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Why are Sounders fans so mad about the team’s newest sponsor?

Supporters groups and the Alliance Council have publicly expressed serious concerns about Providence Health’s sponsorship of the Sounders.

Last Updated
7 min read
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Unless you’ve just awoken from a deep slumber, chances are that you’re aware that the Seattle Sounders recently unveiled a new partnership with Providence health. You’re probably also aware that Sounders fans have been very vocal in their concerns about this partnership. Aside from those broad strokes, though, I can understand why this might seem a little hard to fully appreciate. Let’s see if I can help...

I’m sorry, but can we just talk about soccer?

Honestly, I’d love to and we’ve been doing a lot of that. However, the Sounders are currently in Marbella, Spain getting ready for the Club World Cup and we don’t have a ton of visibility into that. I do promise that we’ll continue to have plenty of coverage about that too, though!

Fine, let’s start at the beginning then. Who is Providence?

Providence is a “not-for-profit” Catholic healthcare system that operates more than 50 hospitals and 800 non-acute facilities throughout the Western United States, one of the biggest chains in the country. They are based in Renton and operate eight hospitals in Western Washington. Locally, those hospitals fall under the new Providence Swedish brand and technically operate as their own business, but they are under the same ownership.

What does “not-for-profit” mean?

Without getting into all the legalese, it allows them to qualify for a ton of tax exemptions, but it doesn’t seem to stop them from effectively operating like any other “for-profit” hospital. Their executives, for instance, are all very well paid. The New York Times has done quite a bit of reporting on this, including a podcast that came out on Wednesday. A lot of that reporting has focused on the Washington State Attorney General suing Providence over what it says is an illegal billing practice that involves low-income patients being charged for services they are supposed to get for free. They claim this affected more than 55,000 patients and resulted in more than $73 million in illegal billing. Providence has denied doing anything illegal but has started refunding some patients.

Is that why Sounders fans are so mad?

It definitely doesn’t help, but it’s actually not the main focus of their ire.

What else don’t they like about Providence?

Putting aside their business practices, Providence is a religious organization and that impacts what kind of services their hospitals offer in connection to reproductive health, end-of-life decisions and gender-affirming care. There are some caveats to that, but most of those caveats apply only to their hospitals in Western Washington, while the vast majority of their facilities in other parts of the country don’t offer that kind of care at all.

Why are fans mad at the Sounders?

I don’t want to be overly broad and assume anything about the rather large fanbase, but what we know is that the Alliance Council and the two biggest supporters groups — Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC — all put out statements expressing some serious misgivings about Providence’s model of care.

ECS specifically called out Providence for “insufficient care for transgender and gender non-binary individuals” and for not offering abortion services.

The Alliance Council called the partnership “confusing” for similar reasons.

Especially considering how outspoken the Sounders have been in support of those causes, I think there’s some understandable frustration there.

In response to those concerns, the Sounders front office has started meeting with the groups. They talked to ECS on Monday and to Gorilla FC and the Alliance Council on Wednesday.

Do we know what happened in those conversations?

There have been no official statements released by any of the groups, but I have talked to some individuals who participated and they seemed to come away with the feeling that there was at least genuine dialogue. It sounds like the Sounders understood that there was some level of trust lost here and that the only way to make good on it is through actions that demonstrate a real commitment to these issues.

OK, but this is business. Surely fans understand that, right?

I think they do. Former Alliance Council president Paul Cox actually wrote about that recently. But it’s important to understand that, particularly in the past few years, the Sounders have been very public and vocal about their support for various social issues. They’ve released statements that unequivocally supported a woman’s right to choose, they went to bat for ECS when Concacaf tried to get them to remove a sign about supporting trans youth and they’ve put actions behind social causes through their nonprofit RAVE Foundation.

What have the Sounders said?

The only official comment they’ve made was a statement in which they continued to voice support for these causes, but stopped short of promising anything. You can read it all here:

Following Friday’s announcement, our club has been actively listening to feedback from members of the Sounders community and engaging with our supporters groups and Alliance Council. We’ve held honest and productive conversations with these groups, and we’re continuing that dialogue in the coming days. Openness and transparency are key pillars of our Democracy in Sports ethos, and we always welcome direct discussion with our fans.We continue to be proud of our relationship with Providence and all that it can do for our region. From our earliest collective conversations, this partnership was always about a combined organizational commitment to area youth and making communities healthier places to live.We also need our community to know that our club values remain unchanged. We believe that every woman has the right to make healthcare decisions for themselves. Our club is also unwavering in its support for the LGBTQ+ community, and we are committed to making Washington the safest and most inclusive place to live, work and play, especially for transgender and gender-diverse youth. We are resolutely dedicated to these beliefs.As a club, we work with many types of people and organizations across our community. Part of living our values is being able to communicate them to different audiences. Providence has chosen to partner with Sounders FC because they value who we are and what we do. They are fully behind us continuing to honor our core club beliefs.

Is that going to be enough?

Based on the responses I’ve received on Twitter, people are pretty underwhelmed. In fairness, though, I’m not sure there’s a ton that the Sounders could say that both satisfied fans and avoided undermining their relationship with Providence. It’s going to require concrete actions for fans who are already upset to feel better about this.

Were the Sounders caught off guard by the reaction?

I think they were prepared to answer questions about these concerns from the get-go and certainly expected some degree of pushback. I also think they underestimated the volume of the concerns. Their previous healthcare partner was another Catholic provider, CHI Franciscan, and that had a much more muted response despite them sponsoring the training kits. Notably, the Sounders’ outspoken support of various causes was made while they had that relationship with CHI Franciscan and I’m told there are safeguards in this agreement to allow the same thing. The Sounders seem to have been hoping that they could enter into this partnership without fans accusing them of sacrificing their principles, but that may have been a bit unrealistic.

Isn’t there a youth mental health aspect to this, too? That must be good.

There is and the Sounders went to great lengths to highlight that during the partnership announcement at Renton High School last week. The exact program is still coming together, but it seems promising for sure and could even prove to be super beneficial.

Remember when XBOX sponsored the jerseys? Why didn’t they just keep them?

Having XBOX on the shirts for the first eight years was pretty great optics, no doubt. But you’ll notice that XBOX isn’t sponsoring any soccer jerseys right now. For the most part, really popular brands don’t feel the need to do these kinds of sponsorships and when they do, like was the case with XBOX, they aren’t inclined to spend top dollar. Brands that are willing to buy these sorts of sponsorships often come with some baggage, albeit not necessarily baggage that’s this overtly at odds with the Sounders’ stated values.

How much money is involved?

The Sports Business Journal reported that it’s a 10-year agreement and that it’s “valued in the high seven figures annually and will reach eight figures by the end of the deal.” Put another way, it’s probably worth close to $100 million in its entirety and I would not be at all surprised if we see the Providence branding on more than just the jerseys. That would also place this deal among the most valuable sponsorships in MLS history.

Is Providence as bad as all this suggests?

Look, I’m just a guy doing my best to follow all of this and I’m not going to presume to be the arbiter of fact. I will say that in Western Washington at Providence Swedish hospitals you can still access a full range of services either in the hospital or through a referral. Outside of Western Washington, it seems to be more difficult to get many of these services through Providence. What makes that doubly difficult is they are also an insurer, that at the very least makes it a bit more complicated to access these services. It’s not just elective abortions, gender-affirming care or “death with dignity” that are restricted by many Providence hospitals, but even simpler services like vasectomies that require patients to use third-party providers.

What has Providence said?

Here’s what Providence spokesperson Melissa Tizon told the Seattle Times: “In Oregon, we’re developing mental health curriculum for youth, including specialized content to support LGBTQIA+ and transgender youth. This population is very much welcome in our community even if we don’t provide all the services they are seeking in our facilities. That’s part of the misinformation. There’s this idea that we don’t accept or welcome certain people, when in fact, that’s very much part of the mission at Providence — to be able to serve the most vulnerable populations.”

Translating this, I think it means that they still treat transgender youth but they aren’t very likely to treat them with what the medical field tends to consider best practices.

For no reason at all, can you explain what “sportswashing” is?

This is how Wikipedia defines it: “Sportswashing is a term used to describe the practice of individuals, groups, corporations, or governments using sports to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing.”

How is this going to end?

I’ve seen no indication that the Sounders or Providence are seriously second-guessing this partnership. There’s a lot of money involved and we’re still in the very early days. I suspect there is some frustration over the rollout, but a confidence that most of that can be fixed through a combination of time and effort.