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Business lessons from the Seattle Sounders FC

July 10, 2014

On June 22, 1974, over 14,000 soccer fans rocked the rafters in Seattle Center’s Memorial Stadium to watch the Seattle Sounders face off against the Philadelphia Atoms. It was the first sold-out North American Soccer League (NASL) game in history, and the Sounders were on fire, leading the league with a string of big wins. As the Sounders defeated the Atoms 2–0, the crowd grew to a thunderous roar. But success was fleeting. A few short years later, NASL disbanded, and the Sounders with it.

In 2009, a team of passionate owners breathed new life into Seattle’s beloved soccer club, and its record-breaking success since makes it one of the greatest comeback stories in American sports. Today, a sold-out crowd of some 45,000 fans decked out in blue and green pack the stadium at every Sounders’ match, stomping, singing, and cheering their home team to victory after victory. Built on tradition and steeped in community, the Sounders have the most loyal fans around—with attendance almost double that of the next most-popular major league soccer (MLS) team, Sounders’ games are the most well-attended matches in the league.

Professor Jerry Wind of the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania sat down with Sounders FC Owner and General Manager Adrian Hanauer to talk about the business decisions behind the Sounders’ incredible success. What followed: classic lessons about how to turn your customers into raving fans. Here are four of our favorites from Adrian Hanauer and the Sounders.

1974 Seattle Sounders roster

1. Get in with the right people at the right time.

Hanauer grew up playing soccer and cheering on the Sounders during their early days in the North American Sports League. He got involved with the team not just as an investor, but as a fan—and so he set out to rebuild that soccer club for other fans.

He assembled a group of like-minded individuals to make up the Sounders’ ownership team: Hollywood producer Joe Roth, comedian Drew Carey, and Microsoft co-founder—and owner of the Seattle Seahawks—Paul Allen. The counsel of Seattle’s NFL team was hugely important, says Hanauer. “The senior management team that was then running the Seahawks also took on the business of the Sounders, and their advisement was invaluable. To have the brain power of an NFL franchise that already had solid traction in the marketplace was key to building a really strong business operations group.”

Impeccable launch timing played a key role, too. The local sports landscape in 2009 was bleak, to say the least. The Seattle Sonics, Seattle’s much beloved NBA team and first professional sports team, had just been sold to Oklahoma after a long and unsuccessful battle to secure funding for a new stadium. The Seahawks were fumbling more than scoring on the field, in the midst of their own management problems. The Emerald City needed a new team, one that would stay true to Seattle and bring together players, managers, and supporters. The stage was set.

Joe Roth, Drew Carey, Paul Allen, Adrian Hanauer

2. Know your audience.

Seattle didn’t just need any new sports team—it needed a professional soccer team. Seattle is a soccer city, a place where pubs fill up with fans at the crack of dawn on Saturday mornings to watch European league games and drink Boddingtons. It’s an underdog sport in a notoriously counterculture town, a community of people who grew up playing soccer and watching the Sounders—40-somethings that now have soccer-playing kids of their own.

The youth market—kids and families that spend their weekends on the soccer fields—is the target demographic for most American soccer teams and their business sponsors. Hanauer and team targeted a different audience: 18 to 40-year-old hardcore sports fans, the kind that would be there rain or shine, through thick and thin (and not at youth soccer tournaments across the state every weekend). “You know, the crazies that sit behind the goal and chant and sing the entire game,” laughs Hanauer. “We knew that if we filled the stands with the cool kids, the family and kids would follow.” The results: a foot-stomping, rabble-rousing community of loyal fans.

Fish-eye lens shot of Seattle Sounders fans
“It’s the fans’ thing. The moment you start interfering, you disrupt the authenticity.”
Adrian Hanauer, Owner and General Manager
Seattle Sounders FC

3. Put customers first.

Traditional sports franchises usually see dollar signs when they look at their fan base. Hanauer and team saw their most important business partners. “We always felt that we were stewards of this franchise for the city of Seattle, so we really wanted our fans to be part of our organization,” says Hanauer. Putting fans first was a non-negotiable for the owners of the Sounders. It was also a smart brand strategy.

The owners established an Alliance Council, a sounding board for around 60 super fans voted in by season ticket holders. On a quarterly basis, the owners meet with the council to hear concerns and suggestions, and talk openly about business issues that are usually discussed behind closed doors. The way Hanauer sees it, the council represents thousands of customers, so its input is invaluable.

In fact, the council is to thank for upholding the Sounders’ name. “Us owners thought that ‘The Sounders’ was old news and that we needed a new, fresh brand. So we hired a marketing team to give us three new names and brand identities. The council asked us to put it to the fans for a vote, along with a write-in option for fans to suggest a name. So we did, and out of 20,000 votes, about 15,000 were write-ins for the Sounders. At that point, it was clear that our customers knew more than we did and we needed to keep listening.”

Input from the fans doesn’t stop with the Alliance Council. In a decision that’s unheard of in American sports (the Sounders are the only professional sports organization in the US to do it), the owners put the appointment of the team’s general manager to public vote every four years. “Our partners around the league thought it was the most outrageous thing they’d ever heard. In American sports, it’s pretty novel,” says Hanauer.

Sounders Alliance Council
“It was clear that our customers knew more than we did and we needed to keep listening.”
Adrian Hanauer, Owner and General Manager
Seattle Sounders FC

4. Give customers an authentic experience.

Management doesn’t define what it means to be a Sounders’ fan: the fans do. March to the Match exemplifies an organic, fan-built tradition. Ninety minutes before kick off at CenturyLink Field, thousands of fans cheer their way to the stadium, led by a marching band and flagged by flares. It’s a loud, rowdy display of joyful revelry that you don’t find in other MLS soccer cities. “One of our best business decisions has been to try not to design, orchestrate, or corral the experience—it’s the fans’ thing. The moment you start interfering, you disrupt the authenticity,” says Hanauer.

Match Pass, a loyalty program, lets fans accumulate points when they purchase tickets and merchandise, engage with Sounders sponsors, watch games on TV, and travel to away games. The rewards: exclusive opportunities for fans to connect with the Sounders on a personal level. “Twenty people will be invited to a training session, for example, and our coach will walk them through exactly what’s going on and why. After training, the fans get to meet with the players,” says Hanauer. Fans go on to tell their friends, creating a positive feedback loop that keeps going and growing.

Fan chant: I'm Sounders 'til I die, I'm Sounders 'til I die, I know I am, I'm sure I am, I'm Sounders 'til I die

What it takes to win

Our biggest takeaway from Hanauer: winning at business takes a raving base of die-hard customers. How you get them, though, can make the difference between exceptional and so-so performance. Adrian Hanauer and the owners of the Seattle Sounders FC took an unconventional approach to acquiring fans and made an indelible mark on sports history.

Face painted Sounders fans