As the (Acting) President of the Alliance Council, I’ve heard plenty of skepticism about the Alliance, whether it truly represents "Democracy in Sports" or not, and whether or not it is - or can be - a true voice for fans and a way for them to take some control in the operation of the Sounders.
I share some skepticism. Back in March, in an interview with the Tacoma News Tribune, I said "My sense is that there has been some disillusionment among some of the people because they feel like it’s more a slogan than anything real. I know that I personally have felt like that at times."
The Council and the Alliance are in a weird spot, because it's important to get it right the first time out. Something like this is pretty revolutionary for an American sports franchise.
A bit of education might be in order here. In most of the rest of the world, entry into the uppermost league for soccer in a given nation is not for sale; instead, a team gets placed into the top flight by winning promotion from lower divisions.
In some nations, the teams are tied even more to their communities by the fact that the teams are partially or wholly owned by the local community through a non-profit association of fans. Both cases give local fans a feeling of "ownership", either figurative or literal. Team don't move and they aren't "awarded"; they simply are, in each community, and if you said "whose team is it" the answer would be (from that local community) "ours".
In the USA, on the other hand, top sports leagues operate more like an exclusive cartel. If you want to own and operate a team in those leagues, you have to get the already existing teams to agree to let you join. This naturally entails a wanna-be owner paying the league a bunch of money as a "franchise fee" (or buying an existing team).
The practical effect of this is that here, when we think of who "owns" a local team, the answer is the owners are the few folks who plunked down millions or tens of millions of dollars to buy either an existing team or a "franchise" to start and operate a team in a given market. This is entirely natural, because those guys put up their money.
As a result of this system, the owners of franchises in American sports think of a team as being THEIRS, and the fans of a team are not stakeholders in the system; they’re customers, buyers, people to whom the owner is selling entertainment.
Those owners are loath to give up control and decision-making power regarding those teams to anyone who doesn’t actually own a share of the team - particularly local fans, supporters, or communities. In my opinion, you can't really blame these guys for thinking like this; they're the ones who ponied up money (millions, in most cases) to buy the team in the first place.
Here in Seattle, though, we are lucky and blessed with an ownership group who truly understands the passion that sports fans feel. More importantly, they are willing to voluntarily share some "ownership" and power when it comes to the team. They are recognizing us as stakeholders, if not shareholders.
(I find it particularly ironic that the accusation that Sounders fans are mere "customers" is often slung around by other MLS fans. The reality is that our franchise is going further to make the opposite true than every other sports franchise in North America, with the possible exception of the Green Bay Packers.)
The creation of the Alliance and proposing to give it true power (even if fairly limited in scope) is probably seen as a form of heresy among other North American sports franchise owners. Granted, the Sounders aren’t going to allow the Alliance to, say, set ticket prices or negotiate TV contracts or sign sponsorship deals.
But the very fact that they’re encouraging an organization to form, with an independent deliberative executive body (the Council), that’s democratically elected by the members of the alliance, and willingly giving that organization power to decide ANYTHING is a pretty amazing development indeed. Beyond that, the Council and the Alliance at large can express themselves on ANY subject they see fit - including criticism of business decisions that the Club makes.
In my opinion, it’s important for Sounders fans and supporters to recognize how revolutionary this is in American sports.
We are also challenged here. We are challenged with making this work, and work in a responsible, reasonable manner. If we fail, it will affect the future willingness of sports franchises to undertake this kind of project in the future.
Our challenge is to make this work - so that later we, and our Club’s owners, can point to it and say "look, engaging fans is a vital part of our Club's overall success".
We need to make it work so well that when the day comes for an ownership change at the Sounders they can honestly tell the new buyers that the Alliance having influence on the direction and operation of the Club is something that adds value to the club, not detracts from it.
Many prospective owners would look at this and see a negative situation. They would decide that it's simply going to be easier to buy, own, manage, market, and run a more typical American sports franchise - without any messy interference from the fans and supporters.
After all, that sports franchise model makes a lot of people a lot of money, and has for decades.
As a member of the Council, and honored to be its first Presiding officer, I'm trying to consider all of this. It would be a lot easier to just pound the table and be strictly a vehement advocate of whatever cause I see fit today. As fans of our team, we tend to take a short-term viewpoint - we want to win everything now.
But.... if this is to succeed, we cannot do that. We have to understand the Club's viewpoint and take the long view into account. If we can make this work, and work well, and have it actually add value to the team in the long run, it will benefit us and also show our owners (and others!) that this sort of thing is a good idea.
We are, in effect, pioneers. The Alliance can be a leader into a new paradigm of thinking about how to get fans involved in their Clubs.
So when people say "yeah, this Democracy in Sports thing is a bunch of BS, it’s just a marketing slogan", my answer to them is "look - we have a golden opportunity to make it into something much, much more than that."
The first, biggest step towards doing that is for the proposed constitution and charter to be ratified.
We - the members of the committee the Council created to draft the constitution, and the Council itself - come from all sectors of the Sounders community. Some of us are soccer moms, some of us are independent fans, and sure, many of us are (like me) members of the various supporter groups.
Each and every one of us, though, is dedicated to doing what we can to make Democracy in Sports a very real thing. We ask you, the folks who elected us, to join us. We’re doing it not just for our local team, but to try and develop a new paradigm for a sports franchise in North America. A model team where it is more than entertainment, where it is part of our lives, and something that we have every bit as much a feeling of ownership as Paul Allen, Adrian Hanauer, Drew Carey, and Joe Roth.
My belief is that by doing so, we move closer to a vision of a packed-to-the-rafters stadium, vibrating with the songs lifted to the heavens by almost 70,000 people, all of whom are tied together by the common love of our city, our region and our club.
Everyone playing a part:
- supporters chanting and singing while doing a massive pogo that spreads and shakes the entire Brougham End and their counterparts answering from the North End;
- the fans throughout the rest of the stadium joining in on their favorite songs;
- the players giving everything they have, going the full 90 in every game;
- people watching games at home, listening to them on the radio, or gathering together in pubs and bars to communally watch games;
- even the guys in the suites understanding that while their surroundings might be more comfortable than folks in the upper deck...
all of these people, as one community, would share the same desire - to see our Club dominate and succeed.
That sense of community - celebrating together when we win, sharing our sorrow when we lose, and laughing when we slaughter the Timbers - is my vision for the Sounders and the Alliance. I ask you to join me in the building of this - it might take years, or decades - but we have a chance to ratify a foundation for that, right here and now.
In my dream, some day the fans and supporters of the Sounders could actually truly own a piece of the team - to lay out some money and buy a share in a partial ownership stake. To get there, we need an independent, healthy, responsible organization that represents all of these people coming together with a strong foundation.
That might not ever be possible. The single-entity structure of MLS, the reluctance of the other owners, a whole host of other factors make it unlikely. But I know it will be completely impossible unlesss we build our Alliance in a strong, healthy way right now.
Please be sure to vote "yes" on the proposed constitution and charter for the Sounders FC Alliance.
Paul Cox (Acting) Alliance Council President