Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sounders FC

I’m not sure if you’re heard or not, but evidently Seattle has a Major League Soccer franchise now. On Sunday, my friend, Joel, asked me what I thought about this. I told him that I had no opinion whatsoever. Yet. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I decided that the MLS will work here, but I don’t know if I’ll be interested.

Soccer is Not a Mainstream Sport
The MLS will work in the Seattle area because it’s not a mainstream sport in the national sense. The major media outlets cover the sport, but not in the comprehensive format that they cover the big three of football (NFL, NCAA Football), basketball (NBA, NCAA Basketball) or baseball (MLB). Actually, they cover the NHL more than they cover the MLS, but that may change over time. However, there is no chance that the MLS unseats any of the big three. The Seattle area has a large mix of people and a great many of them are die-hard sports fans. Some support the local teams fanatically and some support other teams because Seattle is also home to many people who come from elsewhere around the country (and the world).

Contrarians Live Here
But, there is another relatively large contingent of people who are sort of counterculture contrarians. There are intellectuals (some pseudo, some actual) who look down at sports and who prefer to watch operas, go to the symphony, or read; or smoke, drink coffee, get tattoos and piercings, play “ultimate Frisbee,” and try to out-cool people by being unconventional and ironically uncool. As if enjoying sports is mutually exclusive from engaging in any of these activities. There are outdoor enthusiasts who like act superior and tell people that they would rather do something than watch something, or as they like to put it “I don’t need to live vicariously through guys getting paid millions.” There is no arguing with these people, better to just let them go hike, bike, kayak, ski, or eat my fist. There are other types, but these guys are top of mind for me. As my friend Rob says about some of these guys, “they just have real hard time being dudes.” Well said.

Some of these people don’t like sports because they were never good at them and/or they were picked on by people who were. I get that. Some can’t get past how much money professional athletes get paid or how much money is in sports generally. I get that, too, but to a lesser degree because that person would look past the money if they actually liked the sport. And some people just don't like sports because they don't like sports, sort of like how I don't like most reality TV.

Since soccer is not a mainstream sport, at least in the U.S., and is considered almost counterculture in its own right, it may appeal to these non-sport-loving Seattle-area people. When I was growing up, soccer was always an alternative sport. Generally, the kids who played the sport were also the kids who were skateboarders. They had longer hair and were a little different. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Youth Soccer
While soccer on a professional level in the U.S. has not taken off, youth soccer has. With the amount of youth leagues around the country that has grown steadily for years, soccer has to be one, if not the, fastest growing sports among kids in the country. It makes perfect sense that the kids who grew up playing the sport (who are probably in their 30s now) will become fans of the local professional team. By extension, all of the parents who have driven their kids to practices and games over the years have been exposed to the game. They have no choice but to learn things about the game by seeing so much of it. I’m guessing that at least some of these parents are not big-three sports fans, and they may even be some of the other folks that I described above. The youth soccer market in the Seattle area exponentially grew over time without a professional franchise to rally around and that’s probably why the league will be successful here. The professional team wasn’t forced on these people. The demand was there because the grassroots stuff (youth soccer) tilled the ground for the MLS. People who grew up playing the sport, and their parents who watched them, know all of the nuances of the game and are therefore interested in watching professionals performing the game better than they’d ever seen in person before on a consistent basis.

Kevin Calabro
Don’t underestimate the Power of Calabro. People around here love him, for good reason, from his days calling games for the Sonics. I may tune in simply to listen to him call the game because I’m curious and I know that he’ll bring the proper amount of enthusiasm and knowledge to the game. He’s never done this before, but I’m guessing that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself by not understanding the game. He's a big draw for a non-soccer fan like me.

The Euro Factor
People around the Seattle area are Europhiles (myself included) and because soccer (futbol) is so pervasive in Europe I would be surprised if people weren’t fans of soccer, generally, because of this. It’s probably the reason people love to drink Heineken (me? I love the bottles).

Startups have a robust culture in Seattle. We’ve had a number of successes (when I say “we” I mean most everyone but me) in this area and we’ve had some fantastic flameouts (now I can be counted). Regardless, people here love startups and the Sounders are definitely that. Taken further, the MLS is a startup league. It’s cool to be part of something new; it makes people feel like they’re in on something, sort of like being part of a club. Being an early fan of the Sounders is considered a cool thing. It’s an intriguing aspect and cannot be discounted.

Player Salaries
MLS salaries are very low compared to the big-three sports. According to this Sports Illustrated story, the median income for players is $88,000, which is good money for playing a sport, but it’s nothing compared to the NFL, NBA, or MLB. The story also reports that the league minimum is $34,000 (40 players make this amount) and the “developmental” minimum is $21,100 (12 players make this amount). Because the majority of guys are making good, but not even close to great, money regular fans can relate to them more easily. These guys are also more likely to be a little more grounded simply because they aren’t unfathomably rich and can’t buy Boeing field if they wanted to. I’m guessing that many MLS players also play in other leagues, overseas, but still. They have more in common, salarywise, with WNBA players than they do NBA players.

The MLS season is perfectly timed with the best weather days of the year in Seattle. While the season ends in November, when it gets rainy and dreary here, the bulk of the season is in the sunny months. And people around here love to be outside during this time. This is another reason why the Mariners have such great attendance in Safeco Field. Obviously the success of the team right before and around the time they moved into the stadium had a lot to do with it, but trust me when I say that going to games in the Kingdome when I was a kid in the middle of July when it was 80 degrees out was a horrible experience (because we were inside and because the team consistently shat the bed). Being outside is a huge plus for the MLS in Seattle.

Game Time
One of the best things about soccer, regardless of the quality of play, is that there is constant action and there are no real breaks except for halftime. There are nominal breaks like penalty stuff and out-of-bounds stuff, but really the game keeps moving. Additionally, the 45 minute running halves is awesome. The fluidity of the game is one of its best attributes and makes the game very fan-friendly.

I don’t know if this has already happened with the Sounders or not, but European soccer leagues all have songs that are pretty much yelled by fans throughout the games. It's fantastic. During the World Cup, the fans of Countries sing songs and I have no idea what they're saying and it's great. If one hasn't been created for the Sounders already, I hope that one emerges. It would be great if the song develops organically because of something that happens surrounding the team. Or they could ship in a bunch of Brazilian Betties with whistles and tube tops and have them cavort around. Either way.

What I’ll Do
I’m not sure what I’m going to do. To this point I have ignored the Sounders. Not because I dislike them or dislike soccer, but I guess I just don’t care yet. I have several impediments to Sounders, or MLS, acceptance. They are, in no particular order:
  • I don’t know the game, I don’t know how to tell if a player is doing something right or doing something wrong. And for me to enjoy something, I need to know what the hell I'm talking about
  • All I can tell is if a guy is fast and can handle the ball and make precise passes
  • I can’t tell why a guy, who everyone says has great ball control, can miss a goal by kicking it 20 feet wide or over the goal. To me, it seems like a good jumpshooter shooting 15 percent but when he misses, he airballs by five feet. I don’t know why this is so and perhaps I’ll learn, but having never played the sport I don’t know how hard it is to do some of the things they do. That said, they’re professionals, so anything I could have done would be laughable by comparison.
  • I don’t know how many teams are in the MLS
  • I don’t who what cities are represented
  • I don’t know how many divisions there are
  • I don’t know how many teams make the playoffs
  • I don’t know the playoff format
  • I don’t know what the championship game is called even though I heard two weeks ago that the Sounders will host the game at Qwest Field
  • I don’t know how many players are on the roster
  • I don’t know if there is a salary cap
  • I don’t know if it’s a young man’s game or if veterans rule
  • I don’t know how many games they play
  • I’m not 100 percent sure if I could describe the offsides rule
  • I don't know the league will survive

I may take the time and effort to learn any of those things and get involved in with the team. But I don’t know if I’ll truly ever care. One of my big hang-ups is that I may feel like a poser for jumping on board; kind of like some of the “football” fans who decided that they liked the Seahawks in 2003.

The team won’t miss me, but will I miss my chance to get in on the ground floor? It wouldn’t be the first time.

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