EASIEST freaking interview I've ever done. This has been edited for question and answer readability; but none of Hanauer's words have been changed. Basically, I fired off a bunch of questions at once, he responded, I had a couple of follow-ups. I don't think Seattle fans will learn anything new here, but very good stuff for people like me outside the PNW. - D.
Top of the list, of course, is the great start, on and off the field. It's really been very impressive, even by the standards of great MLS starts. Basically, how was it done? And is this something that can be replicated in existing markets, future markets like Philadelphia?
I often get the question about how we have been able to launch with such success. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer or formula that other markets can duplicate exactly, but just like we were able to learn from certain markets like LA, Toronto, and New England... others can learn some things from us.
From a business standpoint, it all started about 35 years ago with the original Sounders of the NASL. Those pioneers like John Best, Jimmy Gabriel and Alan Hinton established the foundation from which we are able to succeed. From 1983-1994, there were several incarnations of professional soccer in Seattle and Tacoma which kept the flame burning. Then in 1994, two former Microsoft executives, Scott Oki and Neil Farnsworth decided that the Sounders should be resurrected and they re-launched the Sounders into the APSL. 15 years and 4 championships later, Sounders soccer had survived 34 years of coming and going within a variety of leagues. One consistent storyline, however, was that the quality of soccer played in Seattle has always been top notch. I haven't gone back to the record books, but I would venture to guess that there couldn't have been more than a handful of losing seasons in the 34 years of professional soccer in Seattle.
During this 34 years, the fans were always there. During the NASL years, first 15,000 then 25,000 then 40,000 fans filled Memorial Stadium and The Kingdome and The Sounders were always near the top of their league in attendance. The USL Sounders saw a drop off in attendance, but even from 1994-2008, a core of 4000-7000 fans continued to rabidly support their team.
And over the past 10 years, there was an increased anticipation for MLS to come to Seattle. First Doug Logan promised the city a team, once Qwest Field was built. Then, I and some other local business leaders flirted with the possibility of getting the expansion franchise that went to Real Salt Lake in 2004. Anticipation was built and pent up demand continued to grow for an MLS team in Seattle.
This foundation of professional soccer also led to a flourishing youth system in Washington State, where the number of kids playing soccer on a per capita basis is near the top nationwide. Youth soccer, high school soccer, college soccer... all continued to grow and improve during this 30 year period. Washington State also started to develop some top American soccer talent such as Jeff Stock, Jimmy McCalister, Chance Fry, Kasey Keller, Marcus Hahnemann, Sounders FC Technical Director Chris Henderson, Sounders FC Assistant Coach Brian Schmetzer, and others.
Jump ahead to November of 2007 when Joe Roth, Tod Leiweke, Drew Carey, and I announced that we would form the ownership group of the new MLS expansion team in Seattle. With Joe's shrewd business savvy and global aspirations... with Tod Leiweke's brilliant and steady leadership, with a little bit of flash from Drew Carey, and with my local ties and knowing a little bit about putting teams together... we were able to form the foundation of what would become a great team, both on and off the pitch.
A critical component to this story -and I can't emphasize this enough- is the relationship that was forged between The Seattle Seahawks and Sounders FC. In effect, the entire business team that runs The Seahawks, from CEO Tod Leiweke to Gary Wright who now runs business operations for Sounders FC, to all of the Seahawks business people... the marketing folks to community relations, ticket sales, game day operations... all of them, are now focused on soccer as well as American football. So, the day after we announced that we had secured an MLS franchise, we already had the best management team in professional soccer working behind the scenes to guarantee our success.
I'm a believer that timing and luck also play a role in people and organizations that have success. Let's face it... with The Sonics sorry story and the moving vans rolling towards Oklahoma City, there was a void opened in the market for a good story. Additionally, the sports landscape in Seattle had been in a bit of a rough patch, which probably led to a bit of the buzz that hit the city as well.
So the foundation had been laid, and now it was up to the business people and the soccer people to execute the business plan, and avoid giving fans a reason to jump off of the bandwagon.
Numerous decisions were made relative to the business and sport: Capacity was modified at Qwest and expensive tarping designed and installed. LED boards, similar to those in Europe were brought in. A great advertising firm was hired to come up with the "Scarf Seattle" concept and our tag line of "Give us Your Full 90". X-Box was signed as our major sponsor. Belo was brought in to broadcast all of our games over-the-air. Legendary NBA announcer, Kevin Calabro was hired as play-by-play announcer. Chris Henderson was brought home to Seattle as Technical Director. Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg were signed as marquee players. Both the expansion draft and SuperDraft went well for our team. We were able to take advantage of the opportunity to sign some of the USL Sounders. We spent time scouring the globe for foreign players and it appears that that work will pay dividends.
Long story short... the foundation had been established for us to succeed. We had some good timing. We made some good decisions. And all of those factors in combination have led to the overwhelming success that we see today.
Can Seattle maintain it?
There is always a chance that we will not be able to maintain the current momentum. Which is exactly what makes our ownership and management group paranoid about not getting lazy or resting on our laurels. Once we believe that we have arrived... we are sunk. We must always maintain the discipline and diligence that have gotten us to this point.
]On a slightly more negative note, why wasn't this sort of attention possible for the USL Sounders?
My personal opinion is that the single greatest reason for the challenges that we faced with The USL Sounders was that running minor league soccer team in a major league market is a major league challenge. I am certain that there are things that we could have done to improve attendance, but we were also financially challenged. And although we had tried numerous ways of getting butts in seats... we were never able to find a way that provided a reasonable return on investment. Also, knowing that the future of soccer in Seattle would almost certainly be MLS, our investor group was not particularly interested in investing enormous piles of money into something that would eventually go by the wayside.
Are there any worries about the novelty wearing off? Or is the imminent arrival of old rivals in Portland and Vancouver going to alleviate those?
We see the arrivals of Portland and Vancouver as nothing but positive for Sounders FC and the league. I am certain that both markets will replicate our success. The rivalries on the pitch will be heated, and will add an amazing element to MLS... local derbies.
Has there been any kind of bitterness from the USL, now that they're going from three successful Pacific Northwest teams to zero?
There has been none. I think that both MLS and USL realize that everyone is better off with strong soccer leagues in The US. Hopefully, over time we will figure out how best to work together.
Internally, I am sure that USL is working on their overall strategic direction, just like MLS league officials continue to work on ours.
You had mentioned the Seahawks being very able partners, and the helpful void the Sonics left - has that forestalled anti-soccer reactions among "traditional" media and fans, or had that sort of attitude vanished in Seattle by now?
The USL Sounders always had a very good working relationship with the media. From 2002-2008, we continued to get more coverage and attention, but the media rightfully related their coverage to the relevance of the team in Seattle. When 1800 people showed up to a match, they covered in like it was minor league. When 8,000 showed up for an Open Cup match versus an MLS opponent or we played for a USL championship, the media gave the team great coverage.
With the MLS version of the Sounders, the media has jumped aboard, but mostly because Sounders FC is relevant in The Puget Sound region. The existing relationship that The Seahawks have had with various media outlets has also benefited us greatly. Gary Wright, who runs business operations for Sounders FC, is one of the most liked and respected business people in Seattle sports, so having Gary involved has also helped to cement those relationships.
I suppose there's been enough complaining about this that I should at least ask - a lot of fans and players complain about FieldTurf. Craig Waibel told FSC that if he were MLS commissioner, he wouldn't hold MLS Cup in a stadium with artificial turf. How much, if any, of that criticism is valid? Especially looking down the road, when Seattle comes up in discussions for World Cup qualifiers and (hopefully) actual World Cup games.
The great thing about this country is that everyone can voice their opinion. We believe that Field Turf is a great surface for soccer in the Pacific Northwest. I guarantee that the quality of our pitch this season has been better than some of the grass pitches that I have seen so far. Would a perfect grass pitch be optimal? Yes, of course. But I will take our Field Turf pitch in the middle of downtown Seattle, filled with 28,000 fans, over a suburban soccer specific stadium with 13,000 any day.
And ultimately, if Field Turf isn't appropriate for a World Cup Qualifier or World Cup Match... we will bring grass in temporarily for those matches.
Thanks again, Adrian.