The (Puget) Sound of Fan Engagement

Wednesday 6th March 2013 at 2:05PM

Three years separate the founding of Emerald City siblings Starbucks and Seattle Sounders FC. 

One has gone on to achieve rocketing growth in customer numbers, built on a strategy of transparent values, stakeholder engagement and innovation, with one of its most recent campaigns being described as ‘nothing short of head turning’.  The other is Starbucks.

Joking apart though, Starbucks’ success has been well documented but it’s the Seattle Sounders’ rapid rise that deserves your closer attention, since in pure attendance terms alone, moving from gates of 3,300 to over 60,000 in four years is a remarkable achievement.

Last month at the Sport Research Group’s Achieving Growing Attendances conference in Sydney (incidentally, one of the most engaging and practical sources of ‘off the field’ inspiration I’ve ever witnessed) the Sounders’ Director of Business Operations, Bart Wiley and I sat down to share our thoughts on how best to grow a football club.

Bart, who’s been at the Sounders for 10 years, was keen to learn from the UK and Europe: the traditions, the passion, the fanaticism and the electric atmosphere, while I wanted to test my perceptions about US sports being more focused on pursuing growth through customer engagement rather than relying solely on technical excellence (‘winning’).

But first, a little historical context: The Sounders joined the North American Soccer League in 1974 (three years after Starbucks was founded) and were awarded a Major League Soccer franchise in 2007 with a growth strategy based on a strong partnership between the owners, the community, the players and the fans.

In 2009, the inaugural MLS season for a club whose colours are based on the city’s nickname (The Emerald City) the forests, and the environmentally sensitive nature of Washington State, every single game sold out. Season ticket sales were capped at 22,000 and an average attendance of 35,523 was recorded. The team obliged by winning their first trophy, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and by reaching the play offs.

In 2010 10,000 more season tickets were released (and quickly taken up) while the average gate sneaked up to over 36,000. Last season the average was 38,500 with a record attendance of 64,410 seeing the friendly against Manchester United.  Bart explains ‘We play at CenturyLink Field: the home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and up to this point we’d restricted capacity to create demand for tickets while improving the overall atmosphere at the venue.’  Not any more.

In the current season record numbers of people continue to declare for the Sounders. Crowds in excess of 50-60,000 are expected for the upcoming LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers regular season league games.

The team have been successful - a couple of play offs and the potential to win the Open Cup for the fourth year in succession - but this is no ordinary growth. Something special is happening here and the more I learn about it, the more the passionfor the boys in green comes equally from technical proficiency on the field and method off it.

One might think that the ‘level playing field’ ethos of MLS (single entity league, salary caps, same core commercial partners, etc) would militate against such an unusually consistent level of sporting success and Bart readily acknowledges the contribution of the technical team at Seattle. ‘Not too many expansion teams have had the success we’ve had. You have to give credit to what our technical team have been able to do.’

But allied to the pursuit of sporting excellence is a clear strategy based on an infinitesimal understanding of what the Club stands for, what its identity should be and how that should be promoted to Seattleites. Nothing remarkable there for any sports club worth its salt, but here (often in contrast to my experiences of British football) this starts with the ownership team.

Joe Roth, the Hollywood producer, is the main shareholder, supported by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, TV celebrity and comedian Drew Carey and General Manager Adrian Hanauer.  Hanauer, as General Manager, had great success with the minor league Sounders in the United Soccer Leagues, winning three Championships in six years.  But now focused on MLS, he and the other Sounders owners not only know a lot about the beautiful game, but even more about how to grow it.

Because they know how to reach out to the public and to make people feel involved, they’re able to create revolutions.  And that’s at the heart of the Sounders Alliance, the tool by which fan democracy has become ingrained in the North West Pacific.

In simple terms every season ticket holder (and any other fan who pays $100) gets to decide whether or not the General manager stays in post every 4 years. Sound familiar? Well that’s because it’s based on the ownership systems of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. They may be fan-owned clubs, but the principle is the same at commercially owned Seattle Sounders. As Bart explains ‘We give fans a voice and encourage their involvement in key decision-making’.  Add increasing ownership team accountability and transparent communication to this and growth is going to become less reliant on sporting glory.

The strategy and culture may be right, but it’s in the activation that we see the fruits of an organisation designed to grow, not only to win.  Two weeks before the 2009 season, the Scarf Seattle initiative was launched.  Fans were encouraged to drape Sounders scarves around civic monuments, trees, houses and even the Space Needle.  You could even upload your pictures to a dedicated website. 

And all 22,000 season ticket holders received a scarf with their season ticket booklet.  Affixed to the scarves were tickets for opening night: thus tactfully obliging you to bring your scarf to the match.  Once at the match the in-stadium cry was “Scarves Up”, with all 22,000 season ticket holders holding their scarves above their head.

This was built on by the March to the Match idea where fans meet centrally and, to the tune of a 53-member marching band, set off together to CenturyLink Field.

These are traditions: not the 150 year old traditions that can stifle growth here in the UK (abusing away fans, spiteful chanting, few concessions to the first timer, etc) but engaging new rituals that are characterised by genuine fan involvement and whose purpose is to engage.  In Bart’s words ‘These are traditions that fans can get behind, that people can embrace, that people can get excited about – and they all set the tone for future interactions’.

It’s not just affection but intrigue that’s creating these record attendances.  For example (and here’s another element of fan engagement I’m often to be found ranting about) they don’t just segment their fan base, but they segment their stadium too.  If you happen to like standing at the footie, enjoy supporting your team boisterously, play locally and have an interest in, say, Liverpool FC, then there’s a corner of CenturyLink Field that will (if Rupert Brooke will allow) always be Anfield.

How many of our UK clubs are doing this? Precious few. To my wife’s eyes it’s all a case of ‘same song, different lyrics’.  If her view is representative of the potential UK future fan base, then that’s of concern.  But it’s also a function of the complacency inherent in our subconscious devotion to a growth strategy only based on ‘winning’. Yes, that goal over which only the gilded few can exercise any degree of control.

Bart and I found common ground in the need to learn from commercial service excellence and it was here that we quickly found another key area where the Sounders’ approach differs considerably: people engagement. The inspirational UK business leader and philanthropist Henry Stewart has built the Happy franchise on a single belief: people work better when they feel good about themselves. At the Sounders this is reflected in the conscious focus on getting, in Bart’s words ‘fantastic people in place, taking care of them and making sure they’re happy.’ 

And while the sporting context is different (i.e. no relegation) my feeling is that here in the UK we’re way short of connecting a positively engaged workforce with local fan base growth.

There’s wider evidence of a focus on proven service excellence when you look at attitudes to performance on the pitch too. This may not be controllable, but all that serves to do is ensure that growth plans are flexible enough to be decisive at key moments, be that unexpected victories or defeats, or unpredictable ‘in-game’ moments that spark a different way forward – a chance to do something different, to show some creativity.

I think we’re getting better at that here. There’s a new generation of social media-savvy practitioners across our game who see Twitter, Facebook et al, as a way of engaging with future audiences.  Take a look at Birmingham City’s lovely Pot of Gould initiative, The Kop (at www.liverpoolfc.com) and the FAWSL Twitter Kit phenomenon in our fast growing Women’s game.

But what can we learn? Watching Bart recount the story of the Sounders’ rise made me think about my own team here in the UK.  Our stadium is usually 75% full, in spite of the fact that we’re enjoying one of the most sustained periods of (relative) success in our club’s recent history.

I believed that the failure to fill it was down to socio-economic factors (and our tendency to lull the opposition into a true sense of superiority), but I’m starting to think that any ‘attendance deficit’ is partly, if not wholly explained, by a focus on victory that excludes all of the other factors capable of driving growth.

You see, when an entire organisational strategy is based on winning, the necessary ruthlessness required for the achieving sporting glory often seeps into other areas such as the extent to which fans are given a voice, transparency on issues affecting supporters and attitudes to customer service.  This often explains why some clubs take for granted the ‘magic’ they hold in their hands – and fail to exploit the emotional core of the supporter’s devotion.

But ultimately it’s the focus on the ‘customer’: the small band of Sounders fanatics that gave the club its soul back in 1974 and the expanding band of supporters who are setting records almost on a weekly basis now (over 55,000 tickets have already been sold for the game against the Galaxy on 5 August and a sell out crowd of 66,000 anticipated for the clash with local rivals Portland Timbers on 7 October).  And then there are the thousands more who are inevitably going to be touched by the Immortal Fury (as one of their supporter groups call themselves). It’s their club.  It feels fan-owned. 

On the one hand, the land of the Puget Sound may be 8 hours behind us. But in respect of fan engagement and growth, it sometimes feels 20 years ahead.

Written in July 2012 for FC Business Magazine.

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