On November 13, 2007, a group of investors representing Seattle is officially granted an expansion franchise for Major League Soccer (MLS), the sport's premier league in North America. The successful bid comes after more than 10 years of trying. Completion of a suitable stadium has paved the way. The emergence of a strong ownership group, led by California movie-industry executive Joe Roth (b. 1948), seals the deal. The resulting team is named the Sounders after the city's original North American Soccer League entry. Beginning play in the 2009 season, the new team shatters MLS attendance records; fills Pioneer Square with marching, chanting, cheering fans wearing the team's colors; and even makes the playoffs.
Getting a Stadium
Top-level American soccer had been missing from Seattle since the original Sounders, who had begun play in 1974, folded in 1983, one year before the entire North American Soccer League collapsed. Major League Soccer was established in 1993 without Seattle. Any attempt by the city to land an MLS team depended on having a stadium built for soccer. The existing venues -- the huge Kingdome and little Memorial Stadium -- were deemed unsuitable by the league's commissioner.
In 1996 Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (1953-2018) agreed to buy the Seattle Seahawks on the condition that a new stadium be built to house the National Football League team. He wanted about three quarters of the cost to be paid by public funds, which required approval by the state's voters. There was considerable resistance to the idea, especially if the stadium would be used for only 10 games a year. Urged by members of the sizeable local soccer community, Allen agreed to make the building suitable for Olympic and World Cup soccer as well as football. The resulting added support appeared to swing the election. On June 17, 1997, voters narrowly approved $300 million in public funding for the $430 million project. "It was a squeaker. We needed soccer. It powered this thing through," said Bert Kolde, president of Allen's organization, Football Northwest (Gastineau, 6).
Construction began in 2000 on the former site of the Kingdome, which was imploded on March 26 of that year. The plan approved by voters called for an open-air stadium with natural grass -- the playing surface required by FIFA, soccer's international governing body. But after studying the situation, Allen's representatives (then operating under the name First & Goal) recommended an artificial surface called FieldTurf. Their reasoning was that with two teams using the field, natural grass wouldn't stand up to Seattle's wet weather. Soccer supporters recoiled at the thought of an artificial surface, but eventually accepted FieldTurf on condition that temporary sod would be installed if needed.
A soccer match was the first event in the new building, originally called Seahawks Stadium. On July 28, 2002, the Seattle Sounders of the United Soccer League (USL) played the Vancouver Whitecaps. The USL was a step down from Major League Soccer, but attendance at the game was 25,515 -- far bigger than the typical MLS crowd.
Waiting for an MLS Bid
The USL Sounders had been founded in 1994. By the time Seahawks Stadium opened, their managing partner and soon-to-be general manager was Adrian Hanauer (b. 1966), a successful businessman and investor in technology companies. His family owned Seattle's venerable Pacific Coast Feather Company, the nation's largest manufacturer of pillows, comforters, and other bedding products.
The Sounders were winners on the pitch, eventually capturing four USL championships, but losers financially. Hanauer believed a minor-league team could not survive in a city where fans had become accustomed to major-league sports. His first big chance for an MLS franchise came in 2004, when the league planned to add two teams. Seattle, with its new stadium (by then named Qwest Field), was considered a strong candidate, but the nod went Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Hanauer was not too disappointed; he expected Seattle to get a team the next time the league expanded.
While waiting its turn, the city dramatically displayed its enthusiasm for world-class soccer with a 2006 exhibition match between Real Madrid and MLS's D.C. United. Real Madrid was a perennial European power and included renowned British star David Beckham (b. 1975). At a time when the average MLS crowd was roughly 15,000, the exhibition match in Seattle drew nearly 67,000.
Help From Hollywood
Seattle's boosters weren't the only ones who wanted an MLS team. So did one of Hollywood's most successful movie producers, Joe Roth. He had played soccer in college and was a fan of the game. He made a fortune in movies, having been chairman of both Twentieth Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios before forming his own company, Revolution Studios, in 2000. A New York magazine column described him as "a master of the game of assembling, making, and marketing movies" (Thompson). Roth was impressed by the excitement generated in Los Angeles by the Galaxy and decided he wanted a team of his own.
MLS officials steered Roth toward the Pacific Northwest, a league target for expansion. Roth focused on Seattle because the city had a history of supporting soccer, and it was about to lose its National Basketball Association team, the Sonics, to Oklahoma City. Roth met Hanauer in July 2007, at the MLS All-Star Game in Denver. Hanauer by then was majority owner of the USL Sounders. They agreed to become partners in Seattle's bid for an MLS franchise, with Roth being the majority owner and Hanauer the general manager.
A formidable ownership group emerged, combining wealth and hometown connections. Roth would have 35 percent of the team; Hanauer, 32.5 percent; and Allen, one of the world's richest men, 25 percent. The small remaining piece went to comedian and television game-show host Drew Carey (b. 1958), who had asked Roth if he could be a partner -- but only on the conditions that fans would have a say in management, as they do in Barcelona, and that the team would have a marching band. Carey's enthusiasm and sense of fun resonated favorably with Seattle's most rabid soccer supporters.
Finally, It's Official
The Seattle group paid a $30 million fee and Seattle FC (Football Club) was admitted as Major League Soccer's 15th team. On November 9, 2007, the league confirmed the deal and said that Seattle would begin play in 2009. The official announcement came four days later in a press conference on the 75th-floor Columbia Tower Club, with MLS Commissioner Don Garber (b. 1957) among those attending. (Carey made his own announcement at The George & Dragon, a well-known soccer pub in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood.)
Speaking at the official press conference on November 13, Hanauer said, "The vision for this team is a truly international brand" (Gaschk, "MLS Officially Adds Seattle"). Roth acknowledged that the MLS was not on the same level as the best teams on other continents, but indicated he hoped to close the gap: "My goal for this team, five years from now, is to get on the field with any club in the world and, not beat them, but belong there. Play a game, and not sit back in a defensive game" (Thiel).
Within a month, the team had deposits for 10,000 season tickets. The name Sounders was not part of the new group's original plan but was adopted after being the overwhelming choice in fan polling. It was, after all, the name that launched Seattle's pro soccer history.
Hanauer announced that the USL Sounders would play one more season and that some of those players would be on the MLS team. Meanwhile, the Seahawks staff mobilized to take on such functions as Sounders marketing, promotions, and media relations. Those efforts were boosted by the enthusiasm of two key Seahawks executives -- Chief Executive Officer Tod Leiweke (b. 1960) and Vice President Gary Wright (b. 1944). Wright, in particular, was a huge fan of world-class soccer and an in-house evangelist for the game. He ended a 32-year career with the Seahawks and, at Roth's invitation, became the Sounders' Senior Vice President for Business Operations.
A Launch like No Other
In a popular, attention-getting move, the Sounders signed goalkeeper Kasey Keller (b. 1969), who grew up in Thurston County and had played at international soccer's top level, both in the English Premier League and Germany's Bundesliga. He became a team leader. The Sounders made a bigger splash by signing Sigi Schmid (b. 1953) as their head coach. Schmid had won MLS championships with two different franchises, including the 2008 title with the Columbus Crew. And following Carey's idea -- unprecedented in U.S. professional sports -- the new franchise empowered fans by forming Sounders FC Alliance, an association of season-ticket holders and fee-paying members who would get to vote on team matters, including whether to retain the general manager after four years.
The Sounders played their first MLS game on March 19, 2009, at Qwest Field (which two years later would change its name again, to CenturyLink Field). They drew a capacity crowd of 32,523 with a level of fan involvement surpassing anything the league had witnessed. There was singing, chanting, waving of flags, carrying of banners, and wearing of team scarves. There was even an innovative "March to the Match" with organized fans parading together into the stadium from Pioneer Square, accompanied by Carey's promised marching band.
With a mixture of USL Sounders, MLS veterans from other teams, and a few foreign standouts, the new Sounders beat the New York Red Bulls in the opener and went on to post a first-season record of 12 wins, 7 losses, and 11 ties -- good enough to make the playoffs. They also won the U.S. Open Cup, besting a field of MLS and minor-league pro teams.
Unlike their predecessors, the MLS Sounders were also successful from a business standpoint. They led the league in average attendance with 30,897, more than 10,000 better than the next-best team (the Galaxy). They also had the best national television ratings on the Fox Soccer Channel. For his role in the launch, Wright was named MLS Executive of the Year. Sports Business Journal spread the recognition to the entire organization, naming Sounders FC "Professional Sports Team of the Year" and calling it a model for future franchises.