set attendance records.

So what happens if Seattle returned to its old model? Superstar plus contending equals lots of fans willing to pay to see Major League Baseball. Well, the Mariners are now the biggest spenders in this offseason. They've added Robinson Cano, a potential superstar in that market that was one among several playing for the New York Yankees. So that's part of the equation at the bargain price of $240 million dollars over ten years. They're busy at the winter meetings in Florida, buying the type of players they'll need to get opposing pitchers to reconsider pitching around the newest Mariners superstar.

What does this mean for the Sounders? At the very least, it's a fair question. Seattle soccer could be pushing for relevance in a market with a football team coming off a Super Bowl appearance and a baseball team reminding the locals that they care about the Mariners. The combination creates a new scenario for the Sounders.

How they respond only adds to the pressure coming off a tough 2013 season. Seattle didn't dominate. They struggled after adding a marquee player. They seemed unable to take advantage of their noticeable talent. They lost a playoff series to the Portland Timbers.

Now, they face the market question. That normally doesn't favor the local soccer team. Seattle is different. We know that already. Does that difference mean it's the Mariners worrying about the Sounders rather than the other way around?


J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him atjhutcherson@usnstpa.com.

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9 Responses to Changing Times in Seattle

  1. Rick VanderWaal says:

    Seattle Sounders were around before the Mariners and Seahawks. The collapse of the NASL relegated them to a lower division. I can only guess that MLS kept the northwest teams out of their fledgling league to reduce travel costs for teams that still cannot get fan support.
    The Sounders did not play their lower division games in an NFL stadium, they played the majority of their USL games at Starfire Academy fields where the current Sounders have their practice facility and an occasional sold out US open cup match.
    The Mariners will have little to no effect on Sounder attendance no matter how good they are, as a fan of both, and a buyer of tickets to both, I find myself in the minority as most baseball fans are not soccer fans and most soccer fans are not baseball fans. If the Mariners get good, which is doubtful as the retirement of Chuck Armstrong alone will not improve the leadership enough to impact the Sounders.
    Will the MLS ever admit to their blunder for keeping the Northwest teams and their true soccer fans out of the MLS for as long as they did? I doubt it.

  2. Trey says:

    What? The Sounders were out of business for a decade between the NASL and the A-League/USL era. And they definitely played at Qwest as a USL team. I saw them there. I’m also not sure why you’re writing in absolutes about baseball and soccer. I’m a fan of both, buy tickets to both, and wonder what happens if the Mariners are drawing well like the old days. If Mariners games are more fun than Sounders games and people don’t have to wait a fortnight for the party, it could be an issue.

  3. JasonDe says:

    Add me to the list of MLS and MLB fans. I don’t claim to know the Seattle market, but I think you’ll find a few families that regularly make the MLS or MLB choice. In places like Philly where the team is awful, using stubhub can make an MLB game cheaper.

  4. Kio says:

    That’s what I don’t understand about the Yankees and New York FC. Why would they want an MLS team anywhere near them? They don’t sell out every game. Any alternative is taking focus away from their sport.

  5. Pat Mahoney says:

    You don’t know Seattle well. A huge amount of the Sounders fan base are players like me who went to the NASL games as a kid after they had already been playing for years. We are now older and go to games with our families who also play. Soccer may possibly be more integrated into the social fabric here than baseball.

    That being said, GO MARINERS!!!!!

  6. Sammy Scoundrel says:

    If either team should be worried about a hit to their market share, it’s probably still the mariners. They added a very expensive player and I hope they are successful, but the sounder have been loudly proclaimed the “most successful expansion team in the history of professional sports” and 2013 was their first non-successful year.

    And unfortunately for all other sports, this is a world cup year, which means it’s the one time that soccer abstainers will deign to watch the game in Brazil and I’m sure people will whisper in their ears “that’s Clint Dempsey, he plays in Seattle you know,” and interest will spike, at least momentarily.

    All 3 teams will be fine though. At least until basketball and hockey arrive, then I predict diluted interest across the board.

  7. Johnny B. Good says:

    Seahawks didn’t go to the superbowl last year FYI.. The Baltimore Ravens beat the SF 49ers for the crown.

  8. Chris says:

    Don’t forget about the Seattle Storm! They have two of the best players in WNBA history, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, who should both be ready to take the Storm back to the top after missing the entire 2013 season with injuries.

    Having said that… Go Sounders! & Go Storm!