By Art Thiel and Joe Copeland
Art, I’m a very casual Seattle Sounders fan, so I had a bit of interest some weeks back when the Sounders said they’d be making a major announcement. Maybe they were making some big player moves before going to Morocco for their biggest ever appearance on a world stage? But, no, it was about a sponsorship whose name would appear on their kit.
I thought that sounded boring, which shows how little I know. It turned out that, in exchange for making “Providence” the most visible logo on their jersey fronts, the team will rake in an undisclosed amount of cash from Providence health system. Awkwardly, those are the folks who cite their Catholic ownership to limit abortions and gender-affirming surgery and lately have become a New York Times poster child for how little charitable care hospitals provide for the needy, even sometimes sending collection agencies after people who are legally entitled to free care.
And state Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing more than a dozen Providence-affiliated hospitals and two bill-collection agencies over their treatment of the poor.
Soon after the announcement, Seattle Times beat reporter Jayda Evans wrote that many season ticket holders are furious about the Prov hookup and all those issues. What were the Sounders thinking – or not thinking? And since when did sports teams’ season ticket holders start thinking like card-carrying members of the liberal media cabal?
The Sounders’ sponsorship announcement was about the one big thing in pro sports that matters, Joe — money. By various measures, the club has been at or near the top of the MLS table since they began in 2009. But newer teams in Los Angeles and Atlanta have arrived with big fan bases, big sponsorships, and competitive successes. If the reports are true that the Providence deal is worth nearly $100 million over 10 years, that’s a big score at the MLS level.
The Sounders appear to be on a bit of a slide. Not only did they miss the MLS playoffs for the first time in club history last season; the club isn’t in the top seven of franchise valuations, according to Forbes. Its annual listing (an estimate, not a document study) has the franchise at No. 8, valued at $660 million, far back of No. 1-ranked LAFC’s $1.16 billion – the first billion-dollar MLS club in Forbes rankings – and just ahead of Portland at $650 million. The Sounders and Timbers each were listed with operating income for the year of $1 million. That isn’t much on revenue of $66 million, although it’s better than 20 other MLS teams operating in the red.
I imagine majority owner Adrian Hanauer feels the urgency to keep up, even if it means partnering with the health-care opportunist gobbling up struggling hospitals around the state, according to the Seattle Times. The Legislature is looking into whether the Catholic Church-owned Goliath — with its anti-abortion stance and dubious practices of billing the indigent that may violate a state mandate — is trying to create a theocratic health-care system in Washington.
To the question of supporters’ dismay over a move contrary to the club’s formerly prized progressive ethos, I’m almost certain Hanauer won’t blink and rescind the deal. Sincere fans can always vote with their wallets, but case history in pro sports suggests that ideological purity with sponsorships is down the list of fan priorities.
Art, You’re bursting my little fantasy that some modest fan pressure — slower ticket sales, a few season ticket cancellations, poor sales of the new jerseys for the fans — would cause the Sounders and Providence to step up their efforts on several fronts. (And not to demean the good both groups already do.)
But you’d think the Sounders would want to keep up their momentum on healthy political involvement, the way we see from so much of the NBA and the WNBA and some of the other sports franchises like the OL Reign and so much of the NBA and WBNA. The women’s league seems to have played a real role in getting Brittney Griner out of Putin’s Russia. It seems like there’s a lot of positive activity around sports. How much of a trend is that in the big picture, though?
I’ve always had a professional side hustle of bubble-bursting, Joe. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t hear from the Department of Defense this week for an assist with China.
Sounders management received deserved credit when it supported fans who carried anti-racism, anti-fascism banners into stadiums, even though FIFA/MLS have policies banning political statements. But rejecting a premium sponsor whose Catholic intolerances run counter to the sentiments of many (most?) supporters that would mean walking away from relatively big money? Not happening.
Far from positive activity, the Sounders have introduced local meaning to a global term — sportswashing. That’s the practice of allowing entities with unsavory reputations to polish images via sports-event sponsorships. Examples: FIFA allowing the ruthless petrostate of Qatar to host soccer’s World Cup, the International Olympic Committee allowing China and Russia to host three of the past eight Olympics, and the LIV Golf series, which takes blood money from the journalist-butchering Saudis to seduce premier pro golfers away from the well-established PGA Tour.
I’m certain that Providence hates seeing its brand linked to petrostates and autocracies, but that’s what happens after jumping into the deep end of the sports-business ocean. Directing mega-profits toward marketing instead of the Christian and state obligations to the poor means you’re qualified to crew on Cap’n Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl.
You want attention, Providence? You got it.