clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is it enough for Sounders to re-assert values in wake of Providence sponsorship?

Two Sounders officials sat for an hour-long interview to discuss what went wrong in the unveiling of their new sponsor.

When the Seattle Sounders unveiled their newest and most prominent sponsor during an event at Renton High School nearly two weeks ago, the mood was celebratory. Players tossed shirts into the stands, the high school students participated in a class-by-class contest to see who could do the best “boom-boom-clap”, and there was much talk of how Providence’s sponsorship was about a lot more than putting their name on the front of the Sounders’ jersey.

The biggest part of that “a lot more” was a youth mental health program that would be made available to Renton School District students in partnership with Providence.

By the time Sounders officials started checking social media and reading email, however, it was quickly apparent that the announcement had not been received as hoped. Inboxes and timelines were filled with negative and concerned reactions, with accusations that the Sounders had abandoned their core principles by partnering with a healthcare organization that has a history of limiting reproductive choice, has been accused of discriminating against LGTBQ patients and is currently being sued by the Washington attorney general for charging low-income patients for care they were entitled to receive for free.

The volume and intensity of fan reactions was significant enough that the Sounders called an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss an action plan. Almost immediately, the Sounders set up meetings with Emerald City Supporters, Gorilla FC and the Alliance Council in an attempt to calm concerns.

It was in a similar vein that the Sounders reached out to us with the goal of reaching our audience. I met with Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer Taylor Graham as well as COO Maya Mendoza-Exstrom at Longacres on Monday to discuss some of the concerns we’ve received. You can listen to the full hour-long conversation here, but I also wanted to share some of my main takeaways:

They think it was primarily a messaging problem

Perhaps the broadest takeaway I had from our interviews was the belief that the problem was mainly one about messaging. At one point, it was overtly suggested that the team had been prepared to answer some of these questions about misaligned core values at the presser, but no one asked. While there might be some truth to that sentiment — and I had planned to attend and ask those questions if not for having two sicks kids at home — I think it’s a little naive and perhaps even insincere to suggest that this all could have been avoided if only they’d be asked the right questions at the unveiling.

Let’s be clear: the problem is not simply that they didn’t state loudly enough that their core values remain unchanged. It’s that partnering with an organization like Providence is going to require more than simply re-stating those values. Some fans, maybe even the majority, are likely willing to be patient. For others, though, I think there’s a more significant loss of trust. Maybe future actions can bring those fans back, but it’s going to take a real concerted effort that goes beyond hosting pride events or putting out statements on Twitter.

Core values remain

If there was one positive takeaway, it’s that Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom were adamant that this partnership will not diminish any of the work the Sounders do in the community, and may actually enhance it. They were insistent that the Sounders would not shy away from taking a stand on social issues ranging from “right to play” to women’s reproductive choice. There was even an insistence that Providence is “empowering us to be the best versions of ourselves” when it comes to social issues.

At the same time, Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom implied that there were at least some employees who shared a similar concern. However, they made the argument that just being able to have that kind of conversation both internally and externally is part of what makes them different from many sports organizations.

Not shying away from Providence partnership

Anyone hoping the Sounders would distance themselves from Providence in almost any way as a result of the outcry will probably be disappointed. At no point did Graham or Mendoza-Exstrom express any misgivings or sense of discomfort with Providence. They also said they were not concerned that Providence may be using the Sounders brand as a form of sportswashing, in part because of how extensively they’ve worked with other sports teams.

“This is not the first time that Providence has invested in delivering their product and growing their business through sport,” Graham said when asked specifically about sportswashing. “When we talked to our peers who have partnered with Providence, the starting point was all community first. That comes back to the people and do you trust that? From the individuals, we do. From the organization, we do. They’re proud of the work they do with Providence through the work they do in the LGTBQI space. They are empowering us to lead in this space and to be the Sounders. I don’t have any concerns in this space. We are invested in this space and we intend to deliver.”

Belief in youth mental health initiative

The one element the Sounders kept returning to as a reason to be happy about this partnership is the youth mental health program they’ll be helping launch with Renton schools. Providence has an existing program called “Work2BeWell” that will apparently form the backbone of their outreach, but they’re also waiting to hear from Renton schools to get more specifics about what is needed. Considering that the details of how this program will be rolled out are still unknown, it’s hard to know exactly how to feel, but the Sounders are clearly optimistic about it and are confident that LGBTQ youths will receive appropriate mental health care. Mendoza-Exstrom said “30-50” Renton students had already expressed some interest in utilizing the service, something she took as a sign of just how valuable it could be. There is broad agreement that many of these issues are all related and the Sounders intend for this to be a holistic brand of care.

The money is clearly part of it

There was not extensive talk about how much Providence is paying the Sounders, but it’s been reported that the deal is going to be worth close to $100 million over its 10-year life. That’s significantly more than the club was getting from previous shirt sponsors XBOX or Zulily. Graham acknowledged the price tag was part of what made this attractive, but also stressed that they feel a lot of good can be done with all that money and resources. Graham suggested that the resources will be used to help fund the Sounders’ various social justice initiatives as well improving the quality on the pitch.

Actions must follow

The overarching theme to all of this is that words can only convey so much. It’s all fine and good for the Sounders to say their values are unchanged, that they believe a lot of good can come out of this and that they are confident Providence will be a good partner. But they also acknowledged that the proof will be in actions.

“We are a club committed to action,” Graham said. “We are going to be held accountable to action over periods of time. Hopefully, the track record of this club and being able to deliver against that is something which can instill some confidence back into our fanbase at a moment like this. Take a step back and understand that all the information isn’t in front of us, we might not agree, but trust that the club is the same club and we’ll be held accountable at some point.”

One sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly is that the Sounders seem to want to have their cake (being seen as a progressive club) and eating it too (taking money from an organization which is at least perceived to be actively working against some of the club’s core values). I’m not entirely sure that any of what was said during this interview will dissuade skeptical fans from that notion. Presumably, the Sounders chose to champion social causes because they believed it was the right thing to do, but one result of that is they put themselves in a position to be judged when they do things that seem to run counter to those values. No one made them partner with Providence and it’s going to be on them to square this circle.

At the end of the interview, I tried to pin them down on what kinds of actions they thought the club could take and what fans could do to hold them accountable. I’m not sure many will be re-assured by their answers, which were basically “be patient” and “complain to your ticket and Alliance Council representatives or serve on Alliance Council yourself.”

In the meantime, I suspect a lot of fans will be simply voting with their wallets, either by choosing not to buy anything with Providence on it or maybe even something more drastic.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Sounder At Heart Weekly Roundup newsletter!

A twice weekly roundup of Seattle Sounders and OL Reign news from Sounder at Heart