A few weeks ago while watching the MLS Player Combine I was struck by a strange realization; what happens in the Seattle Sounders FO is a spectator sport and that for me it is one of my favorite aspects of the game.
The internet broadcasts for the Combine were sponsored by a video game called Football Manager 2012 by Sports Interactive and marketed Sega. I've never played the game or even seen how it works, but just the idea that a video game has been created where fans get to manage a team rather than play the sport fascinates me. It speaks to a core element of fan culture; we are as interested in the decisions as the play.
This week the Sounders are in Arizona bonding as a team and continuing the process of preseason roster construction. The practices are open to the fans and on the first day, one vacationing couple showed up because they were already in the area. It isn't that the fans aren't interested. We're just too far away. Even the media that covers the Sounders isn't able to attend due to costs. The team knows this and staged a conference call between Sigi and the media yesterday. The team has also been blogging about camp, writing daily articles and producing a series of videos interviewing players and giving the fans a programmed look 'behind' the scenes. Why?
If we all watched the Sounders strictly to see the games played, then Sounder at Heart and all of the other Sounders related media outlets would shut down during the offseason. Instead the offseason media coverage rages on and we are all along for the ride. Joshua Mayers continues to write daily entries for the Seattle Times. The staff here generates pages of daily copy. Brad Evans 'interviews' Michael Gspurning on Twitter. And as fans we follow the flow of information with joyous abandon.
The Sounders understand the importance of this informational flow. Their organization capitalizes on it in myriad ways. From the democratic interaction with the fan groups, to linking the MLS Sounders back to decades of Sounders soccer in the NW, to the accessibility the team grants to its staff, owners and players. The Sounders use the flow to generate loyalty.
But why is it important to us as fans? What key element keeps us coming back for more? Certainly there is a desire to belong to a group based on similar interests. There is also a desire to get to know the people behind the actions and create a connection. But there is also a fascination with the decision-making processes manifest in running a modern sports franchise.
We watch sports to see human minds and bodies push their limits with intelligence and grace. We admire the grit and determination of a player reaching beyond their limits. We stand awestruck as Osvaldo Alonso weaves through the Chicago defense and scores the goal that seals the Seattle Sounders FC's third US Open Cup. Then we erupt in shared elation. For a moment we see a vision of what is possible and perhaps return to our daily routines looking for ways to incorporate some of those possibilities into our immediate world. This is the essence of being a spectator.
It is also the essence of what we gain watching the Sounders FO as they retool the team's defensive structure this winter. It is at the heart of why we look at the NY Red Bull FO and scratch our heads when they decide to essentially ignore the draft. We wonder how the LA Galaxy will manage the loss of Omar Gonzales and Juninho or where they will fit Edson Buddle into the mix. We watch as the Portland Timbers sign a new DP with begrudging admiration. We see a former Sounder traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps and wonder why either team participated in the trade? What do the Whitecaps gain in adding another piece to their already overflowing offensive options when their defense left them at the bottom of the league standings in 2011? What led to the loss of Faryd Mondragon and Sebastian LeToux in Philadelphia? There is a certain elegance to the way the Montreal Impact are building their team in preparation for their inaugural MLS campaign. Human decisions run through each of these events burrowing into our collective conscience and causing us to follow in rapt wonder.
For me, the MLS offers an unique spectating opportunity in American sporting culture. This league is not the pinnacle of its sport. It is a developmental league with very specific constraints. The league's history and rules blend compromise and skill into the decision making process at a structural level. The MLS roster rules create their own beautiful game. There are many options and opportunities that each of the teams can leverage. Each carries risk and reward. And I revel in the pageant. And unlike the actual playing of the game, the front office spectacle is a perpetual event. As long as men like Adrian Hanauer and Sigi Schmid are willing to stand in the spotlight, I'll show up with the popcorn.