11 May ~ The average attendance in Major League Soccer this season is just below 17,000, but that figure has been boosted by the consistently high crowds at the Seattle Sounders, now playing their second season in the league. On Saturday they drew a new team record 36,273 fans for their home game with the Los Angeles Galaxy, once again reflecting the massive local interest in the team that signed Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg to help it compete in the US top flight. Unfortunately they lost 4-0, prompting general manager Adrian Hanauer to offer every one of the team's 32,000 season-ticket holders a refund.
"That wasn't Sounders soccer and it was quite frankly embarrassing, humiliating and the fans don't deserve that," Hanauer said. "The refund will come in the form of a credit against next year's season tickets. We want our fans committed for the long haul and we think this is the right thing to do for our fans. As the owners of the club we reserve the right to do whatever we think we need to do to treat our fans the way they've treated us."
It's not unprecedented for teams to offer fans a refund after a bad performance, but this particular self-flagellation is remarkable when you consider that the club are proving so popular in the city, and that last season they won the US Open Cup and made the league play-offs. This season, their record of two wins, two draws and three defeats is hardly a disgrace, although the defending against LA perhaps was. Even the steadfast Keller let a ridiculously easy shot from Jovan Kirovski slip through his hands for the first LA goal. But it wasn't as if the fans turned on their team and demanded the coach's head. Instead, in a stadium where English-style singing is all the rage, they eventually struck up a stoically cheerful chorus of: "All we are saying is give us a goal."
"I think it is a fair tribute to our fans," Sounders' coach Sigi Schmid said of the refund. "The fans' support throughout the game and the way they remained and they supported us after the game was phenomenal." He said the club felt that "this is what is needed to show our fans we are appreciative of what they do week in and week out". There's such an abundance of love in all this that you wonder if any emotionally needy Seattle supporters out there will be willing the team to keep on losing.
There's nothing not to like in all this. The Seattle owners have listened to their fans right from the team's founding in 2007, forming an official supporters' group along the lines of Barcelona that is chaired by comedian and TV host Drew Carey, one of the team's minority owners. Fans get to vote on issues such as who will be the team's general manager, and in 2008 decided on the team name in an online ballot. Carey helped found a 53-piece marching band that fosters a lively atmosphere at Qwest Field, encouraging the crowd to be colourful and noisy in its own right.
There are plenty of games in MLS played out in front of mute, half-empty stadiums in cities like Dallas and Colorado where professional football is still not catching on. The league's newer teams like Houston, Seattle and Toronto – soon to be joined by Portland and Vancouver (in 2011), and Montreal (2012) – represent a different model based on the league having thought more about where fans might actually want a football team, rather than just courting an owner willing to build an unwanted stadium in some far-out, godforsaken suburb.
The dynamic relationship between Seattle's owners and fans has set the template for the future of club football in the US, and teams who don't follow suit will die or be moved to somewhere that wants them. The Sounders strive to be an attacking team that is usually worth watching, and that is the most important part of bringing fans in and keeping them. But when you have a bad day and lose 4-0 at home, it does no harm to have a back-up plan to make sure no one leaves for good. A refund is an admission by the team that they played below standard, while the players are shamed into realising their lax play has lost the club money. The fans more than appreciate the gesture, and in Seattle the attendance figures will continue to speak for a strong, open connection between a progressive team and an invaluable support base. Ian Plenderleith