It’s been a long time since the Seattle Sounders have held their annual Annual Business Meeting with the pomp and circumstance of quasi-gala event. Long gone are the rented halls, food and drink spreads with Sounders players, coaches and front office staff mingling with fans. Even before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the planet, the Sounders had transitioned the annual presentation from the grand hall rental, to the smallish gathering at the Ninety to a mostly online affair in 2019 before Zoom was the mainstream platform it is now.
The event last year, then, served as a dry run of sorts for this year’s edition of the ABM, where the front office and Sounders Alliance Council presented their overview on the 2020 season.
It was a bit of a downer.
Though the ABM is unique in the American sports landscape, it’s still a bit of an acquired taste. The interest is necessarily limited to hardcore fans, media and possibly friends and family of the organization. That said, it does provide an insight into the operations of a professional sports team. Unfortunately this year, those operations were severely hamstrung by the coronavirus pandemic.
Those were some of the telling words used by the Alliance Council, front office or, well, anyone. Whatever positives there were to be found — and to be fair there were some — were diminished in light of the pandemic which has cast a pall over life in nearly every conceivable way.
A league perspective
What was supposed to be the high-point of MLS’s existence — this is the 25th anniversary with all of celebrations that go along with that milestone — was interrupted two weeks into the season when the league was forced to shut down operations for approximately four months. According to Gary Stephenson, Deputy Commissioner and MLS President and Managing Director of MLS Business Ventures, the league had seen its highest television ratings among other metrics the league cares about prior to operations being suspended.
While the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando went off about as well as could be expected — and it appears that MLS will (fingers crosses) manage to complete the truncated year — the near complete lack of fans in the stands has decimated revenues at the league level. The tournament and limited season were all MLS could do to fulfill the minimal level of television and sponsorship commitments, according to Stephenson.
While Stephenson’s presentation was primarily league focused, he did confirm an open secret in that the league’s broadcast deals — national and local — all expire at the end of the 2022 season. MLS’s television deal has long been seen as the final financial frontier to move the league forward, and a potential “bundling” of those rights could provide them with needed leverage to increase its value, Stephenson said.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic swept over the Sounders operations like a tsunami, hitting the first team, the Tacoma Defiance, the academy, the scouting department, the front office and even the community outreach.
There was at least a bit of bright news on the ownership front, as earlier in the day the Sounders announced that Seattle Mariners icon Ken Griffey Jr. has purchased a share of the team, joining a star-studded ownership group with the likes of Russell Wilson, Ciara, Macklemore and a who’s who of high-powered tech executives. Though the deal was completed in the spring, the announcement was delayed as the Sounders dealt with the ongoing pandemic.
According to majority owner Adrian Hanauer, the pandemic has caused significant pain in the organization in the form of layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts across the board. However, Hanauer remains optimistic about the long-term prospects coming out of the pandemic, given the promising news about potential vaccines, and what he believes will be better cooperation at the federal level in 2021.
In the questions segment, Hanauer also notably opened the door to fans eventually claiming an ownership stake in the team and that changes in league policy may make it possible.
“No promises, but I love the idea of fans owning a piece of this club,” Hanauer said.
If there is one group that has missed nary a beat, it’s been the players and coaches. Finishing in second place in the Western Conference, head coach Brian Schmetzer has the Sounders well positioned for another playoff run. While they have a tough draw, they’ll be at home until the conference final at least, and the team appears to be rounding into shape, though even that has a caveat with the coronavirus tangentially affecting returning international players.
Still, the biggest issue surrounding the team right now seems to be the uncertain contract status of Schmetzer, though he sought to downplay any tensions during the ABM.
“I’m happy, happy, happy, I want to be a Sounder for life,” Schmetzer said “I really hope something happens with this club.”
As if he didn’t have enough on his plate working to negotiate a new deal with his head coach, Sounders General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey finds himself attempting to navigate a remade landscape where he tries to scout and recruit players from his home, oversee an academy system with players who haven’t played since the spring, and get the Tacoma Defiance ready to return in 2021.
The good news is that Lagerwey once again assembled a strong first team which is set to challenge for a third star. But there is great uncertainty beneath the surface. As Lagerwey has pointed out previously, the Collective Bargaining Agreement, originally agreed to in January 2020 and set to increase spending limits, was reworked when the pandemic hit. Those spending increases were set aside for the time being, meaning potential tough choices will need to be made next year. Still, Lagerwey is hopeful he can keep the core of the team together, especially if they’re able to bring home another MLS Cup.
The news is not so good at the lower levels. While the Sounders have committed to field the Tacoma Defiance at the USL Championship in 2021, there are no guarantees beyond that, and numerous MLS sides are abandoning the league next year. Further down, Lagerwey characterized the Academy as effectively a lost year, as they were mostly shuttered when the pandemic hit. The effects of that downtime won’t be known for some time. That said, Lagerwey was pleased with the progress at the academy and Defiance, noting the Sounders had signed several promising players in the spring, and the Defiance had also signed an academy product as well.
As the voice of the fanbase, the Alliance Council continues to work to represent the concerns of its membership — Sounders season-ticket holders — and hold the front office accountable. The Council too, has had to adjust to the new reality, eschewing in-person meetings for virtual gatherings. The Council did have a tease of sorts for next year’s scarf and jersey combination, though any potential for a massive spoiler was immediately walked back. As always, a February jersey release seems likely.
Even the Sounders community outreach efforts were not spared from the impact of the coronavirus. Though under the circumstances, Rave Foundation certainly has to be pleased with what they accomplished for the year. Opening up mini-pitches in Midway and SeaTac, the Sounders’ charitable arm recently also announced a new venture in the Renton Highlands as well. While the pandemic has forced the RaveFoundation to tighten its belt, they will continue to look for opportunities to partner with local communities to bring soccer to underserved areas, according to Maya Mendoza-Extrom.