When the Seattle Sounders announced their newest and most important sponsor during an event at Renton High School about two weeks ago, there was excitement. Players tossed jerseys into the stands, high school students participated in a grade-by-grade competition to see who could do the best “boom-boom-clap,” and there was plenty of talk about how Providence’s sponsorship is more than a lot. put his name on the front of the singer’s shirt.
The biggest part of that “much more” was a youth mental health program that will be made available to Renton High School students in partnership with Providence.
When Sounders officials began checking social media and reading emails, however, it quickly became clear that the announcement had not been received as hoped. Inboxes and timelines were filled with negative reactions and concerns, with accusations that Sounders had abandoned its core principles by partnering with a health care organization with a history of limiting reproductive choice, accused of discriminating against LGTBQ patients, and now is judged by the case. Washington’s attorney general for detaining low-income patients for care they were entitled to receive for free.
The volume and intensity of fan reaction was significant enough that the Sounders called an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss a plan of action. Almost immediately, the Sounders met with Emerald City Supporters, Gorilla FC and the Alliance Council to try to calm concerns.
It was the same way that the Sounders reached out to us with the intention of reaching out to our fans. I met with Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer Taylor Graham and COO Maya Mendoza-Exstrom at Longacres on Monday to discuss some of the concerns we received. You can listen to the entire hour-long conversation here, but I also wanted to share some of my key takeaways:
Perhaps the biggest takeaway I took from our interviews was that the issue was about messaging in general. At one point, it was openly suggested that the team was ready to answer some of these questions about the wrong core values in print, but no one asked. While there may be some truth to that sentiment – and I had planned to attend and ask those questions if it weren’t for two sick kids at home – I think it’s a bit naive and perhaps disingenuous to suggest that all of this could be avoided if only they were asked the right questions in the retreat.
Let’s be clear: the problem isn’t just that they didn’t say out loud that their core values wouldn’t change. That’s why partnering with an organization like Providence requires more than renewing those values. Some viewers, maybe even the majority, are likely to be amused. For others, though, I think there is a significant loss of confidence. Maybe future acts can bring those fans back, but it will take a real concerted effort that goes beyond hosting pride events or putting out announcements on Twitter.
If there was one positive takeaway, it’s that Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom were adamant that this partnership would not diminish the work the Sounders do in the community, and may actually enhance it. They insisted the Sounders focus on social issues, from “right to play” to reproductive choice. He even insisted that Providence “enables us to be the best versions of ourselves” when it comes to social issues.
At the same time, Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom noted that there are at least some employees who share a similar concern. However, they argued that just being able to have that kind of communication both internally and externally is part of what differentiates them from many sports organizations.
Anyone expecting the Sounders to avoid Providence by almost any means as a result of the rumble may be disappointed. At no point did Graham or Mendoza-Exstrom express any doubts or feelings of uneasiness with Providence. They also said they are not concerned that Providence might use the Sounders brand as a form of sports washing, in part because of how extensively they have worked with other sports teams.
“This is not the first time that Providence has invested in delivering its product and growing its business through sports,” Graham said when asked specifically about the sports sweep. “When we talked to our friends who partnered with Providence, the starting point was the whole community first. It goes back to the people and do you believe? From the individuals, we do. From the organization, we do. It’s through the work that are proud of the work they do with Providence in the LGTBQI field. They empower us to lead and be vocal in this field. I have no concerns about this. We are invested in this field and we intend to present yourself.”
One element the Sounders point to as a reason to be excited about this partnership is the youth mental health program they will help start in Renton schools. Providence has an existing program called “Work2BeWell” that will obviously support their access, but they are also waiting to hear from the Renton schools to get more details on what they need. Given that the details of how the program will be rolled out are still unknown, it’s hard to know exactly how to feel, but the Sounders are clearly optimistic about it and confident that LGBTQ youth will receive appropriate mental health care. Mendoza-Exstrom said “30-50” Renton students have already expressed some interest in using the service, something she took as a sign of how valuable it could be. There is broad agreement that many of these issues are all related and the Sounders intend this to be a holistic care brand.
There was no detailed discussion of how much Providence is paying the Sounders, but it has been reported that the deal will be worth close to $100 million over its 10-year life. That’s significantly more than what the club gets from previous shirt sponsors XBOX or Zulily. Graham acknowledged that the price tag was part of what made it attractive, but also stressed that they felt a lot could be done with that money and resources. Graham suggested the resources would be used to fund the Sounders’ various social justice initiatives as well as improving quality on the field.
The main theme of all of this is that words can only convey so much. It’s all well and good for the Sounders to say that their values don’t change, that they believe that a lot of good can come from this and that they believe that Providence will be a good partner. But they also agreed that this proof will be in the actions.
“We’re an action-oriented club,” Graham said. “We will be responsible for the actions in the past. Hopefully, this club’s track record and being able to deliver against it is something that can bring some confidence back into our fanbase at a time like this. Take a step back and understand that all the information is in front of us, we may not agree, but believe that the club is the club and we will be responsible at some point.”
A sentiment I have heard several times is that the Sounders seem to want to have their cake (being seen as a progressive club) and eat it too (money from an organization that is at least understood to be actively working against some of the club’s core values). . I’m not entirely sure that any of the things said in this interview will dissuade a skeptical audience from that notion. After all, the Sounders chose to champion social causes because they believed it was the right thing to do, but one consequence of that is that they put themselves in a position to be judged when they do things that seem to go against those values. No one has partnered with Providence and it will be up to them to square this circle.
At the end of the interview, I tried to ask them what kind of actions they think the club can take and what the fans can do to hold them accountable. I’m not sure many people will be re-assured by their answers, which are basically “be patient” and “complain to your ticket and Alliance Council representatives or serve on the Alliance Council yourself.”
In the meantime, I suspect that many fans will just vote with their wallets, either by choosing to do nothing with Providence on it or perhaps pay something more drastic.