Very few people go to Sounders 2 matches. A cursory look at attendance numbers for a few local clubs is a bit of a bummer:
Seattle area pro soccer team avg. attendance:— Randy Meeker (@meeker253) February 27, 2016
1. Sounders: 44,247
2. Reign: 4,060
3. Tacoma Stars: 2,462
4. S2: 2,210
5. Kitsap Pumas: 466
Seriously, S2 can't outdraw an Major Arena Soccer League team? That's not a slight against the Stars at all. I love Perry the Peanut as much as anyone. But come on - the Sounders' developmental USL team should be doing better.
How can Sounders 2 fix this? That's a big question, and I'm going to ignore most of it to focus on only one aspect: the team's brand identity. (Yes, I'm going to write about branding. I'm a Sounders fan who works in marketing. Bear with me.)
Obviously, ditching the Sounders 2 identity will not happen. The Sounders clearly have no intention of rebranding and that's fine. But it's fun to think about, and it raises an opportunity that I'll circle back to in a bit.
Here's a sports fact: Minor league teams are inherently awesome. And they're often fearless - sometimes to the point of being silly - with their branding.
Minor league baseball teams have always embraced mascots, bold colors and lots of other elements to make them stand out. Look up north to your famed Everett Aquasox for an example of this.
On the soccer side, there are a host of teams across the USL, NASL and other lower-division and indoor leagues that understand the value of eye-catching, locally inspired iconography. This is where the Stars really shine - putting a modern spin on a rich, local-ish (it's a bit of a stretch to say that Kent is a neighborhood in Tacoma) heritage.
Here's a sports theory: Marketing a team is more effective when it's local - this is especially true at the minor league level. Continuing with the Rainiers example - they drew nearly 5,000 fans per game last season. The majority of those fans were likely not commuting from Seattle to Tacoma to take in a game. They're locals. People from Tacoma, Puyallup, Auburn and other parts of the South Sound who wanna watch some baseball in their backyard.
However, Sounders 2 branding and marketing ignores this conventional wisdom and seemingly assumes that the core audience for S2 should be Sounders FC supporters who attend games at the Clink and simply want more soccer in their diet. Given the paltry attendance numbers from the inaugural season, it appears this is a miscalculation.
Sounders 2 were 17th in attendance in the USL last season. Looking at all the teams above them, with the exception of Timbers 2 every single team has a standalone brand, even the teams with MLS club affiliations. It's almost as if fans develop emotional attachments and loyalty to teams that embrace the community in which they live. This might be why Sporting Kansas City didn't name their USL franchise Sporting 2, but instead went with the more locally flavored Swope Park Rangers.
Sticking a "2" onto the name of the parent club is problematic for a few reasons. First, it's kinda boring. The MLS Sounders' crest is an iconic symbol of the team that features a landmark that we all recognize. The S2 crest is, well, this:
It's a crest that borrows the silhouette from its parent club, strips it of any identifying features and slaps an S2 on it.
That brings us to the second problem. Calling the team Sounders 2 suggests something inferior about the team. A developmental squad isn't inferior; it's just different. It's a reminder of something you're not watching.
Finally, and most importantly, the Sounders 2 brand lacks a sense of place. The name Sounders 2 settles for communicating, vaguely, that the team is connected to the Seattle Sounders. OK, fine. But what about the community that the team plays in? The team name should at least tell you that much. Give someone who's not already a fan a map and ask them where Sounders FC 2 plays and see where they point.
Here's a sports opinion: Sounders 2 would be better off embracing the fact that it's not Sounders 1. The team doesn't play at CenturyLink Field. The team plays at Starfire. In Tukwila.
Let's imagine - again, I know this will never happen - that we could start over and relaunch Sounders 2 with a brand that reflected all the wonderful things about South King County - about Tukwila, Renton, Kent, Federal Way. The landscape and people that, while a short drive away from Seattle, are different in so many ways. What would that look like?
The idea was to create a team name and crest or badge that embraced the region around Starfire. There are lots of ways to do this, but the two that we'll look at here are the Green River, which becomes the Duwamish River as it passes near Starfire. And we'll explore the idea of a name that suggests the South King County region comprising places like Tukwila, Renton and beyond.
Then, we wanted to couple that sense of place with something equally local - a team name that would inspire a really cool crest, bumpers stickers, posters, even a mascot.
Imagine Hugo Garcia's voice over the Starfire PA as he introduces your ... Duwamish Steelhead Soccer Club.
Or your Green River Steelhead FC.
Or maybe it's a name that nods to everyone south of Lake Washington. That brings together all these cities that are a short drive from Starfire.
Your South King Kraken FC.
Each of these identities embraces the idea that Sounders 2 is a standalone team that exists for fans that aren't necessarily the same people that root for the big Sounders.
Again, I know that a rebrand is not in the cards. But it does remind me of a conversation I had with Dave Clark about the way the Sounders market S2, and there are things that are worth trying. Things that might get more fans to Starfire.
What if the team simply reached out in a much stronger way to sports fans in Tukwila, Renton, Kent, Auburn and the like? What if the team marketed S2 not as a great reason to drive from Ballard to Tukwila in rush hour but from the Renton Highlands down to the hill to the stadium?
There are countless ways to do this, and they might be worth trying. Because what the club is doing now isn't working well enough, which is a shame - the future stars of CenturyLink are well worth watching now.