There is perhaps no more successful franchise launch in the last decade in North America than the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer. In their first four years, Seattle has set attendance records, established a new level of fan engagement and not to be forgotten, made the playoffs in each of its season, a great balance of success on and off the field.
One of Seattle’s key executives from when the franchise was established though today is Gary Wright, who was brought on to oversee the birth of the franchise from the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL. Wright oversees all business operations for Sounders FC including ticket sales, corporate partnerships, community outreach, charities, fan experience, communications and marketing of the team. In his first year, Wright helped spearhead one of the most successful launches of a franchise, as Sounders FC set a MLS season record for attendance with an average of 30,897, and received the Doug Hamilton MLS Executive of the Year award. In the club’s second year, the team averaged 36,173 and earned the Sports Business Journal award for Professional Franchise of the Year. Prior to joining Sounders FC, Wright retired from the Seattle Seahawks after serving the franchise for 33 years, including the final 21 as a vice president. Wright originally joined the Seahawks in 1976 as director of publicity. He was named public relations director in 1982 and added the title of vice president in 1987. He was chosen by Hall of Famer Steve Largent to be his presenter at Largent’s July 1995 induction ceremonies. Wright assisted the National Football League’s media relations staff at 23 Super Bowls.
With the MLS season now on the horizon, we caught up with Wright to talk about what has made the Sounders so successful, and what’s next for one of sports’ premier clubs.
Q: Big Lead Sports: The Sounders in just four years, have really become the model for any start up franchise in North America. When you came from the Seahawks did you envision such grand success in such a period of time?
“I always envisioned success, I really did. I knew we would be successful from the beginning. The size of the crowds might have been a puzzled surprise early. I knew we would get to those kinds of numbers eventually. Even where we’re at right now doesn’t surprise me. I would say of all the things, the only thing that really surprised me is the amount of merchandise we have sold. Being able to walk around town and see people wearing Sounders gear all the time is phenomenal.”
Q: Big Lead Sports: What will be the barometers to continue that success this year? Any new programs?
“I think the program for success is having good ownership that provides the resources to be able to accomplish the things that have to be accomplished. Doing everything in a first-class manner and having the best staff, which we do. Then, you have to have a good product, and we have that. I think everything just kind of adds up to another good season.”
Q: Big Lead Sports: You have seen new franchise flourish both north and south of Seattle now? How have those renewed rivalries with the Timbers and Whitecaps helped grow your brand?
“I think it helps grow the entire league’s brand. It adds credibility every time a new franchise comes in and we see the success they’ve had. We look to Montreal to have that kind of success, also. Certainly, the rivalry helps. I think it’s absolutely tremendous that we have a rivalry that spans up our one major freeway. It goes from Portland through Seattle, all the way up to Vancouver. The I-5 rivalry is alive.”
Q: Big Lead Sports: Your ownership team has strong connections to Hollywood and the tech community. How have you been able to leverage those relationships best during your time with the club?
“The kind of ownership we have—we have some experts in some great fields. One, the entertainment industry, is putting people in seats and understanding what it takes. You have to promote and you have to be out front. You can’t just sit back and let things happen. Joe Roth’s experience in those areas is a tremendous benefit to us. Adrian Hannauer is extremely tech-savvy, and we want to be technologically one of the best, and of course when you add Paul Allen in there, who’s a co-founder of Microsoft, you see that they all add up.”
Q: Big Lead Sports: Will there be a time in the near future when your passionate fans will be more consumed with the MLS title than the game experience, and how do you balance those passions from a brand standpoint?
“I think that’s natural. I think you always want to have great success on the field and fans want that. They enjoy this team, they love this team. Around the world, people are always going to love their club, their club is always going to be special, but they do want their team to be successful on the field.”
“I think you have to manage those expectations internally, and we set our sights high. We want to be the very best. We don’t want to say that we just want to compete or that we want to be in the middle of the pack. We don’t expect that out of ourselves and our fans don’t expect that of us. We want to be the best that we can be. Each season may be a little different, but we’re going to be there. We’re going full-blast every year.”
Q: Big Lead Sports: What brand partner has done the best job of execution with the club, and what was it?
“Having Microsoft on our jerseys with XBOX is very, very important. They have so many employees that are soccer fans to begin with all over the world, so that kind of recognition certainly helps us. When our games are televised, and they are televised in other parts of the world, those employees take great pride in seeing their brand on our shirts. We also take great pride in XBOX—the product we sell around the country and around the world.”
Q: Big Lead Sports: How is the relationship with the Seahawks and the Mariners? Do you share best practices? Any thoughts on Seattle getting its NBA team back?
“First of all, the Seahawks and the Sounders are one organization. Everyone who works on the business side of the Seahawks also works on the business side of the Sounders, and vice versa. We not only share business practices, but we share personnel. I think that’s one of the keys to our success. Of course, in town we have a good relationship with the Mariners. We do speak with them regularly. As far as a NBA team, anything that helps this community we’re all for.”