There are fundamentally two football worlds: the ‘old’ one which largely consists of Europe & South America, where football was injected subcutaneously into the various national cultures and thrived over a century ago; and the ‘new’ one which now includes just about everywhere else on the planet these days and at which, historically speaking, football has only just arrived.
The old footie world features clubs, leagues and national teams which throw long shadows and which are imbued with history and tradition going back generations. (Every winner of the World Cup is, of course, from football’s old world.) The ‘new’ one naturally struggles to develop that which only the passage of time can give: real connections between people and ‘the beautiful game’ in the place where they live.
So far, the struggle has proved fairly disastrous in China and Korea, for example (and to some extent in Japan too). Neither the Chinese nor the Koreans demonstrate much real enthusiasm for their club football (though the respective national teams – for differing reasons – attract considerable attention), and most fans are too dazzled by the glamorous sexiness of the great European clubs to fall in love with a local girl.
The USA has been trying to develop a genuine, professional ‘soccer’ league for much longer than nations in the Far East; not far off fifty years, in fact. In 1968, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was launched (with Pele and Puskas on board) but, though it ran until 1984, it never really looked like the real deal.
A decade later, Major League Soccer (MLS) was born (which includes three Canadian clubs) and looks to be considerably sturdier than the NASL model; and one MLS club in particular appears to be pioneering the development of locally based ‘traditions’ in a typically imaginative and pioneering way: the Seattle Sounders FC.
It took me quite a while to realise where Seattle, Washington really was. I guess I was confused by the ‘Washington’ state designation, and assumed it was on the east coast of the USA. I subsequently discovered the city’s real location was on the west coast, quite close to the Canadian border, way up north.
The Sounders FC were only awarded an MLS ‘franchise’ in 2007, and didn’t kick off its first season until 2009. They sold 22,000 season-tickets that year and had an average gate of 35,523. That’s higher than 95% of clubs in Europe, and greater than the average attendance in the Premier League, or indeed any other league in Europe except the Bundesliga.
Last season the Sounders did even better, averaging 38,496; and this coming Sunday (7th Oct) for the nearest thing to a derby match (against ‘Portland Timbers’), they may well break the all time MLS record gate. A week before the game they had already sold 66,000 tickets for the crunch match and, on the day, there could well be 70,000 or more in the stadium. What’s going on?
It isn’t about instant success on the park, that’s for sure; the Club has only picked up one, minor, trophy so far. It’s all about how smart the ownership is – and the way it has gone about building relationships and a real sense of ‘local identity’ in the city it calls home. The major shareholders are an interesting crew: a Hollywood producer (Joe Roth); a co-founder of Microsoft (Paul Allen), and a comedian (Drew Carey).
First off, they decided to introduce an element of real democracy into the running of the Club. The ‘Sounders Alliance’ was formed which enables every season-ticket holder (or indeed any fan who pays an annual $100 membership fee) to vote to elect the Club’s General Manager, on a four year cycle. The Club actively encourages team accountability to its ‘electorate’ and a system of transparent communication to enable it.
They segment the stadium too, so fans who want to bounce and sing the whole match can all stand together in one section and lead the crowd.
The organised fans and the ownership work together to encourage the seedlings of purely local traditions. (It started before the 2009 season kicked off, with fans draping scarves and colours around trees and statues of local worthies.) Before every home game, the Sounders fans in their thousands meet up in town and march to the game behind a 53 piece marching band.
It’s all about how you go from a ‘franchise’ to a ‘football club’. Who can love a franchise?
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Football.