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Apr 8, 2008

Seattle takes the lead in sports democracy

SEATTLE -- Since its inception, the expansion MLS team in Seattle has pledged to take the lead in sports democracy.

Earlier this week, on Monday afternoon, those involved with the new team got a taste of one of the essential tenets of democracy -- compromise.

After a naming process majority owner Joe Roth called a "comedy of comedies," the franchise and fans finally settled on a name both could live with: Seattle Sounders FC.

"The team playing at the highest level in our region has always been called Sounders," said general manager Adrian Hanauer. "Starting with the NASL and then the USL First Division, we now have the chance to create a separate and distinct identity with the new MLS team."

However, if a small group of fans hadn't rallied around the Sounders name in the past week, it certainly would have been something different.

Initially, at the urging of the commissioner's office, the ownership group planned to distance itself from the Sounders name in favor of a more accessible moniker. Among other reasons, it was feared the history and tradition inherent in the Sounders moniker would be lost in translation in Asia, where MLS hopes to raise its profile. The owners agreed and three team names were put forward for the fans to vote on, with "Sounders" the obvious omission.

Soon after that announcement, the club realized they may have alienated their core group of supporters in the process. A small group of vocal soccer fans mobilized to challenge the ownership group's stated commitment to democracy, demanding the opportunity to vote for the Sounders name.

At Sounders preseason games, small but hardy groups of fans chanted "Write In Sounders." MySpace pages lobbying to keep the Sounders name sprung up out of the ether. The influential local blog GoalSeattle reacted venomously to a briefly-posted item on the club's website telling fans to "Get over it. And vote." According to one voter, it was that final item that galvanized fans against the three given options, Seattle FC, Seattle Alliance, and Seattle Republic.

"I think the fans wanted to feel united, and once [GoalSeattle] did that, everyone else felt that it was okay to unite behind the cause," said Paul Conte, who gathered with a small group of supporters to watch the announcement via laptop in Seattle Center. "Part of the fun was watching all this disorganized chaos coalesce into a united front. Everyone was pretty much working independently ... it brought everyone out of the woodwork."

The groundswell got the attention of Roth, who was in Paris at the time.

"I was embarrassed ... I remember getting on a phone call at four o'clock in the morning and saying I'm more interested in seeing democracy in sports than I am in the specific derivation of a name," Roth said. "What's more important to me is that we start off by giving the fans a chance to vote."

Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at andrewwinner@gmail.com.

"You can't tell quantitatively from these web sites what is really going on. For me, it was just about stirring up fan interest no matter how we get there."

In the end, the club met the fans halfway, adding a write-in option for fans who wanted to choose a different name. Voters took advantage. Nearly 50 percent of the votes cast were write-ins and a vast majority of those had some form of the Sounders name.

The result? Seattle Sounders FC, a conglomeration of "Sounders" and "Seattle FC", a compromise somewhat reminiscent of baseball's Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. According to Roth, it is a solution that should appease the most passionate fans of the new club.

"If the fans speak and this is what they want -- great. That's our base and we'll go from there," said Roth. "Those who haven't bought tickets yet, I'm not sure whatever we call it will make them buy tickets or make them stay away."

While, perhaps inevitably, fans are unhappy with various elements of the new name, brand, and colors, they do appreciate the ability to have their voices heard. Especially since Seattle's other sports-related grassroots campaign -- the one to prevent the NBA's Supersonics from relocating to Oklahoma City -- appears to be destined for failure.

"Not everyone is a sports fan, but our sports teams are still iconic institutions," Conte said. "With the Sonics leaving, to have the Sounders "return" is going to fill a lot of people's hearts with joy."

Notes:

The ownership group unveiled several other pieces of news, including a new approach to seating season-ticket holders.

"When we start seating these tickets ... you're going to see something different you've never seen in sports," said Roth. "It's going to work in Facebook-like way, where you can find out who is sitting in which section and who their favorites teams are and things like that. We can actually seat the stadium with some intelligence. We're going to try to do things a little bit different."

Roth also proposed a weekly NFL Films-inspired program on the team.

Hanauer, who has already made trips to Asia and Europe, will depart this Thursday with technical director Chris Henderson to scout for players in Argentina and Uruguay, with a trip to Nigeria and Ghana following closely.