The Mariners’ Soccer Problem

Fans of the U.S. men's national soccer team display a giant U.S. flag as they show their support for the team before their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Panama in SeattleI love baseball. I always have. I’m a fan of many sports, but baseball has always been my favorite. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enraptured by the game. Baseball, to me, is just the greatest.

When people tell me they can’t stand baseball, you have to figure I’d be appalled, but I’m not. I get it. Baseball is long, often tedious, and rather slow. Games last three hours on average and rely on no clock to keep things moving. Not only that, but your best players will elude success seventy-percent of the time, and really, who wants to witness that much failure? Learning the nuances of baseball — the obscure rules, the unwritten points of etiquette, not to mention the lingo — is on par with learning Mandarin. And let’s be honest, going to a game isn’t necessarily cheap. All those things add up to a level of discontent that I can empathize with. Because frankly, I feel the exact same way about soccer.

I don’t have anything against soccer. I just don’t like it. I’ve given it a try and it’s not my cup of tea. When I was eight years old, I played organized soccer for the first time. I didn’t like the aimless running (there’s a lot of that as a kid), the rain, the mud, or taking balls off my face (feel free to have fun with that last item at my expense). Were it not for the mid-game orange slices and post-game snacks, I might have staged a sit-in halfway through the season. Soccer was that bad.

As I got older, my disinterest in soccer only grew. I had no desire to watch games or so much as kick a ball around with buddies. To me, soccer was the mushrooms on your plate as a kid or the math problems you had to do for homework. I acknowledged it existed and that’s where our affinity for one another came to its abrupt end.

Now here we are a generation later and soccer is the coolest thing going. Whodathunkit, right? I’m 28 years old, and chances are if you’re around my age, no matter whether you’re a soccer fan or not, you could not have seen this coming when we were kids. This is new, uncharted territory. We’re on the cusp of a soccer revolution that a decade ago would have been scoffed at. Sure, the world enjoyed fútbol, but not us, not Americans. We were the holdouts. Until this city, my city, Seattle, decided to become the soccer capital of the United States.

There are times I actually feel bad that I can’t bring myself to like the “beautiful game.” I tried assimilating to the sport as an adult by attending a match, but no luck. I was bored. Nothing had changed since my youth. And now, as we sit here today, I’ve simply come to accept that soccer and I will continue to exist not as friends or enemies, but two entities forced to share space with one another.

In spite of all that, it’s impossible to ignore the impact that soccer is having on Seattle right now. Between Sounders matches and World Cup Qualifiers, the nation’s soccer spotlight is pointed squarely upon the Emerald City. We don’t just embody American soccer; we are American soccer. It’s intriguing, even to a curmudgeon like myself.

With a competing sport as my first love, however, the overwhelming support for soccer in this town has cast a shadow on my baseball fandom. More than anything, I wish our baseball team gave us reason to cheer the way our soccer team does. We all know they used to do that. Once upon time, the Mariners were our main attraction. And we were just as inspired by them as we currently are by the Sounders.

Winning cures all ills, and since their inception in 2009, the Sounders have been winners. Contrast that to the Mariners, who have emerged as perennial losers for more than a decade now. Make no mistake about it, each of these teams has earned their respective standing amongst the city’s sports fans.

As the crowd at CenturyLink Field has grown, the numbers at Safeco Field have dwindled. Some would argue that each team carries its own unique fan base, completely segregated from that of its next-door neighbor. But come on. We all know that isn’t true. Seattleites are notorious bandwagoners, determined to ride the wave of success before disembarking at the first sign of trouble. Sports fans in the Pacific Northwest (with the possible exception of Seahawks fans, who are crazy — in a good way) are malleable, impressionable fad embracers that view games as social gatherings and often little else. They are young professionals who strive to fit in, who gravitate towards counter-culture movements because counter-culture is what’s in, you see, and occasionally requires skinny jeans and faux eyewear to really pull off. Never mind the fact that the most counter-culture are those like my friend Bob Condotta, he of the hooded-sweatshirt-at-the-club look, who don’t give a damn what others think and are awesome because of that. No, the Seattle sports fan is a heavily influenced breed that would like you to believe they aren’t influenced at all. But they are, very much so, and that’s where soccer, at the expense of baseball, has come to gather its following.

The Mariners and their seemingly oblivious front office are probably just starting to realize that fans aren’t being swayed by gimmicks or guys who used to be good a few years back when they were, you know, playing against us. Fans, especially Seattle fans, are swayed by a winner. Soccer is evidence of that. As the losses have piled up on the diamond, fans have looked elsewhere for their sporty get-togethers with friends. Sandwiched between early and late happy hour, the people have flocked to the pitch — the Sounders, along with their increasingly rabid crowd, have blossomed.

My wish, as I alluded to earlier, is for our baseball team to infuse this city with a similar passion to that of our soccer team. It’s not asking a lot, and it doesn’t take anything more than victories. So above all else, just win, Mariners. Because as simple and as stupid as it sounds, if you win, this city’s fans will return.

21 thoughts on “The Mariners’ Soccer Problem”

  1. Definitely interesting. I can certainly understand not favoring a sport like you say, and I appreciate more than anything else your attitude towards the Sounders and soccer in Seattle. It seems like you still see it as a positive for the city (which is obviously is) and are happy that it thrives here. People taking the opposite stance and needlessly bashing are obnoxious, so thank you for not.

    But anyway, it’s also intriguing to me that the only real positive I can see of Mariners fandom right now, other than maybe our passion for reliving 1995 and 2001, is the King’s Court. And what does that most emulate? Soccer crowds–and sure maybe Greek basketball and Japanese baseball. I have to illegitimately watch a lot of my Mariners games out here in Chicago, and unfortunately that leads to listening to opposing commentators a lot of the time. Oh, they still mention the fish at the market and the space needle and the scenery, but they also usually mention other events — which a lot of the time include the fanaticism surrounding the Sounders. Sure, some of that is front office driven, but most is just front office aided, which is pretty different. Still, when they DO talk about the Mariners and their fans, it invariably is about the King’s Court – how it’s something different, could be fun to do for a ballgame etc.

    I think having an engaging fan atmosphere is also something that will bring more people out to Safeco – but not at the expense of the Sounders crowd, which I think you left a little implicit in your post. It’s no secret that Husky stadium struggles to get filled these days too (this year could be a stark difference as everyone wants a piece of the new stadium, couldn’t be more excited for that), and on at least one occasion the Sounders actually outdrew the Huskies on the same day a year or two back. I guess my point is, with so much overlap in fans (and there really is, when both teams play you see plenty of jerseys at both stadiums), there’s room for everyone to be successful. I don’t think a 90 win season and a playoff berth for the M’s will bring even a decent-to-mediocre Sounders crowds below 20,000 for instance.

    Regardless, good post! I wouldn’t forget about the Mariners’ basketball problem either. Plenty of people might be wooed by winning, but there are those that have sworn off the current ownership group specifically because of their attitude towards the new arena.

  2. Good points, Tom. I think in general, both the Mariners and the Sounders have their own factions of fans who are loyal and dedicated to these teams through thick and thin. Those factions will show up to the park no matter the circumstances. Thing is, those two diehard factions aren’t big enough to sell out a stadium — evidence being the Mariners diehards who show up maybe 10,000 strong now (if that) for your average midweek game. Luckily for the Sounders, they’ve never really had to endure miniscule crowds full of just the diehards since they’ve enjoyed success from the time of their inception.

    The bulk of either venue is really filled out by “swing” fans, like swing voters in a sense, who are casual observers with disposable income they want to spend on a game, any game. Unlike football, in which a stadium is often filled to capacity thanks to season-ticket holders, baseball and soccer (and also basketball, to acknowledge your comment) are relying more heavily on single-game ticket purchases. Because of that, the team is almost working on commission with its fans — if they don’t perform on a daily basis, who really knows what the crowd will look like the next time out.

    Even though there is some lag time between decaying performance and fan attrition (it took the Mariners how many years to see their crowds dwindle?), we all know that casual fans are most likely to disappear first and look elsewhere for social outlets. That’s the crux of my argument, laid out much more vaguely above.

    These “swing” fans have bounced from one side of Royal Brougham to the other, taking their money and fanaticism to Sounders games rather than M’s games. The diehards remain, of course, but on any given night there are 30,000 people missing from Safeco Field. Those 30,000 people didn’t just disappear, and they likely won’t shut themselves away in their homes until the Mariners get good again. They still go out and have fun, and when they do, I’d wager a large number of them are at least considering going to Sounders games. Think about it, the venue is nearby, the fan experience is similar to when the M’s were at their peak, you can still drink outside, the food and beverages cost the same…and at the end of the night, everyone’s gonna be in a good mood because we actually saw a win, which isn’t nearly as likely to happen at The Safe.

    If and when the Mariners return to relevance, and assuming the Sounders stay relevant simultaneously, I’m fairly certain that fans could support both teams and in turn sell out both venues. There’s a lot of disposable income in this area, and a number of people willing to spend on both clubs, assuming they each win.

    But for the time being, at least, casual fans would rather save their money or reallocate what was once Mariners-dedicated cash to the Sounders. Can’t blame em.

  3. If the Mariners start to win again, and that’s a big if, I still don’t think they could sell out a game at the same time as the Sounders, even if we’re talking about during the same season, not just the same day. You’re right there’s a lot of disposable income in this area, but there’s not that much. Going to games costs about $100 now and that adds up real quick.

    The biggest issue I see baseball having in Seattle is that there are too many games. The Seahawks and Huskies play 8ish games a year in Seattle. The Sounders play something like 20. The Mariners play 81. That’s just too many. Unless you have a Griffey-style superstar or are winning 100+ games every year, the Safe won’t sell out consistently. I’m sorry, but we don’t live in that kind of city. What Seattle is in 2013 is not what it was in 1995 or even 2001. We’ve changed, we’re more passive now, and people are choosing to do other things with their money. Which, again, is why I think the sports with fewer home games have the best chance to succeed in the long run. High demand, low volume. It’s a good strategy.

  4. I grew up a HUGE baseball fan – 10-15 games a year in person, bring a transistor radio to the beach, etc. I kept that same pattern when I first moved to Seattle, but now I’ve virtually stopped following baseball (and yes, I’ve switched to Sounders). But the issue for me is not bandwagonism, which I think plays a part. It’s that Mariners’ management actively makes going to games an unpleasant experience, while the Sounders’ management does everything it can to improve fan experience.

    Think back to the extra inning game the M’s played recently – even though there were perhaps 3000 people in the stadium by the 15th inning and hordes of empty seats behind home plate, ushers were actively removing people from those seats. Find me another management in the country that would do that – they should have been thrilled that these fans stuck it out – they should have rewarded them for their loyalty with free tickets to another game (heck it’s not like they sell out!). But no, M’s management decided that no one shall have any extra privileges – I’m surprised they didn’t try to charge people double for getting two games worth of baseball.

    Contrast that to the Sounders, who start each game with fireworks, who work with fan groups to allow them to sit in certain sections with megaphones and flags, who allow those fans to police themselves, who have an ongoing dialogue with their season ticket holders where they actually listen. Heck, even the recent World Cup Qualifier came in part as a result of the supporters telling management that they wanted a qualifier, and so changing management’s view on being willing to make the concessions needed to get one.

    Yes, my sports entertainment dollars are limited, and I’m not about to put $ in the Mariners’ pocket (and extra money for a weekend game) when they behave as if they are doing me a favor by allowing me to come to a game. A large part of the issue is not just soccer vs baseball, it’s wildly different management. And that management is felt both off the field and on.

  5. I think success is an indicator for the front pffice’s abilities, which is the real reason for the disparity. The mariners ownership and front office have not just lost, they’ve lost badly and in predictable ways. The sounders have shown ambition and interacted well with fans. Also, about season tickets: the sounders have ~30000 season ticket holders, so other than when the whole stadium is opened up, I’m not sure the fans knocking around the stadium on a lark argument holds water

  6. It always makes me laugh when fans of baseball (or whatever else) try to portray the Sounders fan base as a bunch of bandwagon fans who only like them because they’re winning. Is it really so hard to believe that there are just that many people who genuinely like soccer? That there have been thousands of us waiting for the day when Seattle had a legitimate top-level pro soccer team again? Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t expect any different from someone who doesn’t understand the difference between “capitol” and “capital”.

  7. There’s something to be said for following a team that gives its fans a competitive product and doesn’t price gouge the shit of them. The Mariners seem to be trying every avenue to alienate their fan base. Some guy put a picture of the view from this $3 (!!) box seat at a Miami Marlins game two days ago, and because of that I watched the USMNT instead of paying $19 to go watch Harang pitch (who did really well, surprisingly). All that being said, I’m sick as shit of people drawing this imaginary line between fans of different sports. Can’t a guy just be a sports fan? I like hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball, and football. I like watching tennis and golf, F1 racing, hell, I even like a bunch of the Olympic sports that no one cares about. I’ve been known to get to sleep late because I got caught up in team handball highlight vids on youtube.

    Also, just out of curiosity, is this AlexSSN bro from Portland?

  8. A little context for my comment: I’ve been a Mariner fan since my family moved to western Washington in 1979, a NASL Sounder fan, a Seahawks fan since Jim Zorn and Dave Kreig were throwing TD passes to Largent et al, a Sonics fan since they won the Championship (moved to Washington a couple months after) played basketball, baseball and soccer through elementary and junior high school, and continue to be a fan all of those sports (except haven’t watched NBA since they left Seattle). I was going to Mariners games since the U.S.S. Mariner (not the blog) was firing cannon shots from center field to celebrate home runs. After college, I had season tickets in left field in the Kingdome. I just can’t agree that the Mariners were ever the “main attraction” in Seattle, besides a couple decent years and playoff runs. Sure, the Mariners drew decent crowds from time to time, but even then the enthusiasm of fans never matched that of the fans of the Seahawks, or maybe even the Huskies football team for that matter. The fanaticism of Sounders fans can realistically only be compared to Seahawks fans.

    I would also argue that Seattle (greater Seattle area) has always been the Soccer capitol of the U.S. When I was a kid, EVERYONE played soccer – kids who didn’t play any other sport played soccer, whether they were good or not. We’d go to Sounders games as a team and watch the pros do what we could only dream of. What kid doesn’t enjoy running around in the rain and mud (besides you)? I don’t live in Seattle anymore, unfortunately, but I would hazard to guess that even more kids play soccer there now than ever. What I’m getting at is there is a deep, entrenched soccer culture in Seattle that goes far beyond your level of awareness, that started long before you were born. So it makes perfect sense that Seattle has become Soccer City USA, even to your disappointment.

  9. my only gripe with this piece is the fact that you think that because people dont support the Mariners they are bandwagon fans? I am not against supporting the Mariners because they are losing. I am against paying to go see an organization that has no interest in getting better themselves. A decade is a long time to be this bad. The front office and upper management has run this organization into the ground, kept it utterly void of any talent (either through the draft or free agency, besides the King of course) and increased ticket prices. I dont see how that is a business model in any city for success. I will still watch the Mariners from home and catch an occasional game in the cheap seats but I am not going to go every night and support a product that does not deserve to be supported and by going to those games and going to those games every night you justify them continuing to run this team as a perennial bottom dweller. And that doesn’t even mention the whole Sonics arena fiasco where the Mariners opposed the arena to reduce their competition based purely on the fact that it would hurt their already paltry attendance numbers.

  10. My issue with the Mariner’s and their management is due to their priorities, winning can’t be considered to be near the top. This city wants to support them, but have been burned too many times without seeing progress or true attempts to win. Conversely the Sounders have embraced winning every competition available to them, some may argue even at the expense of their MLS performance.

    Our majority owner has never once been to the state of the art stadium we built with taxpayer funds, all the while Howard and Chuck have managed the payroll and box office receipts such that they turned a profit even with a $100 million + payroll and a 101 loss season. I really wish our upper management put a world class product on the world class field we the taxpayers built. Every decision is made to increase the bottom line first, make people nostalgic for 1995 and 2001 second, and a distant third is producing a compelling product on the field.

    I understand baseball is a business and teams need to be run as such, but why is there capital to bring in the fences and build a new video screen but not to increase the salary budget. An uncapped league is like a poker table, the size of your chip stack (salary) is just about as important to the final results as your luck. The Mariner’s have spent some historically, but when you exclude Ichiro’s salary (It was claimed his salary paid for itself with Japanese TV rights when he signed his obscene $90 million contract), we have never spent enough to have 2 star or near star level players at the same time.

    If the Mariner’s truly want more fans to be excited to come to the ballpark they would occasionally sign players the casual fan would recognize. I understand we had a comparable offer (though less guaranteed years) for Josh Hamilton, and we were only off by ~30 million for Prince Fielder, but I am sick and fed up with this we made a fair offer, others just put forth insane offers nonsense. If the market for player salaries is changing due to increased TV money, we need to ante up or give up on having a competitive team.

    I am hopeful that our young core we have brought up will be successful, but then again they are less heralded than the trio of Smoak, Ackley and Montero were before them (all top 10 in BA’s prospectus at one time or another) and we all saw how that turned out. Perhaps things could have gone better if the rookies hadn’t been relied upon to provide the whole offense, but that again would have required spending on salaries or investing in players long-term which we seem to be allergic to.

    I grew up in the area, I still remember watching the 1995 playoffs during school and being excited in 2001, but have come to write off attending a game at Safeco due to management priorities. I feel I get much more bang for my sporting dollar at Sounder’s games.

  11. One observation I have about attendance numbers as far as Sounders matches go, is that they do not have much of a reliance on gameday, walk-up ticket sales. I do not know what the exact season ticket sales numbers are (of which I have been one of those sales for years now) but it is well in excess of 30,000, probably getting close to 35K with the opening of the Hawks’ Nest last season. With the exception of King’s Court days, I’ve never had to worry about getting a good seat at the ticket window a couple hours before first pitch at Safeco. Yes, there is some overlap of fans, but probably the majority of the Sounders season ticket holders are soccer fans first and have always been and al of the Seattle clubs have been pretty good at avoiding overlapping games, except the glaring exception last fall when the Clink had gridiron lines and Seahawk logos on the field for a Sounders MLS playoff match.

  12. So to add to what I mentioned above, I do not at all feel that the “missing” 30,000 fans from Safeco are not across the street, the few who are fans of both the M’s and the Sounders are still in Safeco with the rest of the die-hards, because they are also die-hards, and we are a small number indeed. The vast majority of the 38,000+ that attend each Sounder match are soccer fans only and have never been fans of the Mariners. Your “missing” 30,000 fans are watching the Mariners at home or at a bar drinking away their sorrows.

  13. Show me a baseball team that fails to make the playoffs for a decade, and I’ll show you a baseball team that struggles with attendance.

  14. I’ve been a soccer player and fan since just after birth. Yes, I played baseball with friends, but I never loved it and don’t go to many games. Would I spend the $ for a Mariners game? Only for Mother’s day. Would I spend the $$$$$ on the Seahawks? No. Do I have Sounders season tickets? HELL YES!!! I like sports in general, but soccer has been and always will be my sport. I’m not one of those bandwagon fans either. Although it would be hard to have season tickets to a team that never gets to post season…

  15. I can’t criticize not liking a sport. I’m that way with tennis and (to a lesser extent) basketball. I likeboth baseball and soccer; played both as a kid, neither very well.

    I’m both a Sounders and a Mariners fan, and have been since their inceptions. (I missed Opening Night in 1976 because I worked nights then, but I got to a game later that month.) I get to a couple of games a year for each, year in, year out. That’s about all I can afford.

    Right now, Sounders management __cares__. They show up to Occidental Park before the matches. They put a quality team up there. The team wins. The whole atmosphere is great.

    Mariners front office … not so much. Ten years of abject suckitude takes its toll. Now, there’s a long way the franchise can fall still. In my stuff in the basement I have scorecards of games I saw in the Kingdome in the 1980s where the attendance was in three digits. It can happen again. I sure hope it doesn’t, but if the M’s ownership were trying for that … well, I’m not sure what they’d be doing differently from what’s gone on this last decade.

    And that’s the most depressing part of it, really.

  16. One nice thing that the Sounders are unique in the MLS for is that the management (specifically general manager Adrian Hanauer and loosely by extension Sigi) is held accountable to the fans. Every four years, the season ticket holders vote whether Adrian keeps his job. Perhaps the Mariners should follow a similar template, but unfortunately, it requires an ownership that cares as much as the fans.

  17. (Longtime lurker, 1st time commenter.)

    Fine post, but I felt it missed 2 key points about the Sounders’ success:

    1) Even BEFORE the winning started, Sounders management tried very hard to make the Sounders seem cool. The marketing hype (e.g. scarves on light poles) was masterful, and a sign that management “got it.”

    2) To your point about bandwagoners: The Sounders benefited immensely from the ENTIRE Seattle sports scene at that time, not just the M’s. Think back to the spring of 2009:
    -The Sonics had just moved.
    -The Seahawks had just gone 4-12, and were about to start the Mora experiment.
    -The M’s had just won 60 games, and were about to start the Wak experiment.
    -UW and WSU football had just won a combined 2 games.

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