Perhaps one of the most intriguing stories of the upcoming 2009 campaign is the addition of the Seattle Sounders as Major Legue Soccer’s 15th team. Strong ownership (including the likes of Joe Roth, Paul Allen and Drew Carey), a long soccer tradition in the Pacific Northwest and the recent loss of the Seattle Supersonics are just some of the factors that make Seattle a very promising market. Despite playing in cavernous Qwest Field, the Sounders have limited ticket sales (the per game number is approximately 24,500), and have continued to state that the lower bowl will be sufficiently cozy to provide the soccer atmosphere so desired by the League (while keeping ticket scarcity in play).
Qwest still needs to prove itself as a soccer venue, but ticket sales will not be a problem for the inagural season. According to a recent article in the Seattle Examiner, the team has already sold more than 20,000 combined season tickets. The “combined” references split 1/2 season packages, but more than 16k full season tickets have already been sold. Tickets range from about $300-$700 (excluding those that include food service) and the Sounders’ unique season ticket interface has provided an entertaining way to track ticket sales and ticket buyers. Moreover, the Sounders will be using Qwest rent free; those ticket sales are headed directly to the bottom line. Add in the reported $4,000,000 per year the team will receive from Microsoft (for jersey sponsorship rights) (not to mention Paul Allen’s billions), a local (non-cable) TV deal and the franchise seems started in the right direction.
Advertising has sprung up all over the city, with flyers, billboards and media shouting the Sounders’ message across multiple mediums. According to to David Falk, the man in charge of the comprehensive Seattle Soccer website www.GoalSeattle.com, “KING 5 TV has become a vocal local parner with the club.” Mr. Falk stated that there has been “lots of “free” advertising there already.” He also said that, “Fox Sports Northwest is sponsoring a weekly Sounders show and also running replays of matches. The business community seems to be joining the parade.” The League has learned the hard way about the importance of a local media footprint. Seattle seems to have gotten the message.
The season ticket numbers are the most impressive. Toronto FC has been selling 16,500 season tickets per year and keeps a waiting list, while the rest of the League averages well below 10,000. Only time will tell if these numbers will sustain. The team has put together a roster designed to win now (despite potentially blowing DP money on the oft injured Freddy Ljungberg), which could help keep those fans for the long term. Mr. Falk said that “to keep crowds of 20k plus after 2009, SSFC will need to be entertaining and contending for a playoff spot. They won’t need to be annual League Champions, but Seattle will expect them to give a good show, top effort and be competitive.
The mix of season ticket sales also seems to bode well for the Sounders staying power. The team has been innovative in its approach, allowing fans with similar interests to find seats in the same section. According to Mr. Falk, “The first ‘big push’ of season ticket members, which got the club to about 13,000 after only a few months in 2008, was a mix of soccer fans, Seahawks season ticket holders and corporate groups. As things have settled some of the Seahawks season holders have backed out (in part due to the economy) and have been replaced by a steady stream of local soccer fans.”
Seattle seems to have set the standard for future franchises interms of fan outreach, advertising and media relationships. Results on the field must follow or business accumen may make little difference. But less than a month from the franchise opener on ESPN2, the Sounders seem to have done almost everything right.