Sounders FC begins its third season Tuesday night, still pursuing not only the MLS Cup, but the experiment it calls "democracy in sports."
In attendance Tuesday night when the Los Angeles Galaxy visits Qwest Field for MLS’ annual First Kick game will be minority owner Drew Carey, who brought to Seattle the European idea of an official members association with actual clout.
After two seasons, however, The Alliance (the association of Sounders fans) remains a philosophical concept with few demonstrated successes.
“My sense is that there has been some disillusionment among some of the people because they feel like it’s more a slogan than anything real,” said Paul Cox, a member of the Alliance Council, the group’s body of elected representatives. “I know that I personally have felt like that at times.”
The Sounders say this is more than a slogan to them. Majority owner Joe Roth, general manager Adrian Hanauer and senior vice president of business operations Gary Wright all have noted that the Sounders have listened to their fans since before they were the Sounders – ever since the club allowed its supporters to select the team name.
“By putting a stake in the ground with democracy in sports – whether it has been executed perfectly or not – it has made us more beholden and communicative with our fans than I would maybe argue any sports franchise in North America,” Hanauer said. “That’s our objective: to be as interactive and beholden to our fans as any franchise in the world.”
Few supporters deny that the Sounders listen.
The Alliance Council participates in monthly conference calls and members have their own blog and forum on SoundersFC.com. Any frustration stems from the relative lack of change stemming from those communications.
Asked for any actions that have been brought about directly due to the Alliance’s input, the club pointed to the Sounders name vote, the Alliance voting to recognize 13 of last season’s Golden Scarf recipients (the team’s version of the Seahawks’ 12th Man tradition), and a recent decision to increase the number of tickets for visiting fans in the Seattle-Portland-Vancouver rivalry games.
But while the name and ticket resolutions did come about largely due to the input of fans and supporters groups, neither came through official action of the Alliance.
Cox, who stressed he’s not an Alliance spokesman, said that is largely because there is no existing method for such actions to be enacted.
So, now the group is well into the matter of crafting a charter that will spell out the powers actually held by the Alliance, which is made up of season-ticket holders and others who can buy their way in for $125 per season.
“I don’t believe the Sounders really thought through how that was going to work,” Cox said. “... (If the charter is ratified) then the Alliance will basically establish itself as an independent organization. The idea is the club will then grant this fan alliance a charter that says, ‘OK, these are the areas that you guys have control over, so if you have a vote then the club will do whatever you say on this issue and this issue and this issue.’ ”
Naturally, there will be limits. The Sounders have declared – as one predictable example – that ticket prices are off limits.
“Obviously, there are going to be some things that we can’t do just because from a team side or a business side they logically don’t make sense for us to just automatically do it or take it to a fan vote,” Wright said. “But there are so many things that we can do that if this is what the fans want, this is what we’ll do, because why not?”
For now, the most straightforward power granted to the Alliance – and the one that has generated the most publicity – is the right to vote on the retention of the general manager every four years.
The first vote is scheduled in November 2012 – the end of next season. However, at the Alliance’s request, the Sounders have indicated openness to receiving at least an advisory vote of confidence or no confidence at any time.
The man whose neck rests beneath that blade says he has no problem with that.
“Whenever they want, I’m fine with it,” Hanauer said. “And seriously, if I’m the wrong guy for the job, then I don’t want to be in the job. If the fans want me to go, I am absolutely fine with that. I think in some cases the fans’ opinion should count more than the owners’ opinion. In others, maybe the owners have better insight. But regardless, we’ve set it up this way because we want our fans involved, and we’ll live and die by the sword – or I’ll live and die by the sword.”
With the Sounders winning two U.S. Open Cup trophies and earning two playoff appearances over their first two seasons, there is no particular clamor by the Alliance to exercise this power ahead of schedule.
However, there are other issues on which members would like their opinions heard.
Perhaps having the deciding vote among a set of possible charity affiliations for the club, for example, or turning thumbs up or down on whether vuvuzelas should be allowed in Qwest Field.
The hope is that the charter will spell out both the length and the limits for the kind of democracy envisioned by the club.
“I know a lot of people are very frustrated with the Alliance because they feel the way it was sold and the way it’s worked out in practice are two different things,” Cox said. “And I think that’s partly the club’s fault and partly just circumstance. But I think that now that the people have effectively gathered themselves and are trying to govern themselves and come up with a way for the people to have their voice, I think it’s a really big step.”
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