Super Bowl XLVIII: Yes, there's a soccer connection
Sounders, Seahawks histories share roots
Next week’s Super Bowl features the Denver Broncos versus the Seattle Seahawks. The match up could have featured Denver and a team from Anaheim had things worked out differently. Seahawks fans need to thank Seattle Sounders FC and their local soccer community for helping to keep the team in the Emerald City says long time Seattle broadcaster Mike Gastineau.
“Everyone agrees that the soccer vote saved that stadium,” said Gastineau, author of the book "Sounders FC: an Authentic Masterpiece." “If they hadn’t made the point that they were going to pursue an MLS team, it would have failed.”
The story started in 1996 when then-owner Ken Behring first made noises about moving the Seahawks to Southern California. The following year, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen made a bid to purchase the team contingent on local taxpayers building a new stadium. The political atmosphere at the time made this difficult.
“The state of Washington had just agreed on a package of taxes that would pay for the Mariners' baseball stadium. It irritated a lot of voters because a similar referendum had just been voted down,” said Gastineau. “In the spring of 1997, all the polls showed the (football stadium) tax being defeated.”
It was then that Seattle attorney Fred Mendoza approached Allen. He told Allen that if they made the stadium suitable for both football and soccer, he could get support from the estimated 300,000 soccer players in the state.
In June of that year, the tax passed 820,364 to 783,584, a relatively bare majority of 51.1 percent. Gastineau is confident that the narrow win wouldn’t have been possible if not for the soccer community.
“There’s a very decent chance that the team doesn’t stay in Seattle if soccer doesn’t come out and kick that vote,” he said.
It took five years for the new stadium, now called CenturyLink Field, to be completed, but even longer for the promises of a Major League Soccer team to play there. Still, the stadium hosted soccer before it hosted football. The Sounders, then playing in the lower division A-League, defeated Vancouver at the new stadium in front of 25,515 people in July 2002.
It’s a common thing to see a soccer blogger sarcastically note that Sounders fans “invented” this or that aspect of soccer culture in America. The smugness is a bit earned because of their sell-out matches and atmosphere that rivals those seen in European stadia. The recent news that MLS now has more fans attending matches than the NBA was largely because of Seattle’s attendances, which average over 44,000 per match.
This can be credited, says Gastineau, to cooperation with the Seahawks management and the culture in Seattle.
“Paul Allen got 25 percent of the Sounders without giving them a dime,” he said. “But what he gave was the infrastructure. He said you can use my stadium, you can use my marketing team, you can use my ticketing team, my media team. That gave the Sounders a phenomenal backbone that most expansion teams don’t have.”
“The Seahawks were also smart enough not to overplay their hand,” he added. “They didn’t come in and try to ramrod an NFL approach into MLS.”
Gastineau also notes that the team has a heavier visibility in local media than other MLS teams do, something helped along by the recent loss of Seattle’s NBA franchise.
The marketing and media efforts earned the team crowds that are the envy of other teams in the league, a few of whom struggle to get ten thousand at matches.
“The Sounders brass will admit that they thought they’d get 12 -18,000 a game, they’d make a little money and go from there,” he said. “They were blown away with the support they got right from the start.”
“I’m not sure I can pinpoint why it is such an authentic soccer experience,” he said about the atmosphere at the stadium. “The Sounders really listened to their fans from the start. They tried to deliver in terms of game presentation, in terms of style. The people who have traveled Europe have told me that it is a very European experience.”
He also notes that the Sounders, as an NASL team, used to draw well in the 1970s. Like with the current stadium, the Sounders were the first team to play at the King Dome.
“They were drawing 16,000 people a night. This is before the Mariners existed, before the Seahawks existed,” he said. “The NASL and soccer was one of the first big things in Seattle. I think that’s where the culture developed too. Even though the league went away for 25 years, that fan base stayed loyal to the game.”
Most important, says Gastineau, is that Seattle embraces new things.
“Seattle is always on the leading edge of every cultural phenomenon,” said Gastineau, who notes that he moved to Seattle at the height of the grunge movement in 1991. “We always are on the leading edge of things. I think that’s what happened with soccer.”
“Seattle always embraces the quirkiness of it all,” he said. “We gave the world four-dollar coffee and pumpkin beer in every bar. You’re welcome.”
Cascadia rivalry in Tucson
Saturday, Feb. 8, Seattle will face off against rivals Portland Timbers at Kino Sports Complex. It’s always a hard-fought, boisterous match when played in Portland or Seattle. We could see a bit of that in Tucson.
“Those fans like to travel,” Gastineau said. “I don’t think they’ll be tens of thousands. I think it will be a fun atmosphere at that game. It’s a rivalry that goes back to 1974. It’s got everything: big brother versus little brother. Little brother got the best of big brother last year, bloodied his nose.”
The bloody nose, by the way, was earned in the conference semifinals where Portland eliminated Seattle by an aggregate score of 5-3.
In addition to the rivalry, Arizona fans have a few local favorites to see. Seattle standout Brad Evans will likely be away with the national team, but former Phoenix FC goalkeeper (and Arizona native) Andrew Weber could make an appearance for the Timbers, and will likely share the field with former FC Tucson midfielder Aaron Long.