North by NorthwestPublished March 14, 2011
It's been 31 years since Brian Schmetzer donned the blue-green jersey of the Seattle Sounders to play against the team's North American Soccer League rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers. Now an assistant coach for Major League Soccer's Sounders, Schmetzer remembers the NASL's Cascadia rivalry by the huge crowd at the Kingdome.
One game against Portland in 1981 brought in 24,065 fans, and a 1982 match against Vancouver attracted a crowd of 29,488, which surpassed that year's home average by 17,000. A memorable away game at Vancouver's BC Place in 1983 attracted 60,342 fans.
"Back then the Canadians were really rowdy, they brought huge banners and a lot of fans," said Schmetzer, 49, who played with the original Sounders from 1980 until the team folded in 1983. "Fans would travel — we'd have a lot of our fans drive to [away games]. The Portland fans would bring buses filled with people up [to Seattle]. Some guys would dress like lumberjacks. It was a big party."
|VANCOUVER WHITECAPS FC|
|Home: PGE Park,
11,500 (will cap at 12,000)
Ownership group: Shortstop LLC, majority owner Merritt Paulson
Key sponsors: Alaska Airlines (jersey), Widmer Brothers Brewing, Providence Health
|Home: Qwest Field, capacity, 35,500
Season-ticket sales: 32,000
Ownership group: Joe Roth (majority), Adrian Hanauer, Paul Allen, Drew Carey
Key sponsors: Microsoft Xbox (jersey), Samsung Mobile, Virginia Mason Sports Medicine, Seattle Bank
|Home: Empire Field, capacity 21,000
Season-ticket sales: 15,500 (will cap at 16,000)
Ownership group: Greg Kerfoot, Steve Luczo, Jeff Mallett, Steve Nash
Key sponsors: Bell Canada (jersey), BMO, Budweiser, EA Sports
The party atmosphere and enormous crowds look poised to return to the Pacific Northwest, as the Timbers and Whitecaps make their MLS debut this week, following the successful launch of the Sounders two years ago. It's a region — and fledgling MLS rivalries — that represents seemingly unlimited potential for the league, and could surpass the Northeast and Southern California as a hotbed for professional soccer in America.
The Pacific Northwest has been fertile country for MLS. Seattle is the league's top-performing team in both attendance and national television ratings, and though Vancouver and Portland have yet to play a game, both teams already rank in the top five in season-ticket sales. All three teams enjoy 30-plus years of soccer history and an established and passionate fan base. And the long-standing rivalry between the three cities has not cooled. The Timbers went so far as to erect a billboard a few streets over from Seattle's Qwest Field that proclaimed "Portland, Oregon: Soccer City USA," and the three clubs sold out of 5,000 tickets to their preseason tournament, the March 4-6 Cascadia Summit, in just two hours.
"Seattle is already on a pedestal amongst the other teams," said David Nathanson, executive vice president and general manager at Fox Soccer Channel. "These two teams are new, but they have a fan base that has been established for many years. [MLS] is creating one of the biggest regional rivalries that exists in the sport."
Finding its footing
The popularity of soccer in the Pacific Northwest is not tied to any single reason. Former Chicago Fire President John Guppy, who now runs soccer consulting agency Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, attributes the region's affinity for the world's game to "a little bit of good fortune."
"All three [teams] are perfectly primed for soccer fandom — all three markets have soccer history and are in drivable distance [from one another]," Guppy said. "These aren't big cities like New York or Chicago, where it's hard to find relevance amid other entrenched sports that have the advantage. [Soccer] has always been there, and this latent interest has now been uncorked by the MLS."
For Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, the journey to MLS marks a choppy three-decade history with North America's shifting soccer leagues.
It took only two hours for fans to buy up all of the 5,000 tickets availabile for the three clubs' preseason Cascadia Summit held March 4-6.
"The potential for doing a deal and getting into MLS really helped draw me [to Portland]," Paulson said.
Like Seattle, Vancouver saw its NASL success (five division titles and the 1979 Soccer Bowl championship) crash when the league crumbled in 1984. Bob Lenarduzzi, who played all 11 seasons with the NASL Whitecaps, helped resurrect the squad in 1986 under the name "Vancouver 86ers" with the Canadian Soccer League.
Lenarduzzi, now president of the Whitecaps, said the team's player budget through the 1980s and 1990s was around $200,000 — roughly one-fifteenth of the current MLS salary cap — and that many players agreed to go without a salary.
"It was a roller coaster," Lenarduzzi said. "We almost folded on two occasions."
But each team's resilience helped further the growth of soccer in their communities. Seattle now boasts one of the largest youth soccer communities in the country. In 2001, the Whitecaps launched a professional women's team, which currently competes in the USL W-League.
The Timbers stoked the Northwest rivalry by erecting this billboard a few streets over from Seattle's Qwest Field.
Gradually, he said, "When you flew into town you could look down and see goal posts starting to rise [on soccer fields] around town. In each of these cities, the NASL served as a catalyst for growing the sport. Most of us take great pride in how far [soccer] has come since then."
Hoban later became the first soccer-specific employee at Nike, whose headquarters in Beaverton sits adjacent to downtown Portland. Also present in Portland is soccer giant Adidas, whose American headquarters sits across the Columbia River from PGE Park, home of the Timbers.
Having two sports marketing powerhouses in its backyard helped further fuel the rise of soccer in the Northwest. Nike has a strong presence within the youth and amateur soccer markets in the region; Adidas, on the professional level, now has a $200 million partnership with MLS that runs through 2018.
Antonio Zea, Adidas America's director of soccer, said each of the three MLS markets in the Northwest has its own nuance, which requires different marketing strategies for crafting jerseys and apparel for those markets.
"Portland is very grassroots, very local," Zea said. "Seattle is a bigger market so there are international [fans], and they have been able to pull fans that were Seahawks fans to follow soccer. Vancouver is very heavy with youth soccer and is also very cosmopolitan."
Portland has sold approximately 11,500 season tickets for 2011 — the club will cap ticket sales at 12,000 in 20,000-seat PGE Park — and the club has secured all 23 luxury suites to multiyear contracts. Its seven founding partnerships include nationally recognized brewer Widmer Brothers Brewery as well as health care provider Providence Health Services, the state's largest private employer. Its jersey sponsorship with Alaska Airlines netted the league its first airline sponsor.
Vancouver has sold more than 15,500 season tickets to see the club play at Empire Field, which seats 21,000 for soccer and where the team will play before moving into the 54,000-seat BC Place in September. The Whitecaps will use 20,000 seats at BC Place for its regular-season games. The team also has sold 23 team partnerships, including founding partnership deals with major Canadian brands such as Bell and BMO, as well as Budweiser and Electronic Arts. Canadian broadcaster TSN will televise 13 games nationally.
"When we were awarded MLS entry [in 2009] we wanted to generate interest, so we put 5,000 tickets up for sale on a Saturday at like 10 a.m.," Lenarduzzi said. "By the end of the weekend, we had sold every one."
Seattle averaged home attendance of 36,173 in 2010, only its second season in the league.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said he is "pleasantly surprised" with the sales successes in the Pacific Northwest, and that he expects the region to thrive with the added exposure of playing in the league.
"We have the opportunity to take [the teams] to the Division I level with all the benefits that come along, like national television, vibrant commercial opportunities and modern stadiums," Garber said. "It starts with having a successful minor league operation. The caretakers of the old NASL brands kept the sport alive in [the Pacific Northwest]."
Stoking the rivalries
The old NASL might have kept the sport alive in the Northwest, but now it's up to MLS and the teams to reach the next level and build on the rivalries that drew such big crowds decades ago. One template to achieve that comes from overseas.
In Europe and South America, intercity rivalry games (called derby or darby matches) generate enormous attention and revenue. The Manchester Derby between Manchester United and Manchester City this year attracted 75,000 fans, and holds as much significance to local fans as playoff or championship games.
The Timbers warm up during a training session at the North American headquarters of Adidas in Portland.
The teams enter with their derby established — in 2004 fans started the Cascadia Cup award, which went to whichever then-USL team posted the best record against the others. The fan base has a tradition of traveling en masse to away games. And the Timbers, Sounders and Whitecaps will play each other twice a year, meaning six opportunities for a rivalry game.
"This is what soccer is like in other parts of the world, and for the most part we haven't been able to replicate that here yet," said Jeff L'Hote, president of the soccer consulting firm LFC International and author of the book "Soccer in North America: The Commercial Opportunities."
The popularity of the impending rivalries forced the league to change a rule that required teams to set aside only 150 tickets for visiting fans, raising the number to 500 for the Pacific Northwest teams. Garber said the decision came after meeting with the teams and their supporters groups, which lobbied the league for additional tickets.
Various media reports said that Sounders owner Joe Roth opposed the rule. However, Roth, who purchased the Sounders in 2007, disagrees.
"I opposed opening up [ticket sales to away fans] completely," Roth said. "People were saying they wanted 20,000 fans from Portland up here. We want to keep home-field advantage."
Roth said he supports the league's 500 ticket rule and said that, if demand is great enough, the team would consider opening up all 67,000 seats in Qwest Field for the rivalry matchups. Currently, the team opens 35,500 seats for Sounders games.
Building a model
Garber said his goal with the ticket rule is to respect each team's ability to monetize home games against a rival, while also creating the exciting atmosphere of a European derby game. He said the league would reassess the 500-ticket rule at the end of the season.
Already, the Pacific Northwest teams say their supporter groups are planning to charter buses and form convoys to travel to the rivalry games.
Bell Canada has Vancouver's jersey deal while Alaska Airlines sponsors the Timbers.
"You can't manufacture a rivalry, it has to be authentic," he said. "The passion has to come from the fans."
Garber said his hope is for the rest of the league to try to replicate the Pacific Northwest's emphasis on derby games. There are a handful of lesser-known MLS derbies, such as the Brimstone Cup between FC Dallas and Chicago, the Trillium Cup between Columbus and Toronto, and the Atlantic Cup between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls.
Garber pointed to a potential I-95 derby between New England, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and a mountain states match between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids.
"Soccer is driven by rivalries, but most Americans don't realize how big rivalries are in international soccer — sometimes it is neighborhood versus neighborhood, not just city versus city," Garber said. "We have an opportunity with [the Pacific Northwest rivalry] to gain a distinction against some of the other sports in this country. It's a chance to show the other teams what can happen if they can replicate that passionate environment."