When the Seattle Sounders unveiled their newest and most prominent sponsor during an event at Renton High School nearly two weeks ago, the mood was celebratory. Players tossed their shirts into the stands, high school students participated in a class-by-class contest to see who could do the best “boom-boom-hit,” and there was much talk about how Providence’s sponsorship was about much more than putting their name on the front of the Sounders’ jersey.
The biggest part of that “much more” was a youth mental health program that would be available to Renton School District students in partnership with Providence.
When Sounders officials began checking social media and reading email, however, it quickly became clear that the announcement was not received as hoped. Inboxes and timelines are filled with negative and concerned reactions, with accusations that the Sounders have abandoned their core principles by partnering with a healthcare organization that has a history of limiting reproductive choice, is accused of discriminating against LGTBQ patients and is now being sued by The Washington Attorney General is charging low-income patients with care they are entitled to receive for free.
The volume and intensity of fan reactions was significant enough that the Sounders called an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss an action plan. Almost immediately, the Sounders set up meetings with Emerald City supporters, Gorilla FC and the Alliance Council in an attempt to calm concerns.
It was in a similar way that the sounders approached us with the aim of reaching our audience. 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 full hour-long conversation here, but I also wanted to share some of my main takeaways:
Perhaps the broadest takeaway from our interviews was the belief that the problem is mainly about messaging. At one point, it was openly suggested that the team was prepared to answer some of the questions about misaligned core values in the presser, but no one asked. While there may be some truth to this sentiment – and I had planned to attend and ask these questions if not for two sick children at home – I think it is a bit naive and perhaps even unfair to suggest that all of this could have been avoided if Only they would be asked the right questions at the unveiling.
Let’s be clear: the problem is not just that they didn’t say loud enough that their core values remain unchanged. It is that partnering with an organization like Providence will require more than simply re-stating the values. Some fans, maybe even the majority, are likely willing to be patient. For others, however, I think it’s a more significant loss of trust. Maybe future actions can bring the fans back, but it will take a real concerted effort that goes beyond hosting pride events or putting statements on Twitter.
If there was one positive takeaway, it was that Graham and Mendoza-Ekstrom were adamant that the partnership would not diminish any of the work the Sounders do in the community, and could actually enhance it. They were insistent that the Sounders would not shy away from taking a stand on social issues ranging from “right to play” to women’s reproductive choice. There was even an insistence that supervision is “empowering us to be the best versions of ourselves” when it comes to social issues.
At the same time, Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom implied that there were at least some employees who shared a similar concern. However, they made the argument that just being able to have that kind of conversation both internally and externally is part of what makes them different from many sports organizations.
Anyone hoping the Sounders would distance themselves from Overwatch in almost any way as a result of the outcry will likely be disappointed. At no point did Graham or Mendoza-Ekstrom express any misgivings or feelings of discomfort with supervision. They also said they were not concerned that Providence could 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 their product and growing their business through sports,” Graham said when asked specifically about sports washing. “When we talked with our peers who partnered with Providence, the starting point was all the community first. What comes back to the people and do you trust that? From the individuals, we do. From the organization, we do. They Are proud of the work they are doing with oversight through the work they are doing in the LGTBQI space. They are empowering us to lead in this space and to be the sounders. I don’t have any concerns in this space. We are invested in this space and We intend to deliver.”
The one element the Sounders have returned to as a reason to be happy with the partnership is the youth mental health program they will help launch with Renton schools. Providence has an existing program called “Work2BeWell” that will apparently be the backbone of their outreach, but they are also waiting to hear from Renton schools to get more specifics on what is needed. Considering 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 Saunders are clearly optimistic about it and are confident that LGBTQ youth will receive appropriate mental health care. Mendoza-Exstrom said “30 to 50” Renton students have already expressed some interest in using the service, something she took as a sign of just how valuable it could be. There is broad agreement that many of these issues are all related and the Saunders intend for this to be a holistic type of care.
There was no word on 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. This is significantly more than the club received from previous shirt sponsors XBOX or Zulily. Graham acknowledged the price tag was part of what made this attractive, but also stressed that they feel a lot of good can be done with all the money and resources. Graham suggested that the funds would be used to help fund the Sounders’ various social justice initiatives, as well as improve quality on the field.
The overarching theme to all of this is that words can only convey so much. It is all well and good for the Sounders to say their values are unchanged, that they believe that a lot of good can come out of this and that they are sure that the supervision will be a good partner. But they also acknowledged that the proof will be in actions.
“We are a club committed to action,” Graham said. “We will be responsible for action over periods of time. Hopefully, the track record of the club and being able to deliver against that is something that can inject some confidence into our fan base at a moment like this. Take a step back and understand That all the information is not in front of us, we may not agree, but trust that the club is the same club and we will be held responsible at some point.
One sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly is that the Sounders seem to want to have their cake (being seen as a progressive club) and eat it too (taking money from an organization that is at least perceived to be actively working against some of The club’s core values). I’m not entirely sure that anything that was said during the interview will divide skeptical fans of the idea. Presumably, the Sounders chose to champion social causes because they believed it was the right thing to do, but one result of this is that they put themselves in a position to be judged when they do things that go against those values. No one made them a partner with Providence, and it will be up to them to make the cross.
At the end of the interview, I tried to ask them what kind of actions they thought the club could take and what fans could do to hold them accountable. I’m not sure many will be convinced 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 a lot of fans will simply agree with their wallets, either by choosing not to buy anything with Providence on it or maybe even something more drastic.