If CONCACAF Champions League is the Sounders’ most prestigious competition — as coach Sigi Schmid says — why have only 18,500 fans bought tickets to watch the Santos Laguna quarterfinal on Wednesday at CenturyLink?
“It’s just not of the American sports conscience at this point,” Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said today. “It’s going to take time. And so I think it’s beholden upon us to do whatever we can to educate and hopefully bring our fans along. Twenty-thousand-plus is still going to be one of the biggest crowds to see a CONCACAF Champions League game in the U.S., so I think we have to keep that in mind. Would I hope for 30-, 40-, 50,000? Absolutely. Some day I think we’ll get there.”
Curiously, Toronto is already there.
On the same night that Seattle faces Santos Laguna, Toronto FC will open its CCL quarterfinal series against the Los Angeles Galaxy. And a crowd of more than 40,000 is expected at Rogers Centre (formerly Skydome).
That disparity comes despite Seattle drawing 38,496 for an average home MLS game last season, compared to 20,267 at Toronto.
Why are the proportions reversed for Champions League?
“No disrespect intended, but they haven’t had a lot of big games in Toronto in recent years,” Hanauer said. “They haven’t had playoff games … they haven’t been in Champions League. I think that’s one. Two, the Galaxy, I think, is a big opponent still. David Beckham draws fans. … And they’ve turned that into a special game because it is at Rogers Centre. But testament to that soccer market and what’s possible.”
Apparently, no disrespect taken.
“We’ve never gotten out of the group stage in Champions League,” said Paul Beirne, TFC senior director of business operations. “So in our short history this is the most important game we’ve ever played.”
Beirne said the game was scheduled at Rogers Centre because of concerns about potentially frigid Toronto weather in early March. However, the home to the baseball Blue Jays and CFL Argonauts has not only a roof but also lots and lots of seats. And with those seasons: opportunity.
“When we had to make the decision in October-November, we wouldn’t have been able to predict the mild winter that we’ve had,” Beirne said. “We had to be ready for anything, and generally in the first week of March it can be well (below freezing). We made the right decision from a fan safety and a fan enjoyment perspective. And the fact that we’re in such a big venue allowed us to get real creative on pricing, so I think the really low entry price adds to the appeal for sure. But I think at some point, once it crested over 25- or 30,000 tickets, it became apparent that this is the real deal, this was going to be a real event. And then the tickets almost flew out the door.”
By the way, while Hanauer is a big fan of Champions League, he stops short of joining Schmid’s “most prestigious” comment.
“Champions League and MLS Cup have got to both be the A-plus cups,” he said when asked which he would prefer in the club trophy case. “It would be absolutely amazing to win a Champions League and to be able to play in the World Club Championships – I mean absolutely tremendous. But I’d be equally excited to win an MLS Cup.”