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October 4, 2012 at 4:00 PM

A stop and chat with owner Drew Carey (about the GM vote, of course)

carey 2012.jpgSounders FC part owner Drew Carey isn’t often at the forefront of team news, but when it comes to the idea of “democracy in sports,” he’s your guy. With the vote to retain of remove general manager Adrian Hanauer kicking off Sunday, Carey fielded some related questions recently.

Here is the transcript of that conversation:

* * *

(Democracy in sports has been going on for a while, but does it finally feel like this is its moment in the spotlight?) “Finally, yeah. I always said that right now it’s like a concept to people, but we’re going to have to have like a vote or even like a vote or two for other teams to go, ‘Oh, this is a pretty cool thing they have going there,’ and to want to copy it or consider it. I’m excited we’re having at least one vote now. It’s going to take a while to catch on — like all great ideas.”

(How has the reality of the vote lived up to your vision?) “Perfect. We’re still running the team, but this gives the fans a trigger to say like, ‘Whoa, you’re not doing something we like,’ if anything goes awry. Adrian’s really good; he’s going to win no doubt about it, but with this team I always think long term. I’m thinking 25-, 50 years, or 100 years down the road. I think it’s going to last that long. The NFL’s been around forever. Baseball has been around forever. The league is strong; it has a good base. I don’t see any reason why it can’t grow and be around for 100 years, in whatever form. So I imagine in those 50 years, 25 years, 100 years, there are going to be times when we’re having rough years, we have a GM who’s an (expletive), and ownership might come in after we’re dead that’s not on the ball and doesn’t hire anybody that great. The fans are going to be able to get rid of him. I’m really happy that this kind of thing is in place, that somebody can do something.

“I think it’s a rule and a model that would work in not just sports but in other businesses. I always tell people if I owned a grocery store — you know how they keep track of your purchases with the card? — I would let the top 20-percent of purchasers vote to keep or not keep the guy who is general managing the store. If you don’t like the clerks he hires, he never has your strawberries on Thursday or whatever, you could just voice your opinion that way and get rid of him — fire him. I think that would help my business as opposed to another grocery store, if people knew they could do that.”

(I’m sure you’re happy the team has had four good seasons, but just for bang for the publicity buck, wouldn’t this be a bigger deal if fans voted him out?) “Yeah, it would be. Bang for the publicity buck, it’d be great if we were having the worst season ever right now and Adrian was an alcoholic and every picture of him was him coming out of a whorehouse having spent Sounders money. That would be awesome because then the fans could go, ‘We’re getting rid of him.’ That’d be awesome. … But I’d rather have a winning season than get your GM voted out. When I sold this to Joe, when we had our first lunch, one of the things I told him — I don’t know if this is what sold it to him — was, ‘Your fans will do the dirty work for you.’ Everybody knows when a guy has to go. You don’t want to get to that point ever, but when it does get to that point, the fans now on every other team, all they can do is write a letter to an editor or not buy a ticket. That’s what you don’t want. You don’t want them to separate from the club. If worst comes to worst, if Adrian goes on a bender and becomes an alcoholic and spends all his money on hookers or whatever, if it gets to that point, the fans are going to know that they don’t have to stop buying tickets and separate themselves from the team. They can just go, ‘Well, we’re getting rid of that guy because it’s ruining our team.’ Otherwise, once the separation happens, it takes too long to build that back.

“Like look at the Cleveland Indians. They had all these winning seasons and the sell-out record, and then they started losing and the fans went away. They still haven’t come back to them. In the beginning of the season, the Cleveland Indians had this big winning streak going and they weren’t selling out. They didn’t trust the team to come back. Sure enough, they blew it. But people, even when they were winning, they didn’t come to the stadium and support them like they should have. Well, they did, but it wasn’t sold out like it was before. You don’t want that to happen because it’s too much of a gap to come back. You don’t want to be in that position. I think this system of letting the fans vote out the general manager keeps that from happening. That’s my theory. I hope somebody else adopts this and has to find out if it’s right or not.”

(Are you surprised in four years that nobody, at least in North America, has followed it yet?) “Well, it’s not (really) out there. Just because it’s MLS… We’re up in this corner of the country… I just did an interview with The New York Times, so I’m hopeful people will start reading about it. Like when I did that thing at the Sloan conference, the sports analytics conference at MIT, when I started talking about it you could hear people start chattering, like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve never heard of such a thing.’ I was like, ‘This is our third year and they’re just hearing about it?’ So I think when more people hear about it and see it tested, it’ll be (bigger). But it has to be out there for a while, an idea like this. I’m not worried about that.”

(You had those “Retain Hanauer” pins early in the year, so what do you think of the team wanting to take a neutral stance and not campaigning as we get closer to the vote?) “I don’t think that we have to. I think he’s going to be retained no matter what. But I can see a time in the future where the fans are really against the guy, and they’ll be writing on the message boards and meeting with the council and the team not liking the guy, and us really liking the guy and thinking, ‘Oh, this guy is going to turn it around; he’s just having some bad luck in a voting year,’ and then making a push and doing some interviews and getting on TV and saying, ‘This is the guy.’ I could see us doing that totally. But why bother now? I think Hanauer’s in.”

(Was this a deal breaker for you?) “Yeah. The band was not a deal breaker. I don’t care what Joe says. But the voting thing, that was the only reason I ever wanted to be in a sports ownership group in the first place.”

(Did you think Roth would be open to it?) “I’ll tell you how important it was to me. I was doing a Price is Right rehearsal and I was meeting him for lunch. One of Joe’s pet peeves is people that are late, and I’d never met him, but I figured, because he’s a big movie executive, you just don’t want to show up late. So we were rehearsing at The Price is Right, and you know that thing, that turntable that comes around and they reveal some of the games? That platform? Well, I was joking around and I caught my arm in it, and it smashed my arm. I thought I broke my arm. What I did is I crushed some tendons; I didn’t break my arm. The EMTs came and they put icepacks on it and said, ‘You should go to (the hospital) right away.’ I go, ‘I can’t. I have a lunch meeting with Joe Roth.’ So I showed up like 15 minutes late with a big icepack on, throbbing in pain. I got some aspirins from the EMTs and I was in really bad shape, but I didn’t miss the lunch because I wanted to talk him into doing this thing. This was my big chance. The lunch was like an hour and a half. At the end of it, I talked him into it. He offered me a chance to be in the ownership. He said, ‘I’ll go talk about it with my partners,’ and I went straight from there and drove myself to the hospital. That’s how important this was to me. I had all the arguments in my head. I knew what I was going to say to him when I met him, like all the reasons why, and I just laid it all out for him like a pitch. It was like pitching a movie to a guy.”

(This is the centerpiece of democracy in sports, but the concept is a lot larger than just this vote…) “It’s in the back of our mind with every decision that we make about the team: The idea that the fans come first. What do the fans think? Let’s see what the fans like. We have that council that meets four times a year. It’s really important to us that we get fan feedback about things that we do. The fans at the last, big annual meeting that we had last year, there was a big contentious thing because all the fans wanted to have — like for the Vancouver game and the Portland game especially — they wanted to open up the seating to any Portland fan that wanted to come. Joe was like, ‘No, 500. That’s all we’re letting in.’ And the players didn’t want any more fans in there. The players wanted all Sounders there. They wanted a home game. Players were against it and the owners. All these fans kept coming up and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if the atmosphere was all this…’ and Joe was like, ‘No. We’re not doing it. Too bad.’ So we like fan feedback, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to do everything the fans want all the time. We didn’t put that to a vote. But again, if the fans don’t like that kind of thing, and they don’t like the way the club’s being managed, if it’s really that big of deal to them, they’ll get rid of him. They’ll let us know. Or the vote will be close and they’ll let us know.

“I mean people vote for President, they vote for mayor, they vote for a judge they’ve never … heard of, because he’s Italian too or he’s Irish too. Or they see the last name and go, ‘Oh, same nationality as me. I’m going to vote for that guy.’ It happens all the time. This is way more important. (laughs). … But that makes sense, right? If you can vote for a judge you’ve never heard of, you can vote for this. You can be a lot more involved and you go to every game and you’re watching all the stats. People pay more attention to the sports scene than they do politics. They don’t know what the budget of City Hall is or how much the mayor gets paid or how much the chief of police gets paid or any of that stuff. They have no idea. But everybody knows position by position who gets paid what, what trade was made for them, how that was a good one, how that was a bad one — they have more judgments about sports teams than they do about city government. Yet there’s a vote for mayor every four years. And if it’s close, maybe the guy knows, ‘Well, I only won by a little bit. I can only do so much.’ Or they won by a landslide and can say in their speech, ‘The people have spoken. I can do whatever I want.’ Why not? Why not everyone?”

(And fans can petition for a vote in any year?) “Any year they want. If they vote out Adrian and we hire Nick, his brother, to do the same exact thing. The next year they can go, ‘No, we’ll get 20 percent of people to sign a petition and have another vote.’ It’s to keep the owners from going tone-deaf to the fans, if that ever happens down the road. It won’t happen with us, but it’s a failsafe.”

(On another team following suit and implementing a vote…) “There’s got to be somebody. It could be an MLS team, but then they might say, ‘I don’t want to do that because I’d be copying the Sounders and we want to do our own thing.’ But I could say a baseball team doing it or an NFL team or a hockey team … if you have a failing franchise and you want to turn it around. You had a couple bad seasons and a new owner comes in. Like the guy with the Browns right now should definitely do this: “OK listen, this is a bad start. Here’s what we’re going to do. From now on, if you have a season ticket you can get a vote. This is my general manager. He has a four-year plan. At the end of the four years, if you don’t like what he’s doing, get rid of him.’ And the Browns fans would go crazy. I’m telling you, as a Browns fan, they would go bananas. And it’s perfect for that because the Browns can’t even sell out. I don’t know about this season opener because I skipped it, but last season we went to the season opener and they didn’t even sell it out, which is sad, because nobody has faith in the team anymore. But you take a team like that, where fans are kind of against them and they’re all making jokes about it, and go, ‘OK, we’re going to give you some control. You can vote people into a council and meet every three months with the actual owner and give me your gripes. The coach will be there.’ It would be fantastic. I would really take the franchise back. That’s a perfect place for it.”

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