While the Seattle Sounders’ inspiring post-season run and dramatic win in the MLS Cup championship was the team’s highest achievement since joining the league in 2009, their enduring popularity in the Seattle community runs much deeper than wins and losses. Yes, the Sounders typically make the playoffs – they claimed their spot this year at the last possible moment – but their regular-season record of 14-14-6 was hardly dominant.
Still, when it’s 45 degrees and drizzling, more than 43,000 Sounders fans consistently forgo warm seats in front of a TV to stand for hours at CenturyLink Field, chanting to cheer their team on. After witnessing this spectacle, as well as the parade of singing partisans surging through Pioneer Square behind the Sound Wave – the team’s own marching band – out-of-towners often ask: what makes the Sounders so popular? And how does the team draw nearly twice as many fans per game as Major League Soccer’s second-most popular team, the LA Galaxy?
There are several reasons. One is that Seattle has long cultivated youth soccer leagues, which generates a large, diverse fan base that continually renews itself. Another is that Sounders season ticket-holders have a voice in the team’s management; every four years, they can participate in a vote of confidence on the team’s General Manager – the person who hires and fires coaches and helps make decisions about the team’s roster. This gives them a bigger sense of personal investment in – and responsibility for – the team’s direction and future.
A third reason for the team’s popularity is the players’ personal commitment to strengthening their community. Over the past two years, for example, the Sounders have partnered with the Seattle International Foundation to raise awareness about – and money for – homeless kids in both King County and Mexico City. Through outreach, coaching and facilitation of basic social services, these initiatives – Street Soccer Seattle and Street Soccer Mexico – are helping young people get off the street.
The challenge of homelessness is enormous and highly visible. From 2015 to 2016, the homeless population increased 19% in King County alone, where on any given night an estimated 4,500 people end up sleeping in shelters, tents, cardboard boxes or steam grates. Sadly, research shows that 50% of chronically homeless adults experienced homelessness as a youth, so breaking that cycle earlier in life has become a priority for leaders seeking long-term solutions to the crisis.
Paul Allen’s other local team, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, is also tackling this challenge: by raising awareness among fans and donating a percentage of proceeds from its sale of Seahawks blankets they are supporting Cocoon House, a nonprofit serving local homeless, at-risk, and disconnected youth. Throughout December, Allen himself is matching every donation to Cocoon House dollar for dollar.
That’s in addition to the $1 million he recently donated to YouthCare, the only emergency shelter specifically designated for homeless youth in Seattle.
In a similar spirit of community, Allen’s NBA franchise, the Portland Trailblazers, partner with the nonprofit Urban Gleaners and local restaurants to bring food to thousands of children and families – many of whom are struggling even as the local tech economy booms.
Over time, teams rise or fall not so much on victories or losses but on how committed they are to the city around them, and the degree to which their actions on and off the field reflect their fans’ values. So whether Allen’s teams are trying to score on a corner kick, rush for a touchdown or sink a three-pointer at the buzzer, the ultimate victory is bringing people together, and inspiring them to invest even more in a shared spirit of community. And that’s why his teams are worth so much more than their bottom line can ever capture. But of course, true fans already know that – especially those who brave the rain, and smile doing it.