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Why replacing Ross Fletcher feels wrong

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Disappointment in Ross Fletcher's replacement is more about the front office being out of touch than who is replacing him

Adrian Hanauer asked fans to trust him after the decision was made to let Ross Fletcher go
Adrian Hanauer asked fans to trust him after the decision was made to let Ross Fletcher go
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t like this decision. I probably never will. The reason I don’t like it has almost nothing to do with Keith Costigan. I’d like to go through each major reason in detail:

Losing Ross Fletcher:

I think the biggest factor in this goes back to the decision to let Ross Fletcher go. I don’t think the other factors would make much of a difference to most people if Ross had moved on for a better opportunity. The fact that he wanted to stay here and wasn’t allowed to do so is probably the most frustrating part of this whole process.

People who have followed sports in Seattle for years have grown accustomed to their teams having a single "voice of the team" for very long periods of time. The Mariners only changed radio voices when Dave Niehaus was no longer healthy enough to make road trips, and even then, he remained on the home broadcast team until his death. Rick Rizzs, the current voice of the Mariners, has been with the team since 1983, with the exception of the 3 years he spent working for the Detroit Tigers in the early 1990s. I grew up listening to Niehaus and Rizzs on the radio from 1989 until 1997, when I moved out the state. It’s a comfort to know that I can still tune in to Mariners games on the radio in my 30s and still listen to Rizzs calling Mariners games. It helps me still feel some sort of connection to the team, even though I don’t follow it nearly enough to name the current starters at each position.

The Seahawks have had 5 different play-by-play announcers in their history, but there has never been a season in the 4 decade history of the franchise that didn’t include either Pete Gross or Steve Raible. Raible has been part of the radio broadcast in every season since 1982, the year I was born. As with the Mariners, I know that although there will be roster turnover year after year, Steve Raible will be there to announce "Touchdown Seahawks" and "Holy catfish" on particularly exciting plays.

The Sonics, like the Mariners, only ever had 2 voices of the team. It was Bob Blackburn from the launch of the franchise in 1967 until 1992. When Kevin Calabro took over as the voice of the team, he already had half a decade of experience working with Blackburn and by the time the Sonics were taken from Seattle, Calabro was synonymous with the Sonics for a generation of fans, myself included.

When the Sounders launched in 2009 with Calabro as the voice, I don’t think anyone really expected him to be the voice of the Sounders for decades. When they hired Arlo White, there was more of a sense that he was the kind of announcer that could be here for years, but most of us understood why he left when he got an offer to be the face of NBC’s coverage of MLS. As a Sounders fan, I still take pride in Arlo being the voice of the Premier League for the US because of his time here. When he was replaced by Ross Fletcher, I assumed that he would either stay here for a few years and also move on to a better opportunity like Arlo did, or he would finally be that announcer that can be the voice of the club for years.

I hoped that Ross would become the Niehaus, Rizzs, Gross, Raible, Blackburn, or Calabro of the Sounders, so when the news broke that Ross wouldn’t continue as the team’s announcer, despite his wishes to do so, I was really caught off guard. The explanations offered by the club following that decision really didn’t do much to make me feel better about the decision. When Adrian Hanauer guaranteed that the Sounders would "have a fantastic broadcast" going forward, I pictured Ross Fletcher’s replacement being an announcer with a better reputation than Ross that would feel like an upgrade in quality.

That leads me to the second reason I reacted negatively to the announcement of his replacement.

Keith Costigan doesn’t seem to be a clear upgrade from Ross Fletcher:

He might not even be as good as Ross Fletcher. That’s not to denigrate Costigan. He simply doesn’t have the years of experience that Ross has, both with the Sounders and with the BBC. That’s likely a big part of why the Sounders job was attractive to him. While he does some play-by-play work for Fox, it mostly consists of calling matches in Europe from a studio in Los Angeles. Calling games in person for the MLS franchise with the largest fanbase is unquestionably a step up for him, especially considering that he doesn’t have to give up his job with Fox to do so.

The fact that he’s keeping his role on Fox is another annoyance in this decision. Ross Fletcher was actively engaged with the fans and the community. He moved from the UK to make Seattle his home and even after losing his job with the Sounders, he seems to be doing what he can to make sure he can continue to call Seattle home.

Costigan certainly seems like a different style of announcer, so it would be reasonable to think that the Sounders front office wanted to go in a different direction stylistically from what Ross offered. If that’s the case though, what caused them to arrive at that conclusion less than 4 years after deciding that his style was a good fit for the Sounders? His style certainly wasn’t different from the work he did in the UK. Obviously, the front office has the right to change its mind about its preference in announcing style, but the expectations set by the statements made by Hanauer didn’t seem to indicate that this move would be a lateral one in terms of quality.

Costigan is a former player for the Portland Timbers and has even described himself as an active Timbers fan in recent years:

In a vacuum, this probably would not be a huge issue or a deal breaker for me, but coupled with points 1 and 2 above, it has definitely helped fuel more criticism over the decision to let Ross Fletcher go. Being associated with the Timbers in the past is something the Sounders fanbase has shown the ability to overlook. Steve Zakuani turned down an offer to stay in Seattle to eventually sign with the Timbers (to play for his college coach). Kasey Keller briefly played for a now defunct team named "Portland Timbers" who played in the same league as the old FC Seattle Storm and folded in 1990. Keller’s time there was one of convenience, as it was a local semi-pro team that allowed him to stay in shape during the long gaps between college seasons while he played for the University of Portland. The modern equivalent to this would be if a Sounders Academy player like Paul Christensen played for the Timbers U23’s during the PDL season. I doubt Sounders fans would hold that against him when he eventually signs as a homegrown player. The Sounders have even signed players like Adam Moffat and Troy Perkins that previously played for the Timbers in MLS with no real backlash against either of them. Take away the circumstances under which Ross Fletcher left, and the fact that Costigan played for the Timbers in 2001 and 2002 would be little more than an interesting tidbit.

The fact that Costigan has stated as recently as 2012 that he remains an active fan of the Timbers doesn’t even bother me so much if I separate it from the front office’s handling of Ross Fletcher. Sure, it provides Timbers fans with even more material for banter, but I really wouldn’t expect someone who played for a team in the past to say he’s not a fan of that team when asked about it. I don’t even have a problem with him being an active fan of a team he used to play for. Alan Hinton openly remains a fan of every team he played for, including the Vancouver Whitecaps, and that doesn’t make me like him any less. Costigan’s Timbers fandom is based on having played for the team. I can’t hold that against him. He seems to see it as adding support of the Sounders to his support of the Timbers. Most of us can’t imagine this, but if Costigan is a fan of the Timbers for giving him an opportunity as a player, it certainly makes sense that he’ll be a Sounders fan for giving him an opportunity as an announcer. In a Nos Audietis episode last summer, Matt Gaschk talked about the fact that he’s now a Real Salt Lake fan, as he now works for the team.

I can accept the fact that he can be both a Timbers fan and a Sounders fan, but it’s hard to believe that he’ll ever be as much of a Sounders fan as long as he’s only flying to Seattle for 11 home games this season. At the very least, his association with the Timbers is annoying and doesn’t help me feel better about the decision to replace Ross with him.

This decision is one of many questionable decisions made over the past year, after the split from the Seahawks:

Again, this decision on its own may not have received as much criticism if it hadn’t taken place in a vacuum. Much of the criticism seems to be based on the feeling that this is a tipping point in a series of poor decisions over the past year or so that many have described as "tone-deaf", which I think is pretty accurate.

Allowing Jason Rantz to host the pre-game and post-game shows on the radio is the first blunder I can recall. Associating the organization with someone who makes a living making casually racist and sexist remarks about people and groups he disagrees with and failing to consider how that might alienate current fans and turn off potential fans is inexcusable as far as I’m concerned. Prior to Rantz being named as the new host last year, I regularly listened to the pre-game/post-game shows. I always enjoyed what Matt Johnson and Wade Weber brought to the experience. That’s part of why I’m really excited about the in-game radio broadcasts this season. But I have never listened to a pre-game/post-game show involving Rantz and I never will.

Hiring Nick Firchau as the new director of digital media has been another mistake that I think has made the club look bad. It’s not so much that he got the job as it is that he brought the strategy to the Sounders. The constant posts and tweets from the official team site involving speculation surrounding Jordan Morris in the weeks prior to his signing with the club, all to get a few more clicks on the site, really made us look bad. Comparing Morris to Messi, even jokingly, on the day his signing was announced before he even played a minute with the team was a bad look. Firchau’s digital and social media strategy has hurt the brand, in my opinion. Making matters worse is that there was a person from Seattle working in digital media for a pro soccer team that the Sounders could have hired but never even reached out to who wound up getting a job with an MLS team in another city.

Firchau is just one example of people from outside the area the club has brought in. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with hiring people from outside of the area, but in the most visible positions in the front office, almost none of the new hires in the past year have been people who are either from the area or who would have called themselves Sounders fans prior to joining the organization. If you don’t have at least a few people in the organization who consider themselves long-term fans of the team, it’s more likely that you’ll begin to lose touch with what the fans want and what is important to them. As far as I can tell, that’s exactly what has happened.

After the news of Ross Fletcher’s departure became public, Adrian Hanauer responded to criticism of that decision by saying that he thinks he has earned the benefit of the doubt over the years and asked that the fans trust him. I don’t think there’s any question that he has earned the benefit of the doubt, but I fear that he may have lost a lot of it with this decision, and I’m not sure there’s much trust left to give at this point. And that probably makes me more sad that any single thing that has happened within the Sounders organization in the past year.