BY Stanley Holmes 04:33PM 12/07/2010

Sounders owner Roth provokes supporters’ wrath

Club’s democracy experiment tested by a “Darth Vader”

Sounders fans are not happy about the limited number of tickets available for away fans during upcoming matches with Portland or Vancouver. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

Sounders FC majority owner Joe Roth is picking a peculiar and unnecessary fight over his resistance to boosting the number of away tickets to rival supporters in Vancouver and Portland when the cities join MLS in the spring.

The disagreement between Roth and Emerald City Supporters has been festering in the forums for some time. But it surfaced Friday night at the Sounders’ second annual Business Alliance Meeting at WaMu Theater.

The pointed exchanges between Emerald City Supporters and Roth, who introduced himself as “the Darth Vader of the organization,” underscored the first serious test for the Sounders’ experiment in sports franchise democracy. So far, Roth and company are failing the test.

First, the ticket controversy. Roth made it clear to fans that he is petrified of seeing empty seats at Qwest Field — the result of watching many professional soccer matches in this country. It is not a pleasant sight.

It’s good for business to have demand waiting behind the doors. It creates excellent publicity to announce a record 32 consecutive sellouts. The Seattle Seahawks, before they took an ill-founded misadventure to California in 1996, had 30,000 people on their season-tickets waiting list. But when the move was thwarted by the NFL and team returned to Seattle, it couldn’t give away tickets away.

Empty seats is a real issue that can be most appreciated only by the people who put up the money for the franchise. I can see Roth’s point of keeping demand high by keeping the seat-count lower than capacity. Qwest Field, with its lower and upper decks, gives him some rare flexibility to adjust to demand for tickets.

But what good does it do to have Vancouver and Portland in the league if you can’t have a true rivalry. For soccer, the local rivalry matches, known as “derbies” among the soccer cognoscenti, are the dream match-ups. These are the most emotional matches. This is where the atmosphere comes alive and goes electric.

The energy at derbies is like no other. Think Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. Manchester United vs. Liverpool. AC Milan vs. Inter Milan. Boca Juniors vs. River Plate. This is where reputations are made, bets are won and the bonds for a lifelong love affair with the sport are consummated.

The same intensity can happen here, in the MLS. Sounders vs. Whitecaps. Sounders vs. Timbers. But it won’t happen if away-supporters are limited to just 150 tickets, which is the current league rule. It won’t happen if owners fear the large masses rather than embrace their energy and enthusiasm.

For most of the MLS, the limit is meaningless. Home teams can’t come close to filling their stadiums. But for Seattle, Vancouver and Portland, it’s a different story. Known as the Cascadia Clubs, these teams forged a rivalry back in the days of the North American Soccer League, when thousands of away supporters would pack cars and buses to travel to one of the cities. It continued even during the United Soccer League, though numbers dropped to hundreds. But the traveling tradition persisted even during those bleak times.

In a joint press release, the Emerald City Supporters, the Vancouver Southsiders and The Timbers Army have called for the clubs to accommodate larger sections for traveling fans. “The united supporters groups assert that visiting support adds greatly to the atmosphere of their home stadiums and that limiting the amount of visiting supporters to 150 is an insult to the tradition and history surrounding the Cascadia Rivalry and undermines the growth of Major League Soccer in the Pacific Northwest,” the joint statement said.

So far, the reasons for limiting the seating fall flat. This is not really about safety and security, as Sounders officials say. This is ultimately about Roth’s fear of leaving seats empty in the upper deck, and it’s about who is controlling the shots. Roth, a former Disney CEO and Hollywood producer, is used to getting his way.

It is clear he likes the Emerald City supporters for their devotion, but I don’t think he really wants the messiness and the push-back inevitable in any democratic institution. As he demonstrated at the WaMu Theater, he has a low tolerance for this kind of thing.

Because, let’s be clear: The Sounders can open the upper deck and funnel supporters to the east stands, and based on history of the rivalries and close proximity, the Sounders can expect at least several thousand away supporters.

The Sounders set a precedent for opening the upper deck for friendlies. So, what is the problem opening it for two home games — against Vancouver and Portland? The club likely would also generate big numbers of single-ticket sales from locals who would want to catch the excitement of a local derby clash.

The current tentative solution is to increase the ticket allocation to 500 seats for Vancouver and Portland home games. That didn’t fly very well  either, when Roth announced it. When Roth and other Sounders officials tried to say that opening the upper deck would invite up to 15,000 fans and would potentially promote violent behavior, some of whom might, say, throw sacks of urine on Kasey Keller.  Let’s just say the organization that does so many things well lost major street cred.

Roth may not have thought through this whole democracy thing. After all, it was the brainchild of comedian and minority owner Drew Carey, who said he was struck by how FC Barcelona season-ticket holders can vote out the president every four years.

Roth went along with Carey. But instead of the president being voted out every four years, the Sounders opted for potentially voting out the general manager after the end of the third season. But the GM also happens to be an owner. So, if Adrian Hanauer is booted out, what happens to him? He’s still an owner.

At FC Barcelona, the president is gone.  The business model is unlike almost any in modern professional sports. Only Spanish rival Real Madrid follows a model that is part club, part nonprofit agency, part business enterprise, part sports team and part public trust. There is no billionaire owner, or group of owners. Barcelona started as a sporting club more than a century ago, a club that supports other professional and amateur sports. It is also a political stepping stone for ambitious politicians. The club is really embedded in the culture of Barcelona well beyond the soccer pitch.

The Sounders have benefited mightily from this romantic perception of being a progressive, pro-democratic company that gives its season-ticket holders a voice and a vote. On its website, it even calls the The Alliance, which is the Sounders FC Members Association, “truly a democracy in sports.”

Now Roth has to really live up to these quaint, idealistic notions, or he’ll lose even more face, as will the Sounders. Can’t have it both ways. I think Roth, a noted risk taker, should go for it. Open the upper deck to traveling supporters and rewrite the rules for the entire MLS. It’s what his paying fans want, and he gave them the vote.