On July 23rd, the City Council of Portland, Oregon approved a plan to renovate PGE Park, home of USL-1 side Portland Timbers. The renovation and expansion of the long-time home of the Timbers was a point of contention – a requirement if the Timbers were to host MLS games at PGE Park, but one that required city financing. And so, as the mayor was paraded before the raucous Timbers Army, Portland’s supporters’ umbrella group, and the club-record 14,000 in attendance, fans rightfully celebrated their impending berth in North America’s top-flight soccer league.
However, with the good news there will now come inevitable comparisons with the Timbers’ primary rival, and MLS expansion case study, the nearby Seattle Sounders. And these comparisons make Timbers fans bristle. You see, while Seattle’s inaugural MLS season has been an undoubted success, Portlanders are suffering through what amounts to a sporting version of the overlooked younger sibling. They have been toiling away in the deep darkness of USL soccer for years, growing one of the largest supporters sections in any league in the US, and all through grassroot organization. But in a few months of Seattle Sounders MLS soccer, Portland has been overshadowed by what is, by all accounts, MLS’ most successful expansion to date.
A Historic Rivalry
Soccer in the two cities shares a similar history, dating back to the mid-seventies halcyon of the NASL. The Sounders and Timbers were admitted as expansion franchises in 1974 and 1975 and folded in 1982 and 1983 respectively, as the league disintegrated.
In the years after, as North American soccer died and was reborn and moved inside and back outside and died again, seemingly without end, teams from both cities competed in the alphabet soup of interim leagues, like the WSA, WSL, ASL, and ASPL. It was not until the USSF firmly established the United Soccer Leagues and a federation-run pyramid that the teams found stability. In the USL A-League (the nation’s top-flight until MLS was formed) the Seattle Sounders name and logo was rededicated in 1994, and the Timbers followed suit some seven years later in 2001.
In the A-League (later renamed USL First Division), Seattle proved to be a strong force, winning four League Championships and reaching US Open Cup semifinals three times. Portland, on the other hand, struggled mightily, never winning the league, or making it past the 4th round of the Open Cup. The Timbers’ greatest success was winning the 2004 A-League Western Division.
Off the field, however, the results were reversed. Seattle struggled to attract crowds over 3,000 for their entire existence, averaging closer to 2,000 around the turn of the millennium. Their highest average attendance came in their inaugural A-League season, 1994, with 6,347. Otherwise, the average for their entire existence in the A-League/USL-1 was 3,194.
Compare that with the Timbers, who’ve averaged nearly twice that in their seven years of USL soccer: 6,235. In fact, in ’07 and ’08, the Timbers have been the second highest drawing team in USL, behind only Montreal (who miraculously draw well over 10,000 regularly because French Canada is just inexplicable). The Timbers also became considerably well ingrained into the city’s sports consciousness, having only to compete with NBA’s Trailblazers and Triple-A baseball.
Crowning the large crowds (large by our modest standards, of course) is the Timbers Army, who occupy the North End of the stadium and have built a reputation for being among the most active supporters in any league in the United States — a recent “animated” tifo display, in which a 20-foot lumberjack clad in Timbers green chopped down a replica of the Seattle Space Needle, made waves in the deep recesses of the internet reserved for American soccer talk.
All of that work, though, and the Timbers Army’s brick-by-brick construction of their club’s identity, has been eclipsed by the sudden appearance of a soccer marketing giant to the north, where before there had been little comparison between the two.
Seattle Sounders FC is going gangbusters since their “promotion” to MLS this season, both on the field in MLS and in the stands (and in the bank and in the city and in the news). In contrast to their meager USL days, the MLS Sounders have drawn average crowds near 30,000 in their 10 home matches this season. Yes. 30,000. You read that correctly (the semi-official number is 29,983.90, but all those zeroes look better in print). You may be doing some quick math in your head right now, so I’ll give you a moment to work it all out.
In the meantime, note that MLS’ previous best-team-ever-everybody-look-at-that, Toronto FC, are averaging 20,277 (probably as a function of stadium capacity – they’d draw more if they could). Have you done the math yet? The MLS Sounders are drawing almost ten-times as many fans than they did just last year, in the same stadium, with the same name. So what gives? Well, that’s what the Timbers Army wants to know when they chant “Where were you last year?!” at the seas of Sounders fans at Qwest Field.
A perfect storm settled over Seattle in 2008, at least as far as Seattle Sounders FC ownership group (faced by mascot Drew Carey but mainly backed by Hollywooder Joe Roth, along with Adrian Hanauer and Microsoft founder Paul Allen) were concerned. Seattle’s oldest sports team, gridiron’s Seattle Seahawks, were suffering a miserable season winning only four games and missing the playoffs by a mile and a half. Baseball’s Mariners had been nothing more than mediocre for some time. Most importantly, however, was the departure for Oklahoma City of the city’s most successful and nationally renowned sports team, the NBA’s SuperSonics. That left a huge gaping hole in Seattle’s sports consciousness.
The Sounders plugged that hole with scarves. In a “guerilla marketing” maneuver, engineered by Seattle-based Wexley School for Girls (a jocularly named “alt” ad and marketing agency), thousands of Seattle Sounders FC branded scarves were disseminated around the metropolitan area and fans were encouraged to display them publicly in a Scarf Seattle campaign.
The maneuver worked, and the city’s mailboxes, balconies, and shop windows were all a-flutter with the blue and green scarves. Through special offers to groups, Seahawks season ticket holders, and the like, the Sounders managed to sell 13,000 season tickets in a matter of weeks. While some of the announced tickets were actually Seahawks holders who had simply not-yet-passed-up their special offer, the number created buzz, and the momentum kept the sales sky-rocketing. By season’s start, there were nearly 20,000 legitimate Sounders season ticket holders. Throughout the city, posters, schedules and bar signs began popping up and a giant scarf was hung from a highway overpass. It was a perfect modern marketing gimmick: make the buzz, and the buzz makes sales, even if the product is totally unknown.
And therein lies the rub for the Timbers Army and their DIY culture down the road. Seattle’s initial success was the result of expensive marketing. John Keatley’s blog is an insider’s look that innocently enough details a stage of the campaign in which, since there were no available press photos of Sounders fans, a cartoon modeling company was hired to make the background for a billboard. Tellingly, Portlanders refer to Sounders fans as “customers,” characterizing them as simply having been the victims of good advertising. But the complaints go deeper than street-marketing.
Do It Yourself
In the strange marketplace and cultural space of American soccer, the idea of authenticity has become vital to supporters and fans. Many fan groups around the country have struggled hard to develop an identity, often at odds with the management groups of their supported clubs that, in the early days, insisted on clean family-friendly atmospheres, hoping to cash in on the soccer-mom and youth team market. This has made the DIY ethic a point of pride for many North American supporters groups, who view the trials and tribulations of the past as battles won. For example, many supporters groups in MLS have had to make their own team merchandise and even large flags and banners, paying out of association dues. The Timbers Army are perhaps the epitome of this sense of DIY pride, especially considering that they’ve labored in anonymity in the lower divisions. In many ways, to Timbers supporters, the sudden success of Seattle Sounders FC seems to represent the opposite of this mentality.
Meanwhile, within the stadium, Seattle’s games are conducted under much pomp and circumstance – a marching band, the Sound Wave, marches with fans into the stadium prior to kick off, green and blue confetti is shot from cannons overhead as the team is announced, and canned music blares out of the PA throughout the proceedings. The stadium announcer reads a dramatic script in a (presumably authentic) posh English accent, not unlike Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And amidst all this, fans hold aloft their uniform team-granted scarves. Overhead, large branded tarps cover unused seats in the top tier — a good use of dead space, except that one of them features goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who plays for the Kansas City Wizards.
The whole ordeal feels as orchestrated as The Lion King On Ice. It is, without a doubt, a choreographed and controlled game experience – the antithesis to the anarchic, heady and wild experience so many supporters groups have struggled for years to engender in other stadia, not only in Portland, but also in Chicago, DC and other MLS markets. It’s no wonder the Sounders Experience has been derided as plastic, prefabricated, and shallow.Seattle’s Marching Band