Sounders FC majority owner Joe Roth spoke with reporters recently about a few off-the-field issues as the team looks to lock up a fourth-straight playoff berth this weekend in Vancouver. There is some candid stuff in there, particularly regarding an expiring jersey deal with Xbox and potentially bringing the NBA/NHL to Seattle.
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(Is it sustainable to have attendance that’s more than twice the league average?) “You’ve got to hope the league comes up. Listen, one of the critical decisions that I had nothing to do with — well, I had something to do with it, but it certainly wasn’t (my idea) — is the league wanted us to build like an 18,000-20,000 seat stadium, a soccer-specific stadium here. Tod Leiweke, who was (CEO) here, said, ‘No, it wouldn’t be big enough.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about one way or the other. What I did know is that in trying to start a new business, you want to keep the overhead as low as possible. So if you can make a deal (with) a stadium, in case something doesn’t work, you’re better off not putting $150 million in. What would’ve happened if we had an 18,000-seat stadium? We average 43,000 people. One of the problems is if (league support) grows, they’re going to be outgrowing their stadiums. It happened in Toronto. Toronto built a 20,000-seat stadium and all of a sudden they had a waiting list of 10- or 12,000 people.”
(Do those stadiums set a ceiling for expectations?) “You know they’re talking about a second team in New York, right? So we’re a ways away and have to build a stadium. They’re probably going to build a stadium that’s like the Red Bulls or Galaxy that’s like 25- or 27,000. … I wouldn’t build a stadium less than 35. It’s a clearly intimate experience and there are 35,000 people there.
“I won’t be happy (here) until all the advertisements are off (the CenturyLink Field upper deck). It was off for three league games this year. Next year, it’ll be four league games. To me that’s what I want to do is I want to keep building until we can fill this place not just for Portland, L.A. and Vancouver, but for every game.”
(Your contract with Xbox as a jersey sponsor ends after next season. Can you provide on update?) “We don’t have anybody. We’re looking.”
(Is Xbox out of the running?) “They’re not out of the running. They’ve just had a very unimaginative conversation over the course of the past year. They see things differently than we do. … We just saw our value as compared to (other teams in the league) — Toronto, Los Angeles, places like that — and we just felt we should have some kind of a share like they do. When we started this (with Xbox), our pro rata for them was 12,000 fans and 1.0 rating on TV. We’ve more than tripled our fan base and more than doubled our television base, so I don’t think it’s unusual (for us to expect more). But again it becomes priorities. They’ve been great partners and I wish they would stay on. I wish they would see it the same way that we do.”
(And you think someone else in the world will?) “I think so, yeah. Right now, we’ll end the season like 38th or 40th in attendance on a worldwide basis, and how many soccer teams are there in the world? That’s pretty amazing. In some study we’re 15th in fan affinity in the world — some European study. (We’re) the only North American team mentioned. In the latest brand study that a marketing brand group did for soccer worldwide, they ranked us as the 40th most valuable team in the world. How many teams are there in England alone? I think somebody will see that there’s something here for them as an advertiser.”
(It seemed with Xbox it was a good fit with a local company that had a cool vibe. Are you looking for something similar that goes beyond just money?) “Believe me, if it was close (with Xbox), we would’ve caved like an accordion. I came to believe in a long series of negotiations that ultimately they weren’t interested. I don’t understand it, but it’s not up to me.”
(Are you comfortable with the potential for an NBA team and/or NHL team in the neighborhood?) “I am. I think it’s great. I don’t think traffic (will be an issue). It will have less affect on us frankly than the Mariners just in terms of the number of games (on the same day). Listen, this city should have a basketball team. I was around when that all went down and I don’t think it was the NBA’s finest hour. I think the city deserves a basketball team.”
(Would it be more competition for filling seats or for things like TV/sponsorships?) “I think with TV deals, there’s a way to make that all work together, which is an advantage to it. Sponsorships? Sure, it’ll be competitive, but most of the time the sponsors that we have stick around. … I think that’ll be true with basketball or hockey, as well. It’s a great sports town. I grew up in New York and I live in L.A. and I can’t even count the number of sports there are. For this place to only have three sports is undeserved.”