When the Seattle Sounders unveiled their newest and most notable sponsor during an event at Renton High School nearly two weeks ago, the mood was celebratory. Players tossed shirts 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 much talk of how Providence’s sponsorship was so much more than putting their name on the front of the Sounders jersey.
Much of that “much more” was a youth mental health program that would be made available to Renton School District students in partnership with Providence.
By the time 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 and disturbing reactions, with accusations that the Sounders had abandoned their core principles by partnering with a health care organization that has a history of restricting reproductive choice, has been accused of discriminating against LGTBQ patients and currently is being 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 fan backlash was significant enough that the Sounders called an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss a plan of action. Almost immediately, the Sounders arranged 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 contacted 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’ve received. You can listen to the full hour-long talk here, but I also wanted to share some of my key takeaways:
Perhaps the broadest takeaway I got from our interviews was the belief that the problem was mostly messaging. At one point, it was openly suggested that the team was prepared to answer some of these questions about core values being wrong under pressure, but no one asked. While there may be some truth to that sentiment—and I had planned to attend and ask those questions if not for having two sick kids at home—I think it’s a little naive and maybe even disingenuous to suggest that all of this could have been avoided if only they were asked the right questions in discovery.
Let’s be clear: the problem isn’t simply that they didn’t say out loud that their core values remain unchanged. It’s that partnering with an organization like Providence will require more than simply re-stating those values. Some fans, maybe even most, are likely to be patient. For others, however, I think there is a greater loss of faith. Perhaps future actions can bring those fans back, but it will take a real concerted effort that goes beyond organizing pride events or issuing statements on Twitter.
If there was a positive outcome, it’s that Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom were confident that this partnership will not diminish any of the work the Sounders do in the community and can enhance it. They insisted 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 Providence is “empowering us to be the best versions of ourselves” when it comes to social issues.
At the same time, Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom hinted that there were at least some employees who shared a similar concern. However, they argued that just being able to have such a conversation internally and externally is part of what makes them different from many sports organisations.
Anyone hoping the Sounders will distance themselves from Providence in almost any way as a result of the protests will probably be disappointed. At no time did Graham or Mendoza-Exstrom express doubts or feelings of uneasiness with Providence. They also said they weren’t concerned that Providence might use the Sounders brand as a form of sports laundry, in part because of how extensively they’ve worked with other sports teams.
“This is not the first time that Providence has invested in offering 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 community first. It comes back to the people and do you believe in it? From individuals, we do. From the organization, we do. They are proud of the work they do with Providence through the work they do in the LGTBQI space. They are empowering us to lead in this space and be Sounders. I have no concerns in this space. We are invested in this space and we intend to make it happen.”
One element the Sounders kept coming back to as a reason to be happy 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 likely form the backbone of their outreach, but they’re also waiting to hear from the Renton schools to get more specifics about what’s needed. Considering that the details of how this program will play out are still unknown, it’s hard to know exactly how to feel, but the Sounders are clearly optimistic about it and are confident that LGBTQ youth will receive the proper care they need. mental health. 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 connected and the Sounders aim for this to be a holistic brand of care.
It was not widely discussed how much Providence will pay the Sounders, but it has been reported that the deal will 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 admitted that the price was part of what made it attractive, but also stressed that they think it can be done very well with all that money and resources. Graham suggested the resources would be used to help fund the Sounders’ various social justice initiatives, as well as improve quality on the field.
The main theme of all this is that words can only convey so much. It’s all well and good for the Sounders to say that their values are unchanged, that they believe a lot of good can come of this and that they’re sure Providence will be a good partner. But they also admitted that the proof will be in the actions.
“We are a club committed to action,” Graham said. “We will be held accountable for actions over time periods. Hopefully, this club’s record and being able to deliver against that is something that can instil confidence in our fan base at a time 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 accountable at some point.”
One sentiment I’ve heard over and over 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 club clubs.core values). I’m not entirely sure that any of what was said during this interview will disabuse skeptical fans of that notion. Apparently, the Sounders chose to support 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 seem to go against the grain. with those values. No one made them partners with Providence and it will be up to them to square this circle.
At the end of the interview, I tried to determine 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 serve on the Alliance Council yourself.”
In the meantime, I suspect many fans will simply vote with their wallets, either choosing not to buy anything with Providence on it or perhaps something more drastic.