SEATTLE – Few people understand the importance of a sports team to a region more than former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. The two-term mayor and avid Sounders fan saw the fallout firsthand when a new ownership group moved the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City during his tenure.
After a busy 2010 that included a fellowship at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a stint as the United States’ alternate representative to the United Nations, the Sounders season-ticket holder is back in the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife Shari in West Seattle.
MLSsoccer.com caught up with Nickels recently to discuss his soccer roots and his reflections on the sport’s importance to the city.
MLSsoccer.com: You used to attend NASL Seattle Sounders matches with your father. Can you describe those experiences?
Nickels: It goes back a little further than that. When we were kids, we went to Catholic schools here. I started in second grade—we moved here when I was six. I played for Our Lady of Guadalupe in West Seattle and St. Joe’s when we moved up here [to the Capitol Hill area].
Dad used to take us down to Lower Woodlawn Park on Sundays. The top amateur league back then—which was very ethnic, the top team was the Magyars—would play there. I’m not sure why we started doing that, but we would go down there on our Sundays and watch a game.
When the Sounders came to be in the late '70s, I was a young adult. The first "adult" thing I did with him was sharing season tickets. They played in the Kingdome, which was very strange. Sometimes the ball would bounce almost up into the second level. But it was what we had.
They would fill it when the Cosmos came to town or when the Whitecaps came to town. The Whitecaps were particularly annoying because they would always wear those white caps.
MLSsoccer.com: What was the rivalry like with the Whitecaps?
Nickels: It was fun. The rivalry was great. It had much less of a European feel to it than it does now. There weren’t the supporters’ chants that they have now. Back then you didn’t have the Internet. You didn’t really have cable. We had our own pretty Northwest, laid-back style.
We got a taste of it. When the league folded, we lost track of it but when the new Sounders came into being a couple years ago, I think Governor Christine Gregoire and I were right at the very beginning of it, pledging our support and buying our season tickets. It’s been a real Cinderella story, it seems to me.
[inline_node:328996]MLSsoccer.com: It’s easy to attempt to quantify the importance of a soccer team in terms of economic impact, but it means more in terms of culture and civic pride. Is that what you’ve seen from the Sounders?
Nickels: I worry a little bit that we’re starting to be taken for granted by the league. This franchise is phenomenally successful. It is head-and-shoulders more successful in terms of community support than any other team in the league.
I think with Portland and Vancouver joining, that will grow. The Pacific Northwest will be an incredible mecca for North American soccer. That’s great, but you look at the Gold Cup not having a game here. You look at the Team USA-Argentina game that was supposed to come here now is going to New York.
There’s a real emphasis on the Red Bulls, but they haven’t proven anything in the past few years other than you can pay a lot of money for players and not make it very far. I worry a bit that we might be taken for granted by the league, and I think that’s something we should be wary of and make sure people understand how special it is, how other places can learn from us and emulate what is happening here.
The ownership of the Sounders I’m very impressed with. While the majority owner [film producer Joe Roth] is not a Seattle guy, I think he’s becoming a Seattle guy. So the fact that the majority ownership isn’t local money is OK. I feel good about how grounded they are in this area. What happened with the Sonics is that a local ownership group decided to bail and sold it to a group that was intent on moving to Oklahoma. I don’t think that’s going to happen, plus the MLS doesn’t seem to have that same type of history.
MLSsoccer.com: Why is soccer so popular in Seattle? What’s the reason for success?
Nickels: I spent several months in Boston last year. When I went to the Revolution game out in Foxborough, getting there for a city person was a real challenge. Second, once you got there, you were nowhere. You had a football stadium, you have a mall and that’s it.
In Seattle, you have this ambience with the stadium right in the heart of the city. People gather in Pioneer Square and march to the match. You’ve got the restaurants and the bars in the neighborhood. That’s an advantage over Boston.
Similarly in New York, neither of the games I went to—one was the playoff game at Red Bull Arena—neither of them were sold out. Shocking. It’s a nice stadium but Harrison, N.J., is not Manhattan or Brooklyn. It doesn’t have that same connection.
Part of it was Seattle was hungry for soccer after the taste of it in the '70s and the early '80s. Second, I would guess that more people here probably play soccer. Third, the ambience of where [the stadium] is and how it fits in with the sense of the city.
MLSsoccer.com: Who are your favorite players on the current Sounders? How do you think they’ll do this year?
Nickels: I’m a big Fredy Montero fan; I just think he’s wonderful. I love the way he’s grown as a player. He was getting some bad habits during the middle of last season but then he just went to a different level. Alvaro Fernandez—I’m very hopeful. I’ve seen some flashes there and am looking forward to hem getting more playing time.
I was a Sanna Nyassi fan and I was very sorry to see him go. I like James Riley. But I think my favorite is Osvaldo Alonso. When he is in the midfield there, he’s tough.
He’s not a dirty player, but he’s got a toughness. When the Fire came, I think Freddie Ljungberg was very surprised at the reception he got from Alonso. I think he’s my favorite player. I like watching how he shapes the game from his position.
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