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 festive. Players tossed shirts into the stands, high school students participated in a class-by-class competition to see who could do the best “boom-boom clap,” and there was much talk of how Providence’s sponsorship was about much more than set his name on the front of the Sounders jersey.
The biggest part of that “much more” was a youth mental health program that would be made available to Renton School District students in partnership with Providence.
However, when Sounders officials began checking social media and reading emails, it quickly became clear that the announcement had not been received as hoped. Inboxes and timelines were filled with negative and concerned reactions, with accusations that the Sounders had abandoned their core principles by partnering with a health organization that has a history of limiting reproductive choices, has been accused of discriminating against LGTBQ patients and is currently sued by the Washington attorney general for charging low-income patients for care they were entitled to receive for free.
The volume and intensity of the fan backlash was significant enough that the Sounders called an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss a plan of action. 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 the same way that the Sounders reached out to us with the aim of reaching our audience. I met with Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer Taylor Graham as well as COO Maya Mendoza-Exstrom at Longacres on Monday to discuss some of the concerns we have received. You can listen to the entire hour-long conversation here, but I also wanted to share some of my key takeaways:
Perhaps the broadest takeaway from our interviews was the belief that the problem was mainly about messaging. At one point it was openly hinted that the team had been prepared to answer some of these questions about misaligned core values at the presser, but no one asked. While there may be some truth to that sentiment – and I had planned to attend and ask these questions if not for having two sick children at home – I think it’s a bit naive and perhaps even disingenuous to suggest that all of this could could have been avoided if only they would be asked the right questions at the unveiling.
Let’s be clear: the problem isn’t just that they didn’t say loud enough that their core values remain unchanged. It’s that partnering with an organization like Providence is going to require more than just reproducing those values. Some fans, maybe even the majority, are probably willing to be patient. For others, however, I think it is a more significant loss of trust. Perhaps future actions can bring these fans back, but it’s going to take a truly concerted effort that goes beyond hosting pride events or posting statements on Twitter.
If there was a positive takeaway, it’s that Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom were adamant that this partnership will not diminish any of the work the Sounders do in the community, and may actually enhance it. They insisted the Sounders would not shy away from taking a stand on social issues ranging from the “right to play” to women’s reproductive choices. There was even an insistence that Providence “empowers us to be the best versions of ourselves” when it comes to social issues.
At the same time, Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom suggested that there were at least some employees who shared a similar concern. However, they came up with the argument that just being able to have these kinds of conversations both internally and externally is one of the things that sets them apart from many sports organisations.
Anyone hoping the Sounders would distance themselves from Providence in almost any way as a result of the outcry will likely be disappointed. At no time did Graham or Mendoza-Exstrom express any concerns or feelings of discomfort with Providence. They also said they were not concerned that Providence might use the Sounders brand as a form of sports washing, in part because of how much 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 to our peers who have partnered with Providence, the starting point was all community first. It comes back to the people, and do you trust it? We do it from the individuals. From the organization we do it. They are proud of the work they do with Providence through the work they do in the LGTBQI space. They empower us to lead in this space and be the voice makers. I have no worries here. We are invested in this area and we intend to deliver.”
The one element the Sounders kept coming back to as a reason to be excited about this partnership is the youth mental health program they will help launch with Renton schools. Providence has an existing program called “Work2BeWell” that will apparently form the backbone of their outreach, but they are also waiting to hear from Renton schools to get more specific information about what is needed. Given that the details of how this program will be rolled out are still unknown, it’s hard to know exactly how to feel about it, 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 had already expressed some interest in using the service, which she took as a sign of how valuable it could be. It is widely agreed that many of these issues are related, and Sounders intends for this to be a holistic brand of care.
There was no extensive word on how much Providence will pay the Sounders, but it has been reported that the deal will be worth close to $100 million over its 10-year life. That is significantly more than the club received from previous shirt sponsors XBOX or Zulily. Graham acknowledged that 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 resources will be used to help fund the Sounders’ various social justice initiatives, as well as improving the quality of the pitch.
The overarching theme of all this is that words can only convey so much. It is good for the Sounders to say that their values are unchanged, that they believe a lot of good can come from this and that they are confident that Providence 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’re going to be held accountable for action over periods of time. Hopefully this club’s track record and being able to deliver against it is something that can give some confidence back to 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 that we will be held accountable 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 said during this interview will dissuade skeptical fans from that thought. Presumably, the Sounders chose to champion social causes because they believed it was the right thing to do, but as a result, they put themselves in a position to be judged when they do things that seem to go against those values. No one made them cooperate with Providence, and it is up to them to square this circle.
At the end of the interview I tried to find out what kind of actions they thought the club could take and what the fans could do to hold them accountable. I’m not sure many will be reassured by their responses, which were basically “be patient” and “complain to your ticket and Alliance Council representatives or sit on the Alliance Council yourself.”
In the meantime, I suspect many fans will simply vote with their wallets, either by choosing not to buy anything with Providence on it or maybe even something more drastic.