Editor’s note: This story was first published on Feb. 17, 2023. It is being reproduced as originally published.
RENTON — As stable as the Seattle Sounders front office has been on the sporting side during their first 14 seasons in MLS, the leadership on their business side has seen even less turnover. Hugh Weber was officially introduced to press on Thursday, officially taking over as the Sounders’ third-ever head of business operations heading into their 15th MLS season.
Weber brings with him a resume that frankly makes him appear almost overqualified. Weber has served as president of NBA and NHL teams, and even run Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which controlled a host of other teams and properties. When he left his job as president of HSBE last summer, he said he assumed he’d find his next opportunity in someplace like Europe.
Instead, he found himself heading back home. Weber grew up in south Tacoma — where his 89-year-old mother still lives — and ran track at the University of Puget Sound before embarking on his management career. It was during those college years that he first met Sounders majority Adrian Hanauer, then a 19-year-old University of Washington student.
Hanauer says he’s been seeking out Weber’s advice ever since first taking control of the Sounders in 2002 and has been trying to woo him back to Seattle for about a dozen years.
Weber’s availability happened to coincide with Peter Tomozawa taking over as CEO for Seattle’s World Cup organizing committee and the Sounders entering what promises to be an exciting phase in their history. Not only are the Sounders getting ready to move into their new training facility at Longacres, but they’re also getting ready to unveil new elements of their “brand identity” that is tied to the 50th-anniversary celebration and looking for ways to maximize the World Cup coming to Seattle in 2026.
“I’m a builder, I like to grow and build things,” Weber said. “All the places I’ve been are because they offered that opportunity. I see huge opportunity here. MLS and the sport itself is a huge launch pad to grow. What can we do to become not just a great local or regional brand but a global platform to do the value-based things we want to do in the community?
“I love big complicated puzzles,” he added. “Right now this feels like a lot, but building high-performance teams that tackle big complicated ideas is what I love.”
Weber and Hanauer spent about an hour in a media roundtable at Sounders FC Center at Longacres. Here were some of the main takeaways:
Weber doesn’t feel the need to fluff his resume
I’ve been working in sports media for more than 20 years and have met all different types of leaders. When I saw Weber’s resume, I sort of imagined him being in the mold of an FCS Athletic Director, i.e., someone who likes to be seen and likes you to know what a big deal they are, but is inclined to leave a lot of the day-to-day work to underlings.
I did not get that vibe from Weber ... at all.
First off, I was impressed at how much understanding he already seems to show for the Sounders. He has clearly done his research and seems to have a good grasp of both the opportunities and challenges without assuming he already knows how to fix everything.
He also didn’t feel compelled to show off his resume. At one point, he mentioned how the NHL and NBA both have diverse player pools, but only in the context of appreciating that soccer is on a different level in that sense. At one point, I asked for clarification on his involvement with Crystal Palace — a team HSBE shared ownership with — and he was open about having a very limited role. I thought it was notable that he didn’t try to make himself look more soccer savvy than he was.
From everything I gathered, Weber is also very hands-on. He’s apparently more likely to be walking through the concourse on gameday than schmoozing in a luxury box.
Hanauer really trusts Weber
Looking around the Sounders organization, it’s not hard to spot a lot of connections. There are former players seemingly everywhere from the broadcast booth to the coaching staff to the business offices. There are also a lot of people in the organization who knew Hanauer personally or worked with him at other stops.
There’s always a danger of this sort of environment feeling nepotistic. Best I can tell, that hasn’t happened with the Sounders.
Hanauer admitted Weber falls into this but doesn’t seem remotely worried and even said only half-jokingly that he didn’t think he was capable of running a hiring where he interviewed 10 people he didn’t know.
“I embrace working with friends,” he said. “The work product has to be there as well but I trust Hugh with my life.”
Weber also acknowledged that this sort of process usually results in people who look like the owner getting hired, but also embraced change and asked that he be held accountable for keeping that promise.
“It’s proven to me that diverse teams perform better. Period,” he said. “When you’re pulling diverse thoughts from real people and not filling a quota, that’s real diversity. That’s diversity in culture. I’ve always made it a priority to develop and mentor people who don’t look like me to be future leaders of the sports industry. I’m happy with the progress but we’re not there. I take pride in developing the next leader in this chair who hopefully doesn’t look like me.”
Longacres era is just beginning
Permitting is just about finished, clearing the way for serious construction to start in early April. But the Longacres project isn’t just about a new training facility or even finally putting the business and sporting side under one roof for the first time, it’s actually quite a lot bigger than that. In addition to hundreds of housing units that will eventually be built on the property, there are plans for retail and restaurants. This promises to be a real destination.
I also asked about plans for a full-sized MLS stadium eventually being built on the property and got a bit of a non-answer that leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
“It takes a long time to build a stadium,” Weber said. “Generally, we want to always be focused on Sounders fans, that’s our obligation. There’s a lot of work to be done on that specific idea.”
Hanauer then followed up with a line he’s been using for close to 10 years: “Every sports team on the planet dreams of a perfect cathedral to their sport, we’re no different. Lumen has been amazing for us, it is amazing for us. We have 10 years on our lease there. That statement will live forever until we have our own stadium.”
Bruce Lee Kit is selling very well
At the 24-hour mark, sales of the Bruce Lee Kit are outperforming its predecessor. That’s particularly notable when you consider that the Jimi Hendrix was the Sounders’ best-selling kit ever and was similarly flying off the shelves in the early stages. Sales on the Bruce Lee Kit were so good that the team hit its $50,000 donation threshold “within a few hours.”
I know some have taken this to mean that most fans don’t actually care as much about the Providence sponsorship as might seem to be the case here, but I’m not quite ready to read too deeply into this. The reality is that as well as the Bruce Lee Kit sold, it was probably less than 1,000 units. By comparison, there are about 30,000 season-ticket holders and countless other fans in the market. The people who rushed out to buy the new kit are a relatively small percentage of the overall fanbase.
Still concerned about Providence flap
For their part, neither Hanauer nor Weber were using the jersey sales are some sort of vindication of the Providence deal. They definitely aren’t shying away from the partnership, but they are clearly still seeking to mend fences.
“It’s a bit unfair to say I would have done something different since hindsight is always 20/20, but the job is 100% mine to activate the partnership in ways that bring integrity to the values we’re talking about,” Weber said. “It’s 100% with my leadership in the organization in executing how we’re showing up in the communities. Until we do that, it’s just words.
“I have had the privilege to sit on calls with supporters group and engage with fans. I was moved by some of the stories of people who were hurt by this and felt alienated by this. Their personal stories were gut-wrenching and hard, but added motivation to the team to show the value of this partnership. We need to get active and lean into some of the communities that were hurt. The Sounders’ values didn’t change.”
Hanauer also offered some explanation for why the Sounders did the deal, pointing out that every sports team in the region has a relationship with a Catholic health provider; said he believes the players will receive excellent care; that they trust the leaders of the organization; they think the overall value will ultimately outweigh the negatives; and also admitted there was a cold, hard economic reality to it with Providence offering them the best deal.