Fanatomy | Part 5: Record-setting first season puts Sounders FC fans on world's soccer map
Sounders FC fans sing, march, wave scarves and drink. That passion for a new team and an old sport has made them a popular addition to the Northwest sports scene.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Fanatomy series | A look at Seattle sports' fan-baseFanatomy: As a sports town, we're underrated
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Part 1: The Seahawks' rabid fans
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Part 2: History and devotion rule Husky Stadium
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Part 3: Magic of 1995 season transformed Mariners and their loyal fans
'Refuse to lose' season spawned generation of young Mariners fans
Part 4: Storm's passionate fans keep a team and sport alive
Sonics fans soldier on, without a team
Part 5: Record-setting first season puts Sounders FC fans on world's soccer map
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The cool new fans wear scarves, stand for 90 minutes and fill Qwest Field with songs and chants. They gather before every match and march together into the stadium. Many of them drink heavily, which almost seems like fuel for their big dreams and incessant desire to share the world's game — soccer — with a worldly city.
Sounders FC fans are trendsetters. In only one season, they've turned Seattle into Soccer Town, USA. The team amassed 22,000 season-ticket holders, a number that will rise next season. They sold out available tickets at Qwest for all 16 MLS matches and filled more than 65,000 seats for friendlies against Chelsea and FC Barcelona. They set a Major League Soccer record by averaging 30,943 fans.
Measured against football clubs around the world, Sounders FC attendance is in the top 50. In 2009, rookie Sounders FC supporters gave Seattle sports fans a kind of national, even international, acclaim it rarely receives.
"I hate using big terms, but it's like a cultural phenomenon in Seattle," said Likkit Pocinwong, a 38-year-old fan who lives in the North Seattle area. "Something sparked the fan base. The other teams being down and losing the Sonics were factors, but it's something bigger than that.
"We love soccer here, and these are the kinds of players we can get behind. Only a couple of them earn more than six figures. They could be your neighbor, and maybe they are your neighbor."
Normally, it doesn't happen this way in Seattle. The script doesn't allow it. When a new team — or person, for that matter — comes to town, people are supposed to be wary here. Seattle is considered slow to warm up to strangers. The stereotype is that it's too provincial, too stuck in its ways.
It took the Mariners nearly two decades to gain traction. Both the M's and the Seahawks nearly moved in the 1990s. It took the Sonics a while to gain credibility, then they became a 41-year fixture — until the NBA allowed the franchise to relocate to Oklahoma City last year. The Pilots, Seattle's first Major League Baseball team, bounced to Milwaukee after playing only the 1969 season here.
The success of Sounders FC shows that the city can embrace a stranger. It just has to be a worthy one with a good product. And it helps to sprinkle in some marketing genius, too.
For certain, the organization learned how to inspire its fan base. The Sounders sent green-and-blue scarves to their season-ticket holders. They helped make the "March to the Match" a big deal. They helped galvanize all of their different support groups and create an Alliance (investor Drew Carey's baby) to help the owners stay in touch with their audience. They even offer the feel of a sports democracy with fans, through the Alliance Council, having a meaningful vote on the organization's decisions.
"If every front office acted like the Sounders' front office, the MLS would be up there with the big three of American sports," said Greg Mockos, a member of the Alliance Council.
Mockos is also the co-president of the Emerald City Supporters, the Sounders' largest independent fan organization. The ECS began in 2005 and supported the old USL Sounders. In four years, the group has grown to more than 1,400 members. During matches, they provide a style of cheering normally reserved for fans in Europe or South America.
They're the fans with the clearest voices during the matches. They don't believe in white noise. They seek organized, forceful expressions during games. They lead the chants and sing the songs. They designate capos, like fan Sean McConnell, whose job is to ignore the action, speak through a megaphone and serve as the conductor of all the songs.
They have so many clever lyrics, but perhaps the simple "I'm A Sounder" best explains their rowdy ways.
I'm a Sounder, I'm seldom sober
I'm a Sounder, all blue and green
It's when I'm drinkin', I'm always drinking
To a Sounders victory!
"Our experience is an adult experience," Mockos said. "We are heavy drinkers. It's not family entertainment. But it's a very contagious experience."
Of course, there are different aspects to any fan base, but Scarborough Research paints a picture of typical Sounders FC fans being predominantly male (66.7 percent) between the ages of 18 and 44. They're young professionals leading an exciting new movement, and Seattle is known to love its fads.
But the question for the future is this: Will the fan base grow or fade? Or better yet, will the rest of the United States ever love this sport as much as Seattle does? Soccer has been big here before — remember the Sounders of the old North American Soccer League? — and then fallen victim to America's sports obsession with football, basketball and baseball.
But any pessimism won't keep Sounders FC and its fan base from growing. They have big dreams. Despite the franchise's incredible rollout season, they're focused on improvement.
Because Seattle has more children per capita playing soccer than anywhere else in the U.S., according to Sounders FC research, there's incredible potential. Kids can grow up with this team. In addition, there's reason to believe the team can capture the imagination of more women with its fun atmosphere. Sounders FC also can diversify the fan base, particularly by attracting more Latino fans.
Joe Olson, a 26-year-old fan who leads the Immortal Fury supporters group, wants to do just that.
"I don't think many Latino soccer fans in this area are of the season-ticket mindset," Olson said. "I've found that many of them figured the matches would be like they are in South America, where you can walk up on game day and buy tickets. If we could convert some more of those fans over to the Sounders, wow, it would be incredible."
The cool new fans don't plan on going out of style any time soon. They've exposed a new passion and given this city an identity as the best soccer fans in America. In a sense, that reputation makes them an anomaly in an overlooked sports town. But it also makes them the great hope for Seattle sports fans everywhere.
"It's awesome," said Pocinwong, who grew up a fan of the NASL Sounders. "It's been way beyond my expectations as a fan. I had no idea this many people would be excited. It's just like everyone decided, 'Hey, this can be our team. Let's make it work.' It's a party all the time."
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
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