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Sounders will close upper deck in 2021

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Season-ticket members in 300 sections informed that they’ll need to move next year.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

When Seattle Sounders fans return to CenturyLink Field for the 2021 season, there will be a few thousand fewer of them.

The Sounders sent an email to season-ticket holders in the 300 sections on Wednesday, informing them that their sections will no longer be available and offering them the chance to relocate for what sounds like no additional cost.

“We know this transition doesn’t come without challenges,” the email read. “To make the shift as painless as possible, we want to extend additional benefits for the 2021 season.”

Among those benefits are early access to relocating their tickets; a “price lock” that allows them to select more expensive seats for the same price for 2021; exclusive access to a meet-and-greet session with GM Garth Lagerwey and President of Business Operations Peter Tomozawa; and a 10% discount off 2022 season tickets.

The Sounders had previously announced that all season-ticket holders would be given the same price on their 2021 season tickets as they were given on 2020, the vast majority of which were either refunded or credited toward next season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As they’ve been most seasons, renewal rates are apparently above 90% and among the best in MLS.

While surely influenced by the difficulty in selling any new season tickets during a pandemic, the reduction in capacity does mark a continuation of actions the team started last year when they stopped selling tickets in most of Hawks Nest. Like that decision, a Sounders spokesperson said there were only a relatively small number of season-ticket holders in the 300 level.

Sounders average attendance

Year Average Change
Year Average Change
2009 31,203 -
2010 36,173 15.93%
2011 38,496 6.42%
2012 43,144 12.07%
2013 44,038 2.07%
2014 43,734 -0.69%
2015 44,247 1.17%
2016 42,636 -3.64%
2017 43,666 2.42%
2018 40,641 -6.93%
2019 40,247 -0.97%
2020* 36,603 -9.05%
*2020 includes first two games, one of which had reduced capacity

In 2019, capacity for Sounders matches was around 37,500. Hosting MLS Cup reportedly boosted the number of season-ticket holders for 2020, but not by so much that capacity was pushed upward. While an exact figure was not immediately available, the new capacity will likely be closer to 34,000 — larger than the inaugural season of 2009 but smaller than every season after that. It remains a possibility that more seats will be made available for “big” matches.

That’s a model the Sounders have used throughout most of their history to boost their average attendance beyond their stated capacity. For the first five seasons of their MLS existence, opening new sections and hosting “full-stadium” games allowed the team to set new attendance records each year and then again in 2015 when they averaged 44,247 per game.

On the heels of signing a new 10-year lease that year, Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer declared the goal was to eventually sell out CenturyLink Field on a regular basis. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Despite a willingness to expand capacity along with demand, average attendance figures have declined in three of the past four full seasons since that declaration. Last year, the team reverted to fixing capacity for most games and expanding capacity for a smaller number of “full-stadium” matches. They drew an average crowd of 40,247, their smallest since 2011.

That’s still easily the second-highest average attendance in MLS and among the top 50 in the world, but also shows the challenge the team faces in continuing to grow outside of big events like last year’s MLS Cup Final, when 69,274 watched the Sounders beat Toronto FC — at the time a record for a sporting event in CenturyLink Field.

Still, for a fanbase who has been told that our strength is in our numbers, it’s a somewhat bitter pill to swallow. While potentially influenced by the realities of a post-Covid world, completely selling out CenturyLink Field no longer appears to be a goal the Sounders are actively working toward. Rather, they seem focused on consolidating the season-ticket base they have and looking to expand the fanbase in other ways.