When the Seattle Sounders unveiled their newest and most prominent sponsor at an event at Renton High School two weeks ago, the mood was festive. Players tossed jerseys into the stands, high school students competed from grade to grade to see who could do the best “boom-boom-chap,” and there was plenty of talk that Providence’s sponsorship was much more than that. putting their name on the front of the Sounders jersey.
A big part of that “much more” was the youth mental health program that will be available to students in the Renton school district in partnership with Providence.
When Sounders officials began checking social media and reading email, it quickly became apparent that the announcement was not received as well as expected. The Saunders have abandoned their core principles by partnering with a health care organization with a history of limiting reproductive choice, accused of discriminating against LGTBQ patients and are currently suing them, and their timelines have been filled with negative and alarming reactions. Washington’s attorney general for charging low-income patients for care they’re entitled to free.
The volume and intensity of the fan backlash was so significant that the Sounders called an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss a plan of action. Almost immediately, Saunders arranged meetings with Emerald City supporters, Gorilla FC and the Alliance Council in an attempt to calm concerns.
Similarly, the Sounders approached us with the aim of reaching our audience. On Monday, I met with Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer Taylor Graham and COO Maya Mendoza-Ekstrom in Longacres to discuss some of our concerns. You can listen to the full hour-long conversation here, but I also wanted to share my main points:
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our interviews was the belief that the problem was mostly about messaging. At one point it was made clear that the team was ready to answer some of these questions about core values that were misplaced in the press, but no one asked. There may be some truth to this sentiment, but I had planned to attend and ask these questions if I hadn’t had two sick children at home – I think it’s a little naive and maybe dishonest to say that all of this could have been avoided. they would only be asked the right questions at the opening ceremony.
Let’s be clear: the problem isn’t simply that their core values remain unchanged. Partnering with an organization like Providence takes more than restating these values. Some fans, perhaps most, are willing to be patient. For others, I think there is a more serious loss of confidence. Perhaps future actions can bring those fans back, but it will take a real concerted effort beyond holding pride events or posting messages on Twitter.
If there’s one good thing, Graham and Mendoza-Ekstrom are adamant that this partnership doesn’t diminish any of what the Sounders do in the community, and may actually enhance it. They argued that the Sounders are not shy about taking a stand on social issues ranging from the “right to play” to women’s reproductive choices. There was also the claim that Providence is “empowering us to be the best version of ourselves” when it comes to social issues.
Meanwhile, Graham and Mendoza-Ekstrom said there are at least some employees who share similar concerns. However, they argued that being able to have this kind of conversation, both internally and externally, is what sets them apart from many sports organizations.
Anyone hoping for the Sounders to pull away from Providence in almost any way as a result of the shout is likely to be disappointed. At no time did Graham or Mendoza-Ekstrom express any sense of doubt or discomfort with Providence. They also said they weren’t concerned that the Providence Sounders might be using the brand as a form of sports laundry.
“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 wash. “When we talked to our peers who partnered with Providence, the starting point was community first. It comes back to the people and would you believe it? From individuals, we do. From the organization, we do. They are proud of the work they do with Providence through their work in the LGTBQI space. They are empowering us to be leaders and singers in this space. I have no concerns in this space. We are investing in this space and we intend to deliver.”
One element the Sounders cite as reason to be excited about this partnership is the youth mental health program they will help launch with Renton schools. Providence has a program called Work2BeWell that forms the basis of their outreach, but they’re waiting to hear more from Renton schools about what they need. It’s hard to know exactly how the program will feel given how it will be implemented, but the Saunders are optimistic about it and believe that LGBTQ youth will receive adequate mental health care. Mendoza-Ekstrom said “30 to 50” Renton students have expressed some interest in using the service, which she takes as a sign of how valuable it could be. Many of these issues are interrelated and Sounders intends to be a single brand to address this.
There was no word on how much Providence is paying the Sounders, but the deal is reported to be 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 that the price tag is part of what makes it attractive, but also stressed that he feels a lot of good can be done with the money and resources. Graham suggested that the resources would be used to fund various social justice initiatives of the Sounders and to improve the quality of the field.
The underlying theme in 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 haven’t changed, that they’ll get more out of this, and that they believe Providence will be a good partner. But they also acknowledged that the evidence would be practical.
“We are an action-oriented club,” Graham said. “We will be held accountable for action over time. Hopefully the experience of this club and being able to come up against it is something that will give our fans some confidence at a time like this. Take a step back and realize that we don’t have all the information in front of us, we may not agree, but we believe the club is the same club and at some point we will respond.
One of the sentiments I’ve heard repeatedly is that the Sounders seem to want to have their cake (as a progressive club) and eat it (at least by taking money from an organization actively working against some of the club). core values). I’m not entirely sure that anything said during this interview will dissuade skeptical fans from this notion. Presumably, the Sounders championed social causes because they believed it was right, but one consequence of this was that they placed themselves in a position to be judged when they did things that conflicted with those values. No one has partnered them with Providence and it will be up to them to get out of this circle.
At the end of the interview I tried to give them an idea of what the club could do and what the fans could do to hold them accountable. Basically, I don’t believe that the answers to “be patient” and “complain about your ticket and the representatives of the Alliance Council or work at the Alliance Council yourself” will convince many people again.
Meanwhile, I suspect many fans will simply vote with their wallets, either not buying anything with Providence, or something more drastic.