My wife Paula and I are on vacation in Seattle visiting our friends, Brenda and Bill Millhollin, who are both soccer nuts! They are season ticket holders for the inaugural MLS season in Seattle. Yesterday, Brenda very graciously gave up her seat to me for the home game against a top opponent, the Chicago Fire.
The Sounders are the new MLS success story, leading the league in attendance at over 30,000 per game and were coming off an international "friendly" match against English Premier League power Chelsea which drew an amazing 65,289 fans to Seahawks' Qwest Field.
Having worked in marketing in pro soccer for eight seasons in three markets (Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago) back in the 1980's, I was anxious to see the makings of this overnight success first-hand. I attended the game with Bill Millhollin and 32,403 others.
The Sounders have done a fantastic job of marketing the game and engaging the fans with an international-quality production. Although in their first MLS season, previous incarnations of the Sounders (and the work of many others) have helped to plant deep roots of soccer interest in this community that are obviously bearing fruit today.
One of my mentors in sports and soccer, Cleveland Force owner Bart Wolstein once explained that schmaltz is a Yiddish word meaning "chicken fat" and schmaltz is added to a recipe for seasoning and extra flavor. Not to be confused with Neil Diamond-esque sappy sentimentality, but a little schmaltz enriches the flavor and the experience.
The Sounders add just enough schmaltz to make their events a flavorful experience. A local contributor to the sports scene or the soccer community is honored pre-game with a "Golden Scarf Award". Trumpet fanfares, red carpet, a podium, and a golden scarf contained in a wooden case carried by two gold lame clad young ladies make this a spectacular presentation. Schmaltz in a good way.
How about a recording of 50's crooner Perry Como singing his minor hit "Seattle" while everyone sings along. Don't know the words? They are on the Jumbotron to help you sing along. Instant tradition!
There's a rowdie fan section behind the south goal (think Duke basketball's Cameron Crazies only for soccer), and a team band that sounds like they've been playing together for decades. Plenty of schmaltz to enrich the flavor and the experience.
And the soccer? Apart from the artificial turf surface, everything else seemed world-class. Chicago and Seattle battled to a scoreless draw. One thing obviously hasn't changed in American soccer since the 1980's and that is the quality of the officiating .... still horrible. There were questionable calls throughout and two red cards left each team a man short as match time slipped away. I wondered why there continue to be difficulties officiating the American game which is a blend of a lot of different styles.
Anyway, the success in Seattle has the MLS looking to duplicate such success in similar markets nearby to Seattle. Expansion teams in Portland and Vancouver will be added in 2011. Maybe North American soccer is finally moving forward.
Thanks Brenda. Thanks Bill. It was great to see!