Nearly a month after it was first announced that the state of Washington was going to allow fans at outdoor professional sports venues, the Seattle Sounders revealed the details of how they are planning to accommodate them. The broad strokes are simple enough: About 7,000 fans will be allowed into each of the first five games of the season, with season-ticket holders allowed to purchase tickets on April 13 and any unsold tickets being made available to the general public the next day.
The details, however, are a bit more nuanced. Let’s dig in.
Why is capacity so low?
When Gov. Inslee first announced the plans, it was phrased as 25% of capacity or 9,000 people, whichever is lower. So regardless of if the Sounders used the full stadium or their soccer seating manifest as the framework, there was no chance of putting something like 17,000 fans inside Lumen Field. Still, the mathematicians among you have probably devised that 7,000 is, in fact, considerably less than 9,000, which is what the Seattle Mariners set capacity at for their season opener.
Best I can tell, the difference is that the rows at Lumen Field are longer than they are at T-Mobile Park. Since there are only two pods per row — eliminating the need to squeeze by another pod on your way out to the concourse — the Sounders effectively have a lower capacity.
Couldn’t they just open the upper deck?
I suppose that’s true and the Sounders probably could have figured out a way to make room for 2,000 more fans if they really wanted to. My suspicion is that the cost-benefit analysis simply didn’t add up. Opening up the third deck comes with added costs, and I’m guessing that adding 2,000 fans doesn’t come close to covering those. The reality is that the Sounders aren’t much closer to turning a profit on gameday with 7,000 or 9,000 fans — they probably need at least twice as many fans to make a significant difference — and more fans just means more people potentially mingling on the concourse and at the gates. In other words, there’s a lot of downside without much upside.
How are they allocating the tickets?
Season-ticket holders were assigned a specific time slot during which they can log into their TicketMaster account and use their existing credit to buy tickets. The vast majority were assigned one of two time slots, 11 AM for most inaugural season-ticket holders and noon for most everyone else. Each account can then buy tickets for any or all of the first five games in blocks of 1-6 seats. Those tickets are supposed to be limited to people in your household or personal pod (although, I’m not sure how that can actually be enforced).
Won’t that mean it’s going to be impossible for me to get tickets?
Considering only ~35,000 seats are being made available in total for the first five games and the Sounders have drawn more than that for virtually every league game they’ve played for the past decade, it’s probably a reasonably safe bet to assume those games will sell out. I’m not quite as convinced they’ll sell out immediately, though. The Sounders know they’ll have a lot of frustrated fans if, say, inaugural STHs buy up the vast majority of inventory and then we start seeing them on the secondary market at dramatically marked up prices. My suspicion is that during their research over the past few months, the Sounders got a pretty good sense of what demand will look like early on and made these rules with that in mind.
Of course, it’s possible that with the sped-up roll out of vaccines that demand is higher than it was a few months ago, but anecdotally I’ve talked to quite a few people who aren’t that interested in attending games in a stadium that’s only about 10% full.
What are the chances of the Sounders increasing capacity?
I suppose there’s a non-zero chance of that happening, but given the current rate of Covid-19 infections, I think there’s actually a better chance that no fans are allowed in. It’s not exactly clear what the threshold for such a decision would be, but it sounds like King County Health is planning to make an announcement on April 12. If numbers continue to rise, going back to Phase 2 of the reopening process is surely a possibility. Given the consistently increasing vaccine rollout, that setback would probably only be temporary, but it is a reminder that we’re not out of the woods yet.
How much will tickets cost?
My understanding is that seats will cost roughly the same as they’d cost for comparable seats during the rest of the season. Will those of you with the inaugural season-ticket discount be paying more than you’re used to? Maybe! Will those of you who moved down from the third deck this year on the promise that you’d get a discount on your lower-bowl seats be frustrated? Quite possibly! But generally speaking I would imagine that most people can expect to spend something like 1/18th the cost of their season ticket if they buy similar seats to the ones they normally sit in.
What happens to my money if I can’t or won’t go to any of these games?
Effectively, the Sounders seem to be treating the money you’ve already paid them like a wallet. You’re only going to get charged for games that you could have theoretically attended. If you don’t get tickets for any of the first five games for whatever reason, that credit will still be in your account and could be used to buy extra tickets to games later in the season, League Cup games, playoff games or even for merchandise at the ProShop, apparently. I don’t know for sure, but if you still have money in your account at the end of the year, it sounds like it will just roll over into 2022.
What’s it going to be like at games?
Good question! I’m tempted to compare the atmosphere to some of those CCL games against random Central American opponents before those were part of the season-ticket package, but even then there was a supporters’ section that provided some atmosphere (Covid precautions means there’s no general admission section for these games). I never attended games in the USL days — I moved to Seattle in 2009 — but I suspect it will feel a bit more like that.
But let’s be honest, you’re not going to these games with the expectation that it will seem like the before-times. You just want to see your favorite team live, scream at the top of your lungs, feel the heat from the goal-flames, join the stadium in boom-boom-clap and share the experience with a few thousand other fans. That it’s going to be different should be a given. Still, if you’re fully vaccinated — or are just inclined to throw caution to the wind — I suspect it will be a relatively safe and unique experience that you won’t soon forget. We should also keep in mind that as long as we keep on our current vaccination trajectory, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be back to something closer to normal by this summer.
After a year of seemingly endless darkness, the light at the end of the tunnel finally feels within reach. There’s definitely room to criticize the way the Sounders handled all of this, but I do think they’re genuinely trying to do the safe and right thing. Let’s keep that in mind.