From Sounders FC: AUTHENTIC MASTERPIECE: The Inside Story Of The Best Franchise Launch In American Sports History, by Mike Gastineau. Copyright © 2013 by Mike Gastineau. To purchase a copy of the book, click here for Amazon.com or visit Gastineau's website for more information.
It sounds like the start of a great joke: A minor-league sports executive, one of the richest men in the world, a stand-up comedian, and a Hollywood movie producer conspire to start a soccer team. But what Adrian Hanauer, Paul Allen, Drew Carey, and Joe Roth did when they started the Seattle Sounders FC was no joke. They meticulously planned the launch of the Major League Soccer franchise with an eye toward some lofty goals. Then they stood back in amazement as they rocketed far beyond those goals buoyed by a team that ignored its "expansion" label and a fan base that wildly embraced them.
Here is part of the inside story behind the launch -- and rise -- of the Sounders.
Drew Carey's interest in being involved in the ownership group of the team was sincere and legitimate. No Hollywood star looking for a toy; Carey came from a place of true soccer passion. He had become a fan of the sport when he relocated to Los Angeles from Cleveland. He didn't want to forsake his Cleveland roots, so becoming a fan of the Lakers or Dodgers was out. But Cleveland didn't have soccer so he became a fan of the Galaxy.
He also had become interested in photography and was able to get a photographer's pass for a U.S. men's national team match in 2005 at Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He parlayed that assignment into a deal in which he took photos during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. By then he was hooked on soccer and in interviews repeatedly declared it to be his favorite sport.
Carey looked into what it would take to buy an MLS team. Told it was about $20 million dollars, he mulled trying to put a group together. But that idea evaporated when someone pointed out that his team would need a stadium. "I couldn't pull that off," he laughs. "I don't have stadium money."
So Carey told his lawyer that he wanted to explore ways to join an MLS ownership group. As it turns out, his lawyer also did business with Roth and told Carey that Roth was putting together a group to put an expansion team in Seattle.
Carey arranged a lunch with Roth, but due to schedules the meeting was set up six weeks out. It was a long way off, but it did give Carey plenty of time to rehearse his pitch to join the ownership team. "Joe's heard a million movie pitches, and it was almost like pitching a movie. I knew it better be good right off the bat or you're going to lose his interest."
If common sense had overruled soccer passion the lunch meeting might not have ever happened. The lunch coincided with Carey's final day of rehearsal for the TV game show The Price is Right. He was the show's new host, following in the footsteps of the legendary Bob Barker. As the rehearsal wound down Carey started goofing around with one of the stage props used in the 'Grocery Game.'
"We had a big wall that spins around to reveal the game," Carey says. "I put my hand in like it was going to crush it and I didn't get my hand out in time and it crushed my wrist. I thought I had fractured my arm."
EMTs were called to the set and after treating Carey suggested he go to the hospital. Carey was in severe pain but was also mindful that it had taken six weeks to get on Roth's schedule. "So instead of going to the hospital, which I honestly should have done, I went to this lunch with Joe."
The mishap made Carey late, which added even more pressure to the situation. "One of Joe's pet peeves is people who are late. He hates it. I show up 15 minutes late but I walk in with ice on my arm and the injury so that's my out."
Ignoring the pain Carey says, "I just shot right into it ... arm in a sling ... covered in ice ... should have been in the hospital ... and telling him passionately about something I believed in. I think that's what sold him."
Carey told Roth about a show he had hosted for The Travel Channel when he examined the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. It was during that show, on a tour of Barcelona's legendary Camp Nou stadium, that a guide had casually mentioned to Carey that Barça fans were able to vote out the team's president if they so desired. Carey's first thought: "I would love to do that with a team in the States."
He and Roth discussed marketing and agreed the sport had not done a good job of marketing itself in the USA. He told Roth about his adventures with the U.S. men's team. On and on the soccer discussion flowed, and Carey admits he had one conflicting thought (or maybe two, if you factor in the whole 'I should be in a hospital right now' thing).
"Here I am in show business and I'd love to be in movies. I'm meeting with Joe Roth the big famous movie producer. So I should have been talking about the movies with him, but all we did for an hour and a half was talk about soccer and marketing."
In classic Hollywood style, at the end of lunch Roth took a napkin and wrote down an offer for Carey "He turns it around and slides it across the table to me. I'm thinking 'how many times has he done this in his life?'"
Carey liked Roth's offer and immediately accepted it with one proviso. "I was adamant the vote thing had to be part of the deal. I wanted to bring that philosophy to sports. I didn't want to be part of a sports ownership group and do the same old thing. I had to have the vote thing. Otherwise I wouldn't care and I wouldn't have done it."
Roth said he'd have to run that idea past the other owners. After doing so he got back to Carey about a week later and they had a deal.
Drew Carey was now a professional soccer team owner.
Continue to Page 2 (below): Drew Carey, Sigi Schmid and a wild night in L.A.
Sigi Schmid had lost control of his team.
It's not something that happened often with Schmid. Through his years as a head coach at UCLA, with the Galaxy and Crew in MLS, and numerous stints with the US National squads, one thing you could count on from his teams was the kind of serious focus that comes from everyone knowing who was in charge. He didn't yell or lose his temper as much as he did in his younger days, because he didn't have to. As his career unfolded with success after success he achieved that level of respect given to the very best: He commanded it, he didn't have to demand it.
But on this night he had lost control of his team at the end of what had been a great day. Earlier, in their first game ever, the Sounders FC had played a bona fide match against an actual opponent and they had won. On a practice field next to the Home Depot Center the Sounders had picked up a 3-1 exhibition game victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
A dinner had been planned for that night for the team at The Palm, the legendary West Hollywood steakhouse. Granted it was only one win (and an exhibition win at that) but the dinner had a celebratory feel. Plates of food and bottles of wine were delivered to tables of wide-eyed players who perhaps with the exception of Keller and Ljungberg were not used to having a team dinner held at such a nice restaurant.
"Everyone was blown away," says Brad Evans. "This is crazy. The entire night was memorable. There was lobster, steaks, and wine all on the house. It was 'order whatever you want.' A lot of the guys at the time were making peanuts. Many of the young guys had never been around something like this before. It made us feel like big timers."
The team had just acquired Patrick Ianni in a trade. "In Houston," he says, "we had team meals at the Macaroni Grill. It was nice, but...."
The dinner was the Sounders ownership group's way of establishing to their players that they were proud of them, and they wanted to do things in a first-class way. As dinner wound down Joe Roth stood to address the team.
"I'm not going to just be some owner that sits back and pretends," Taylor Graham remembers Roth saying. "I want to be the best. I want to be a champion and be at the top." Graham says it was easy for guys to take Roth at his word.
"Guys bought in because he said they wanted to be different and they wanted to be great and be the best -- and then everything they did was fantastic (including that night's dinner)."
Hanauer and Leiweke spoke to the team as well and echoed Roth's thoughts. This would be a first-class organization and they were prepared to do everything necessary to provide players with a first-class professional experience.
"I remember being a little bit nervous," Leiweke says about addressing the team. "I told them we'd sold this amount of tickets and we think there's this amount of interest. I heard myself saying it out loud and I was thinking 'Wow!' The players were looking at each other and saying 'this is going to be cool!'"
Then Carey got up to speak. His speech was shorter and of a different theme than his fellow owners. "He pulled an AmEx Card out of his pocket," Evans remembers, "and said 'Alright guys, strip club on me! We're leaving the coaches behind!'"
That's how Sigi Schmid lost control of his team.
"Guys went nuts," Graham says. "Everyone was yelling 'Yeah!' and pumping fists." The notion of a night in Hollywood bankrolled by the perpetually ready for a good time Carey did not require a team vote. Every player agreed it was a grand plan.
Roth turned to Carey and said, "You're kidding, right?"
"No, I'm not kidding," Carey chirped. "I'll make a call, we'll get a bus, and we'll go to a strip club."
It was up to the coach to regain control and restore sanity. Evans says Schmid was laughing at the chaotic scene as he stood up and put the brakes on the idea.
"He says 'hold on a second. We've got a game tomorrow. No one's going to a strip club.'"
Mike Gastineau has been a fixture in the Seattle sports broadcasting community since 1991. Gastineau's previous books include The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists with Art Thiel and Steve Rudman (Running Press, 2009) and he has been a contributor to The Seattle Times, Lindy's College Football and The Grand Salami. For more, check out his website and follow him on Twitter: @gasman206