The Sounders’ recent CONCACAF title highlights how the Seattle Freeze that permeates the Mariners front office
Last week, the Seattle Sounders defeated Pumas UNAM to become the first Major League Soccer team in history to win the CONCACAF Champions League. This is the feather in the cap of a sports franchise that has exemplified excellence since its incorporation into MLS as an expansion team in 2007. Little is known of the next Club World Cup, but in all likelihood the Sounders will become the first MLS team to compete in that tournament.
Like any Seattle Mariners fan, I watched enviously last week as the Sounders scored their third goal of the game and the stadium shook with the joyous cries of nearly 70,000 fans. I imagined what it would feel like to sit within that sea of happiness, our collective jubilation mingling in the air, cleansing decades of futility like sprigs of burning sage.
It’s trite and dull to try to compare a city’s professional sports teams’ performances on the field. Comparing the Seahawks and the Mariners records, for instance, is akin to comparing the nutritional value of fruit to Froot Loops. But what is worth examining is the relationship between respective fanbases and the sports organizations of which they are so devoted.
This is a Mariners blog. I don’t need to detail the decades of their ineptitude and mediocrity to you; we know their failures as well, if not better, than we know our own. I also needn’t note that MLS and MLB are two wildly different products. In the United States, soccer isn’t nearly the big moneymaker that baseball is and as such, the Sounders are far more beholden to their fans than the Mariners, who aren’t particularly incentivized toward appeasing their fanbase. That’s a fundamental differentiator – the balance of power between the fans and their respective organizations. After this off-season in particular, it has never been more apparent that the arbiters of baseball – including the owners of your favorite team – do not care about you. And not only that, but they do not need you.
Sure, they might scrawl “thank you” on the infield dirt in the final homestand of the season, and Scott Servais might compliment the fans after a particularly raucous night at the ever-dimming Electric Factory, but there’s no real substance to these gestures. This may come off a bit glib, but I mean it as a genuine question: When was the last time the Mariners organization did something that made you feel heard? Maybe you take some pride in the fact that they called up Julio Rodríguez after you spent weeks tweeting @Mariners that they should do so. Or perhaps you detested Louie Louie, and were one of the folks whom the marketing team polled about the seventh inning stretch. Personally, I felt a small spark of victory this off-season, when they announced that there would finally be a gluten free option for happy hour in the ‘Pen.
In the Sounders’ world, there is the Sounders FC Alliance. Formed at the request of minority owner Drew Carey, members – season ticket holders and others who wish to buy in – can, among other things, vote once every four years on “retention or lack of confidence in the Club’s General Manager.” “Let the fans be the one to pull the trigger. Let them feel like they have a say-so, which they don’t get with any other pro sports team,” Carey told the Seattle PI back in 2008.
Gonna add another point here from @bwarshaw14 that didn’t make it into the column: “Seattle also has a fan base that holds the players accountable in a great way — clear, but also respectful and safe. Nobody goes into Seattle and fucks off.”
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 4, 2022
It’s true, and it’s the sort of flagrant democracy that sends shivers down the backs of MLB’s senior leadership. This will never be a possibility with the Mariners – and if they tried something like it, the ordeal would likely be exorbitant and tone deaf, much like their ill-conceived rollout of a Ballpark Pass in 2019. But rather than embrace any sense of community, the Mariners have become more corporate than ever before. Perhaps this is simply the organization’s way of reflecting the city, with Seattle having undergone its own tech-induced gentrification transition in the last few decades?
The most recent example of the team’s fixation on targeting the deep pockets of Seattle’s elite was the announcement last month of the Press Club, which will take over the existing press box and which promises to be “a sports experience like none other, with a spectacular vantage point and unique indoor-outdoor design that redefines upscale viewing.” Between that addition and updates to and expansion of the Diamond Club, the renovation budget is reported to be $55 million.
“We are now focusing on overdue improvements to the premium guest experience,” Catie Griggs, newly-appointed Mariners President of Baseball Operations, stated in a press release. “By updating and expanding the Diamond Club and creating the new Press Club, we are responding to our fans’ requests, and we are meeting our lease obligation to ensure our premium offerings keep pace with what is available in the Seattle market and in professional sports in general.”
I am, admittedly, approximately 1/1000th of the type of person the Mariners are targeting with these renovations – at least when it comes to net worth – but I consider myself reasonably familiar with the demands of Mariners fans, and cannot ever remember hearing or reading about a prioritized desire for a more “premium offering” at T-Mobile.
Seattle itself is a vibrant city. T-Mobile Park perches along the Puget Sound and is flanked by mountain ranges in both directions, and with that setting it’s easy to pretend that the M’s reflect their metropolis. But lately the organization seems far more preoccupied with catering to Bellevue than Seattle, and the Mariners’ closest alignment with the city has been to embody the Seattle Freeze towards their fanbase: always polite and courteous, but kept at a healthy distance.
On Wednesday night, after Nicolas Lodeiro scored that final goal, I was struck by how he and a number of his teammates ran straight into the crowd of supporters cheering at that end. After the match, Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer addressed the fans from that same spot, lingering with them long after players and personnel had retreated from the pitch. It isn’t the first time Schmetzer, who has a uniquely strong connection to the club and its supporters, has engaged with fans directly. Last year he penned a letter to them, and shared it on our SB Nation sibling blog Sounder at Heart.
Do you remember Fanfest? Or the legendary commercials? Both of these were key components of building connections between the team and its fans, and both disappeared after 2019 (and yes, those initial decisions did precede the pandemic). At this point, the Mariners have simply stopped trying to market this baseball team. And, to their credit, why would they? If you want to see major league baseball anywhere in the Pacific Northwest or much of western Canada, your closest option is T-Mobile Park. They are, of course, continuing to push ticket sales, apparel, all the usual money-making ventures, but content surrounding the team itself has been almost wholly absent. (And no, the eternal ‘90s nostalgia marketing does not count.)
Even before Disgraced Former Team President Kevin Mather publicly revealed himself to be a foolish bigot, the Mariners ran one of the most leak-proof front offices in MLB and it’s only grown more true since Mather resigned in ignominy. Information is strictly controlled, players are noticeably more conservative on social media, and even media interviews have seemed more obviously tight-lipped. One might argue that Jerry Dipoto has continued to be his seemingly charismatic, outspoken self, but after nearly seven years of quotes that vary wildly on the truth scale, even the most water-carrying among us are now conditioned to greet his comments with a measure of distrust. Even his podcast, The Wheelhouse, has been sporadic, with just a single episode released since last October. From a PR standpoint, it’s an impressive lockdown, but for Mariners fans this has only fueled a simmering disconnect between the fanbase and the organization.
The Sounders and the Mariners couldn’t be more at-odds right now in terms of on-field success, but the recent spotlight on the Sounders has highlighted the subsequent disparities in the Mariners’ relationship with their fans. It’s easy to write all this while the M’s are in the midst of a seemingly-endless skid, but I can’t help but recognize how short my patience has become with their continually lackluster performances. A large part of it is, of course, the ever-growing years of disappointment, but part of that short fuse also stems from a lack of connection with the organization. I’m well aware that baseball does not owe me, a fan, anything, but the Mariners have not simply failed to reward decades of fan loyalty – they are actively keeping fans (and media) at arm’s length. And, in turn, this makes it all the more impossible for the fanbase to attempt to hold the organization accountable.