I've had many folks ask me how I feel about MLS soccer coming to Seattle in 2009. I smile, and say something polite like yea, it's good to see soccer come out to the Pacific Northwest in a rather sarcastic tone, and they wonder why I'm not happy about it. Granted, these folks don't really understand the relationship between Portland and Seattle.
I love the fact that MLS is expanding to the Northwest, as it's about time the league realized there are cities that have the means and ability to really support a soccer side well. But I'm saddened because they chose Seattle over us, because I know we could support the team better than they could any day of the week. I will admit that my bias as a Timbers Army supporter keeps me somewhat from seeing Seattle as anything more than our fierce rival to the north, but I've got friends that live up there and have had many fun trips to see the city. But after traveling up north for many years, and being treated like crap by the Seattle fans, security people, facility folks, I admit that even driving through the town gives me a cold chill down my spine.
I understand that's what rival cities are supposed to do to you, so I'm not surprised by my reaction there. I can even understand some of the rationale behind putting a team there, but what I fail to understand sometimes is why Portland didn't make a more aggressive run toward getting MLS here. It kills me to know that even though MLS will be there in 2009 under great fanfare and such, Portland could support it so much better.
Seattle got the MLS team simply because of having some millionaires step up and say that soccer was something they were interested in having there. The current ownership of their USL side knew it would take significant investment to make it happen, and so they went out and got money guys to do it. Need a face for the ownership, hey, let's recruit Drew Carey and have him be front and present. MLS says you need a soccer specific stadium or something that closely fits, hey Qwest Field isn't so bad and we can fix it up to make it feel more soccer like. And hey, the guy that owns it just happens to be another one of our money guys. The city and state governments simply needed to show up and provide lip support to this plan, simply because the pieces fell into place on their end, and MLS came calling.
MLS seriously looked at Portland, but let's face it, you have a stadium ready and guys with money ready to bankroll it up north, I don't blame MLS for one second to look up there. But they could have looked more at the potential support and future growth here, and said we want to take a chance with Portland, much like they did for Salt Lake City. But instead, the lure of easy money called them up north.
MLS Seattle may do fine the first year, and they might do OK for a few years due to the novelty of the sport and the fact that MLS does have a few calling cards (AKA Beckham) that will draw folks to want to watch. But the atmosphere will resemble an NBA or MLB game, with folks standing for free t-shirts and cheering only when prompted by the PA or the jumbotron. Corporate box holders will go for the social part of entertaining clients, and the atmosphere will be very generic, very corporate, very boring.
The marketing whizs will also try to market MLS Seattle as a regional franchise, and entice fans from Portland to brave the trip up north to take in a game. It works for MLB and NFL, because Portland doesn't have competing teams and the TV programmers make the assumption that most NW fans love Seattle, and all things up there. Some of us actually could care less about the Hawks and the Mariners, to be honest, and I prefer the environment here of fans in Portland who for the most part don't act as corporate and cheer more often rather than wait for the canned prompts and such.
If you've been to a Portland Timbers match, you know what the atmosphere is like here. But if not, I invite you to go to http://www.youtube.com/ and type Portland Timbers in the search box. You'll see 90 minutes of chanting, singing, streamers flying, jumping up and down, and energy and passion that you may not believe. That's probably the part about MLS going there that kills me, is that based on passion, we could show the MLS something. If you read our board, we get compliments worldwide from supporters who have seen our games or observed our videos that we understand how to support a side.
Part of my frustration may also be that based on the current environment in Portland, I don't expect MLS to be an easy sell here. Merritt Paulson owns the Timbers and Portland Beavers Triple A baseball team, but the city owns PGE Park, the facility that both teams share. To get an MLS stadium here, you would need to either build a new soccer only facility or build a baseball stadium and move the Beavers. The location of PGE just west of downtown Portland makes the game experience amazing, with many restaurants and pubs within walking distance. And with public transit just a block away, you can park anywhere and take it to the park.
But the city isn't wild about pitching in funds for a new sports facility, and wants both teams to honor the lease. And so far, Paulson is the only money man that has stepped up to express interest in MLS. MLS is saying it will take $30 million just in fees to be considered, and then you need to have a stadium deal ready to go. Based on costs for either soccer or baseball stadiums, that would involve another $20 to 30 million for that, so right now you'd need $60 million just to get the initial plans going. That doesn't cover costs of setting up the team, either.
If you listen to the mayor and other city officials, they all say that the city is dealing with other issues with paying for schools and jails, and sports are not a priority unless someone else pays for it. We are thinking of the future here. But just like investments in the future for schools and jails, building a stadium gives people the chance to see world class entertainment now and in the future, and gives them a venue to see other events as well. When I was single, I never complained about my tax money going to schools because I saw it as an investment in the future that I hoped I'd have. Stadiums can be the same thing if given the chance, but right now, the city of Portland can't even figure out the right way to honor Cesar Chavez without making people around town upset.
I'd like to be optimistic about MLS coming here, and even with everything I've outlined as challenges, I still consider this place ready to make the plunge. Anyone who has witnessed the Timbers or Trail Blazer games knows this city rallies around its teams and supports them like no other. I'm hopeful that someone with a huge wad of cash and a dream sees that, and realizes the bright future instead of dwelling on the hurdles..