Seattle Sounders FC has a rare problem among soccer teams in the United States: Ticket demand exceeds supply.
So, after selling out the first half of this inaugural Major League Soccer season at Qwest Field, the Sounders are opening more seating sections for the second half.
Starting with the Colorado Rapids’ visit on Sunday afternoon, the Sounders will increase seating capacity to approximately 32,400 by reopening sections in the south end zone that previously had been used only for the March 19 inaugural game.
Yet, even those 3,000 additional seats won’t be enough to satisfy demand. No more than a few hundred tickets are left for any remaining home league game, and general manager Adrian Hanauer said this week he expects them all to sell out. He also said he doesn’t expect the seating configuration to be expanded again this season.
Hanauer had spent the last eight seasons operating the United Soccer Leagues’ first-division Sounders, who were solid but unspectacular at the gate. Hanauer attributes that to “the difficulty of selling a minor league team in a major league city.” But he admits that even he didn’t foresee the way the region would embrace the MLS team.
“What maybe has surprised me is that it’s become so mainstream, so prevalent, all the way through the community, through every type of sports fan so quickly,” Hanauer said. “... I’ve heard so many stories: ‘I was never really a soccer fan,’ or ‘I’ve never been to a soccer game.’ (That was the) type of fan that we hoped to get someday. We didn’t think we would get them immediately.”
Sounders FC’s success also comes at a time when attendance is down across MLS. The league averaged 16,460 last season, but only 14,972 so far this season.
At FC Dallas, attendance is down 37 percent – bad enough that general manager Michael Hitchcock wouldn’t speak to The News Tribune if attendance was among the items to be discussed. The Los Angeles Galaxy is averaging 19,298, which is third in the league but down 22 percent, perhaps partly due to the absence of international superstar David Beckham. Charter member and MLS flagship D.C. United is drawing 14,811, down nearly 29 percent.
“Our television ratings are very strong,” D.C. United president Kevin Payne said. “Our attendance is down a little bit this year relative to last year. I think it’s mostly economy-related.”
Despite the shaky economy and despite playing in an artificially limited Qwest Field seating configuration, the Sounders’ average home attendance leads MLS by a wide margin. Their 29,364 fans per home game are almost 50 percent more than runner-up Toronto (20,288), and almost twice the league average.
And Seattle is setting league records as well.
Sounders FC already has become the first MLS franchise to top 28,000 fans for seven consecutive matches. And the club is on pace to break Los Angeles’ average-attendance record of 28,916, which has stood since the league’s first season.
Even by international standards, the franchise is drawing well.
If the Sounders were in the English Premier League, their attendance would rank 12th out of 20 teams – just behind West Ham United, just ahead of Middlesbrough. In the Scottish Premiere League, they would rank third, behind only Celtic and Rangers. In French Ligue One, they would rank fourth, between Olympique Lyonnais and AS Saint-Etienne.
Soon, the Sounders will dwarf even their own typical attendance numbers with a pair of international friendlies.
Qwest Field’s upper decks will be opened for matches against Chelsea on July 18 and FC Barcelona on Aug. 5, creating a capacity of 67,000. Fewer than 10,000 seats remain for each game.
With sellouts likely for the remainder of this season, the only questions seem to involve the more distant future. Will some novelty wear off? Could the potential loss of stars such as Fredy Montero or Steve Zakuani to bigger international clubs disillusion fans? Will Seattle’s success help raise MLS, or will the league’s more troubled franchises eventually drag down the Sounders?
That has been the trend in a league that draws fewer fans now than it did in its inaugural season. New York, as one glaring example, drew 23,808 fans per home game in 1996, but is down to 11,385 now.
“In five years if you call me and say it’s not working at the same level, then say shame on us,” Tod Leiweke, CEO of the Sounders and the Seattle Seahawks, told The Associated Press. “It’s really on us to keep it going. I like our chances.”
Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said after training Friday that midfielder Steve Zakuani and forward/midfielder Sebastien Le Toux are both dealing with ankle sprains and their status for Sunday is uncertain. Schmid said Le Toux, who was hurt last weekend in the draw with New York, is somewhat ahead of Zakuani, who was hurt Thursday in training. ... The Sounders have announced the signing of reserve goalkeeper Terry Boss, an Oregon native who has experience in MLS, USL-Division II, and with the Puerto Rican national team. Boss was keeper of the year in USL-II last season, when he led the league in wins and shutouts in helping Charlotte advance to the league championship game.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808