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.
That said, such derision is in some sense the product of envy. Seattle is what every American soccer team strives to be – appreciated by the city and treated as a sporting equal to other major sports, supported by regular sell out crowds, carried on local broadcast television, with a highly visible presence in the market. Seattle is strewn with Sounderphernalia, from team gear in the Space Needle gift shop to a branded Budweiser sign in every bar. Restaurants advertise televised games to draw customers. In most MLS cities, teams are lucky to have more than one “soccer bar” through which to market and build community, and it’s rare one can find merchandise available anywhere but at the stadium.
Teams in MLS sit across an uncomfortable dichotomy: one at play in the Northwest, but representing the entire soccer culture — that between supporters (being those fans who participate regularly in supporters’ sections, singing, displays of tifo and pyrotechnics and the like) and casual fans. The problem is that there simply are not enough supporters in any given American market to alone make a team profitable. Instead, much like the majority of attendees at an NBA or MLB game are not season ticket holding, chest painting, laid-off Ford plant workers, the casual fan has long been the holy grail for MLS. Drawing a group of 20,000 fans — diehard supporters or not — each and every match is what will make MLS teams profitable, more pervasive in the sports consciousness, and permanent.
On the other hand, however, as in all sports it is the wildly zealous and colorful die-hard fans that generate a team’s sense of identity and make the experience unique. You need only look to two-team baseball markets to find how the cultures of teams differ from club to club. Soccer’s single biggest asset, the thing that makes it a unique sport experience (and thus a unique return on your entertainment dollar) are the supporters. No other sport in North America produces a similar fan environment to the supporters sections in MLS from DC to Chicago to the newer expansion teams, not even close.
Thankfully, many soccer teams in the States are beginning to realize this, and are slowly undoing years of adversarial relations by trying to encourage the growth of supporters sections. After all, while the moms and dads will be the largest paying group, none of them will pay as often and as repeatedly as the supporters, and none will broadcast the brand as fervently. The Timbers’ highest attendance came in 2008, the year the team finished dead last in the table. These groups are the permanent kernel of the team’s identity, which is absolutely vital to the survival of an underdog sport like soccer in America.
Of course, Qwest Field in Seattle is not exactly populated solely by Mariners fans who wandered into the wrong stadium. The Emerald City Supporters group was founded in 2005, back when the Sounders were a USL franchise. Still active today, the ECS has grown into an umbrella organization representing various supporters’ clubs that occupy what has become known as the Brougham End, behind the southern goal. As do all other supporters groups, they organize tifo, stand, and sing, and just as Qwest Field is near capacity, the sections occupied by the ECS have been full for every MLS game — even if they get their tifo upside down upon occasion.
It is at the intersection of these two sectors where MLS pay-dirt lays. For while ECS and Seattle’s soccer-knowledgable hard core perhaps face an uphill battle to impart some personality on their squeaky clean new top-flight team, the Timbers Army will face a struggle to meld their raucous, foul mouthed energy with the family crowd the Timbers will need in MLS. In a recent interview in the Oregonian, Timbers owner Merrit Paulson saluted the Scarf Seattle campaign as a huge success, saying it will “go down in history as one of the all-time great marketing campaigns… that campaign, ultimately resulting in everybody bringing all the scarves to the games, was in my mind of the great examples of brilliant marketing. And we may take elements of that.”
It’s no secret that the success in Seattle has made every MLS executive sit up and begin taking furious notes, hoping to glean some bit of knowledge or luck that will draw that elusive beast, the average American sports fan, out of its armchair. Portland will want him just as much Seattle does, as will Vancouver and Philly, and as does the frustrated bulk of MLS teams from floundering franchises like New York and Dallas to clubs on the cusp like Chicago, Houston and DC.
So while the Timbers Army can bemoan having been overlooked, and MLS fans can have a go at Seattle’s preposterous game day fanfare and the newly minted fans with their team supplied scarves, Seattle is still out drawing all other MLS markets by a long shot. Here’s the rub, and the moral that risks going unnoticed. The true goal of all MLS teams, Seattle and Portland included, should be a melding of these two approaches. After all, marketing puts asses in seats, but the atmosphere created by dedicated, Do-It-Yourselfing supporters, the thing that makes soccer unique against an increasingly noisy sports market, gets them to come back. Shooting confetti from cannons does not.
For more trenchant cultural analysis of just about anything, catch Benny and friends at Running Downhill.