On the field, the Seattle Sounders have handled the Covid-19 world about as well as could be imagined. They are off to one of their best starts ever, leading the Western Conference and top of the league in goal-difference.
Off the field, things aren’t quite so simple. Like most of the league, the Sounders have not been able to bring fans back into the stadium, forcing them to deal with tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue and delaying several big projects.
As he does once or twice a year, Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer sat with me for about an hour-long interview earlier this week. Most of our discussion revolved around the off-the-field issues, with particular emphasis on the team’s decision to relocate season-ticket holders in the 300 level to other parts of the stadium. The whole interview can be heard here, but I’ve also transcribed some of the highlights below:
Hanauer expects some fans to be back in 2021, but thinks it will be a little longer until things feel ‘normal’: “I’m cautiously optimistic that some time next year we’ll start to get back to normal. The way I look at the world, 2022 is probably the year in which maybe we all heave a giant sigh of relief and start to go back about our lives in a 99% more normal way.”
One idea I posed to him was the possibility of fans needing to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test before being allowed into the stadium. He acknowledged that it’s possible as rapid testing could be widely available, but he was also a little skeptical that fans would acquiesce to such a demand: “I do think the technology will exist to do that. … I know we’re not all on the same page as a country in terms of what is appropriate and what isn’t.”
Prior to the pandemic, the Sounders were deep into negotiations over a soccer-specific stadium in Tacoma and upgrading their training facility, as well as leading Seattle’s bid to be a host city for the 2026 World Cup. Understandably, not much progress has been made on any of those fronts.
The Tacoma stadium: “That one has not really been re-activated, it’s kind of where it was, last time we talked (which is still awaiting final approval on the publicly financed portion). Everyone has been rightfully focused on other priorities.”
Similarly, the training facility hasn’t progressed much and the team still hasn’t made a final decision on whether they’ll upgrade Starfire or start over somewhere new. He did note that the team’s needs have shifted somewhat. “We’ve sort of rekindled conversations on that. We see some glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and sort of getting back to normal.”
Although not directly related, a new training facility would likely factor into the World Cup bid. Hanauer is still hoping for Seattle to be a centerpiece. Along with a grass field — which might only be temporary — Hanauer said he expected there to be an “amazing” connection between CenturyLink Field and the revamped waterfront: “We remain cautiously optimistic that we can earn the right to host World Cup games here in Seattle. Coming out of a global pandemic, a little shot in the arm would be would be helpful.
“There will be a grass pitch for the World Cup, that’ll be a requirement. The technology is good enough, though, to do a temporary field and maybe the Sounders play a few games on that grass field.”
Probably the most controversial development this year has been the decision to move all season-ticket holders out of the 300 level. Hanauer said there were about 800 accounts, representing about 2,000 tickets, that were affected. Of those, he said, just about a dozen declined the offer to move their seats to the lower bowl at the same cost as their existing tickets. He also insisted there was not a net loss in total season tickets as a result.
Hanauer estimated that the new capacity at CenturyLink would be about 35,000, that the team still has plans to open up more seats for big events and that they still have a long-term goal of selling out the whole stadium. He also said the renewal rate for 2021 was similar to what it had been in recent seasons — “high-80s, pushing into 90s” — and revealed that the team has “12 or 13 years” remaining on its lease.
“We’re going to fight like hell to get those people back,” Hanauer said of the fans who opted not to move seats. “I know that there are some people who were upset about this. But we believe that we have given our fans who were up there a good alternative.
“Most of our fans believe that we care about them; we want them to love us and have a great experience. I feel like we’re in this together.”
Hanauer also expressed sympathy to the idea that Sounders fans take a lot of pride in being one of the top attended teams in the world and that this is a step back.
“Our goal is still to sell out CenturyLink,” he said. “Our goal is to be No. 1, not No. 2. I think our strength is in numbers, our numbers will still still be strong.
“If the natural path to selling out CenturyLink Field every year was just opening the upper level all the time we would have we would have continued down that path. But that’s just not what what we believe.”
I asked if a move like this makes it easier to potentially move into a smaller stadium down the road. Hanauer shot that down, noting that the Sounders and Seahawks have a “co-terminus” agreement to remain at CenturyLink until 2032.
“We think it’s a spectacular location for us,” Hanauer said. “We do think there is growth ahead of us. It was never going to be a straight line slanted up to the right. It’s going to come with fits and starts.”
As he hinted at in April when he revealed that the league was due to lose close to $1 billion this year, Hanauer remains bullish about the state of ownership around MLS. There are no plans to dramatically cut back on spending and risk losing ground gained over the past decade.
“Covid is going to leave a dent on all sports,” he said. “I am super confident in our league, in the other owners around the league, in my ownership group that our best days are in front of us. We’re going to continue to spend and invest and improve the product year after year. We’re in this for the long haul. That’s just what we have to do to grow the sport and the league in this country.”
“Most of (owners) are rich enough that it’s not going to affect their lifestyle to lose millions of dollars. Most are doing this for love of sport, love of community and they’re super competitive. I’m no different. There is a full-on commitment to seeing this through.”
One of the early pandemic-related initiatives from the Sounders was the Relief Fund, designed to help business and workers in and around Pioneer Square. Hanauer said the fund raised and distributed more than $1 million, but is now just about out of money.
“I think we’re close to the end of this cycle,” he said. “I anticipated it being a 2-3 month bridge, but this has dragged on a lot longer than we anticipated. What we did was a drop in the bucket. There are still lots of people struggling around the stadium and in our community. I don’t imagine that life will be back to normal around the stadium for awhile and we’ll continue to do whatever we can as the Sounders to add something positive to people’s lives.”
In light of protests in Seattle and around the country, the Sounders have stepped up their efforts to raise awareness for various social-justice causes.
“There’s nothing more important you can do than get out and vote,” Hanauer said. “You’re going to see us continue to be active in the social-justice space, speaking out against racism, bigotry, fascism, a bunch of evil in our society. I’m proud that our organization has taken an active role. … Black Players for Change has been a really positive addition to our entity.”
We closed talking about the way the Sounders are playing.
“Watching some good soccer is one of my very few joys I get on a weekly basis. I’m appreciative to our players and staff.”