COMMENTARY | The Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII. A big reason they made it that far is because of a 7-1 record at home, CenturyLink Field. In fact, the Seahawks have only lost one home game in the past two seasons.
In 1997, however, it was a large possibility that the Seahawks wouldn’t enjoy that same home-field advantage. The team was close to moving without a new stadium. But soccer enthusiasts stepped in and helped the Seahawks stay in Seattle, and a decade later the Seahawks helped bring the Sounders to Major League Soccer, who routinely set attendance records in CenturyLink.
Mike Gastineau, a 21-year-veteran at KJR in Seattle until 2012, has written a book — “Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece: The Inside Story of the Best Franchise Launch in American Sports History” — about Seattle’s efforts in getting an MLS team, how futbol saved football, and how football returned the favor. In a telephone interview, Gastineau shared how the two organizations helped each other as well as the sports fans of Seattle.
In your book you talk about how soccer saved the Seahawks. How was that done?
Mike Gastineau: “I’ll admit it’s very little bit of an overstatement. But Ken Behring owned the Seahawks in the mid ’90s and he wanted to move them to Anaheim. He didn’t like Seattle, the weather and the Kingdome. The NFL told him he needed to find a deal. Paul Allen said he’d buy the team but he’d pay only about a third of the stadium and the tax payers would pay about two-thirds. The election for the tax, all the polls showed it failing. It wasn’t going to pass. About two months before, Fred Mendoza went to Allen and said there’s 300,000 adults who play soccer in Seattle. If you say you’re building it to MLS specifications and the desire to get an MLS team, the people may pass it.”
It passed by less than two points. Everyone involved said if it hadn’t been for soccer we’d have never gotten this deal done. The soccer community is credited with pushing this tax over the top in 1997. Paul Allen said, ‘If we don’t pass this measure, I’m out.’ The franchise would then go back to Behring and in theory the NFL would have allowed him to move because he tried to make a deal in Seattle.”
“The big key to remember, they all say if the soccer people hadn’t gotten on board it wouldn’t have passed.”
At the time this was happening, MLS was in its infancy and not as popular as it is today. What can be said about how important soccer was to the fans in Seattle, who aren’t necessarily Seahawks fans as well?
Gastineau: “It’s a good point. Soccer was extremely popular. It always had been, going back to the NASL days. They led the league in attendance. There’s a huge European influence in this town. Microsoft helped create that. When MLS started, Seattle wants a seat at the table but [MLS] kept telling people they wouldn’t play at the Kingdome. Fred Mendoza kept hearing the same thing: ‘Until you get a stadium we’re not interested.’ That’s why when he heard the NFL thing, he put two and two together and said they could help each other”
Most new MLS teams have to have plans for a soccer-specific stadium. Seattle didn’t. How did that work?
Gastineau: “That’s interesting. It’s in some ways how Paul Allen helped pay the community back. They played a key role. Allen admitted from the start he didn’t want to own a soccer team but he would try and help if there was an ownership group.”
“A potential ownership contained a local guy, Adrian Hanauer, and Joe Roth, a Hollywood movie executive. Roth wanted to do it. MLS said to talk to Seattle, they had been interested. Roth knew he needed a Seattle guy.”
“The Seahawks said they wanted 25 percent of the team for nothing. But they said, ‘We’d give you use of the stadium. We’d give you our marketing department.'”
“They had the backbone of an NFL-style office. They were able to do business in a professional manner right from the start. It was an advantage most MLS teams don’t have.”
What is the relationship like between the Sounders and Seahawks organizations?
Gastineau: “It’s very good. The Sounders have benefited from the Seahawks’ help. One of the things, from the very beginning, soccer is different from the NFL. You can’t just do an NFL-style game presentation.”
“The Seahawks listened to the people involved in the soccer side, saying this is how we have to do things. Soccer fans don’t want all the bells and whistles. Soccer fans want all their pomp and circumstance before the game but during the game they want nothing but the game. The Seahawks were really smart in how they listened to the people running the Sounders.”
“The Sounders have matured into a strong business. There are some parts of the offices that are different but there are people who work for both sides. I think it’s a unique thing. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write the book. It’s about two organizations who were bent on helping each other to become successful.”
How have Seattle sports fans benefitted from the two organizations working together?
Gastineau: “Soccer fans have been the biggest beneficiaries. Football fans benefitted 15 years ago. Some fans don’t see that as much now but in all honesty if that tax doesn’t pass there’s a chance we’re calling them the Anaheim Seahawks.”
“Five years in a row [the Sounders] made the playoffs. They’re the model franchise. They’re able to get great player acquisitions. They’re like the New York Yankees of the MLS. Maybe some of these things happen on their own but I don’t know. If you have the chance to bring a team in with the marketing oomph of an NFL team, most of us would make that choice.”
What makes the Seahawks and Sounders so tough to beat at home? Is the crowd that big of a difference maker?
Gastineau: “In some ways it’s becoming reputation. Teams feel they’re beaten before they get here. The architecture, the way it was designed was to take noise and ricochet it. Fans take a great pride in making noise and intimidating the other team. They love to scream their lungs out. The Sounders and Seahawks have been really good in recent years. It’s a long trip to get from Seattle to anywhere. Then you get here and you’re going to face a packed stadium. The fans know it impacts the game so they play their role. It’s the collegiate idea of supporting the team.”
What was something interesting you found out while writing the book?
Gastineau: “How involved the Seahawks have been in the daily meetings. There was Gary Wright, Seahawks Vice President. It was the story of a lot of soccer fans in America. He used to make fun of them for liking soccer. But then he was traveling to Spain and got a stomach bug and had to stay in. It was right at the start of the World Cup and the only thing on TV was the World Cup. For whatever reason it dawned on him on much fun it was to watch the sport.”
“He was a really popular executive in the town. When the Sounders came to be he was retiring from the Seahawks. Instead they moved him to the Sounders to be the Chief Operating Officer. It gave the Sounders a huge edge. I don’t think the Seahawks knew he knew so much about soccer things. He ended up being a huge benefit. He understood how it should be marketed.”