Not for nuthin’: Could M’s learn from Sounders?

 The Seattle Mariners regular season home opener is just 10 days away and anticipation for a new season is building. As always, Safeco Field will be in a festive mood during Opening Day ceremonies.

You can count on a few watery eyes when the late Dave Niehaus narrates  “Welcome back baseball” over the public announcement system. Fans will remain on their feet as they cheer wildly when each Mariner enters individually, via a red carpet in right field, and is introduced to the home crowd for the first time.

Finally, the cheering will reach a crescendo with the introduction of baseball Hall of Fame inductee and Mariners icon Ken Griffey Jr. who will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Once the initial intensity from the team’s first weekend in Seattle wears off, the Mariners will likely struggle to repeat the same level of enthusiasm during the remainder of the season. How much excitement should one expect to find at the ballpark if the team turns into the fringy contender that most observers predict? If recent seasons provide any indication, the crowds will become increasingly smaller and more subdued as the season progresses.

After reflecting on the inevitable decline in both enthusiasm and attendance that could await the Mariners, I wondered if the club could replicate the high level of fan exuberance that their next-door neighbor — the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer — sees at every home contest. Could the Mariners learn something from the Sounders that might help boost the energy at Safeco?

Before going any further, I must confess that I’ve never been to an MLS match, although my wife and I have started to pay more attention to soccer — specifically the Sounders — ever since the U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup last year. Let me rephrase that; my wife has taken a greater interest in soccer and she’s dragged me along for the ride.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a soccer hater. Actually, I’m the son of European immigrants and my Dad was a huge soccer enthusiast. Heck, he’d watch any match on the air, even if broadcasted in Spanish — a language he didn’t understand. We even attended New York Cosmos matches when they belonged to the old North American Soccer League (NASL) during their heyday in the Seventies. I have very fond memories of going to games with Dad.

During those golden years of the NASL, the Cosmos average attendance was 45,000 fans and — on occasion — the club would sell out Giants Stadium with crowds exceeding 77,000. In the end though, the league faded as did my interest in the sport.

Now that I’ve firmly established that I’m a casual soccer fan — at best — and that I’ve never even attended a Sounders game, how did I conjure up the offbeat notion that the Mariners might be able to learn from the repertoire of the Sounders and their rabid fan base?

The answer is simple. The excitement surrounding a Sounders game is so intense that I can feel it through the TV. So much so that I now feel compelled to attend a match in person. Can you remember the last time that you watched a Mariners’ broadcast and said, “I need to get down to Safeco?”

Perhaps, encouraging the types of noise making and singing made commonplace by the Emerald City Supporters and other Sounders fans would attract more Millennials to Mariners games.

Let’s face reality, baseball crowds tend to be passive and large segments of the audience quickly loses interest in the machinations of a ballgame, unless something dramatic happens that brings their eyeballs back to the playing field. Soccer fans don’t seem to have the same attention-span issues. Why is that?

Younger non-baseball fans would likely tell you that games move slowly, there’s more inaction than meaningful action, and very little scoring. All of that is true. But, I could make a similar argument about soccer.

Sure, the soccer ball moves up and down the field quite a bit during a match. Yet, scoring is even less frequent than in baseball. To make matters even less appealing to a casual observer — like me — there are large segments in matches when teams prefer to play “keep away” rather than attempt to score because doing so might lead to points for the opposition.

The dearth of scoring — or even scoring attempts — should make the sport less appealing, yet the Sounders are extremely popular in Seattle. That means that there has to be something other than the on-field play that’s fueling the sport’s popularity in the Emerald City. Closing the enthusiasm gap between the Mariners and Sounders fan bases should be a high priority for the occupants of Safeco Field.

Some may suggest that catering to the younger set isn’t necessary. It’s true that you’ll see plenty of twenty-somethings at games. But, how many are even following the action on the field? How many are standing in the Bullpen bar area oblivious to the score and current inning?

I’m not trying to sound like a “get off my lawn” guy. Next time you’re at a game, look around and you’ll see what I mean. The core fans are older. In 2014, Daniel Cox of The Huffington Post noted that the average age of Americans who said that soccer was their favorite sport was 37, while the average age for football fans was 46. Baseball fans were the oldest at age-53.

That generation gap was on display when I attended a season ticket holder meeting held by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto late last season. The vast majority of people in that room were not Millennials; they were older. Energizing and keeping the younger generation is a significant challenge for an organization that’s competing with football and — yes – soccer for the hearts and minds of the next wave of sports fans.

The contrast between the fan-experience for the different sports is clearly on display across the street from the Mariners home park at CenturyLink Field. Both the Sounders and Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League (NFL) have fans who are hyper-vocal and energized throughout each home contest. Imagine if the Mariners could tap into that energy that already exists in Seattle.

Some defenders of baseball might contend that the slow pace of the game doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the kind of frenetic cheering and noise making found at the “Clink.” Plus, there are 81 regular season home games in a major league baseball (MLB) season compared to just eight in the NFL and 17 in MLS.

While an MLB team may have a week or more of consecutive home games, an NFL or MLS team might go several weeks between home contests. Baseball proponents might argue that it’s unreasonable to expect baseball fans to be as animated on a daily basis. On the surface, that makes sense. However, in another part of the world fans have figured out how to liven up games during the marathon known as a baseball season.

Although it’s true that there are distinct differences between baseball and the games played by the NFL and MLS, the MLB game-experience could be more energetic than it is now. In Japan, professional baseball games have earned the reputation for being far more rambunctious affairs than MLB contests even though Japanese leagues deal with similar pace of play issues and nearly as many games (144). So, spicing up the atmosphere is a doable do.

I’m not trying to portray MLB games as lifeless and devoid of fun. The game, in itself, is wonderful, unique, and I love it. Furthermore, some forms of organized cheering at already exist at ballparks. There’s the traditional organ music and video scoreboard displays to encourage noise making at key moments in the game. Plus, there are team-centric celebrations that happen across the league.

A few examples of unique events that take place at MLB parks include the Rally Monkey of the Los Angeles Angels, Yankee Stadium “Bleacher Creatures” who will chant the “roll call” of each starting position player until the player acknowledges the cheer, and the Cleveland Indians grandstand drummer. Many teams also issue “rally towels” from time to time.

The Mariners have also created a fan-experience that’s unique to Safeco and reflects the personality of the team’s faithful and Seattle. During the 2011 season, designated a section of seats near the left field corner as the “King’s Court” in honor of their ace — Felix Hernandez.

Whenever, “King Felix” is the starting pitcher, fans who buy seats in this cheering section receive a yellow Felix Hernandez shirt and yellow “K” placard. Whenever the 11-year veteran gets two strikes on a batter, fans prominently display the card and repeatedly chant “K” until the battle with his opponent is completed.

 The Mariners have taken full advantage of “King Felix’s” popularity. Occasionally, they’ve expanded the size of his court by filling the tiers directly above the usual section and dubbing them the “Upper Court” and “High Court” respectively.

The grandest event in celebration of the King occurred when the Mariners transformed the entire ballpark into “the Supreme Court” for his first start after his perfect game performance in August 2012.

If Hernandez could start every game, the Mariners enthusiasm gap would likely evaporate. Unfortunately, for the team and its fan base, he only appears in 20-percent of the club’s games. That means the King’s Court momentum doesn’t exist during approximately 65 home games annually.

Obviously, it’s easier for fans to be excited about the Sounders and Seahawks because they’ve been consistently reaching the postseason, while the Mariners have the longest current playoff drought — 14 seasons — in their sport. Still, I recall that when I first arrived to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, the Seahawks weren’t very good. Yet, their crowds were loud and proud.

 Yes, the Seahawks were down when I moved to this region. But, they hadn’t been consistent also-rans as the Mariners are now. Seattle’s NFL entry has 10 postseason appearances — including three Super Bowls — since the last time the Mariners played a meaningful game in October. That fact brings me to my final thoughts.

Although their fan base is older and the game of baseball is less palatable to the younger fan, the Mariners’ consistently poor play over the last decade is the main cause for fan apathy — not the atmosphere surrounding the game. Look no further than the team’s heyday in the late Nineties to see that a Mariners game can be an electrifying event.

In the end, I do believe that the Mariners — and their fans — could benefit from duplicating some elements of the atmosphere found in the Clink during a Sounders game. The King’s Court proves that the potential to do so exists. However, I can’t envision that kind of excitement taking root until the team is playing meaningful games in October on a regular basis. Winning is the best way to stoke the flames of fan enthusiasm.

Until then, all Mariners fans can do is enjoy Opening Day and look forward to events, such as the retirement ceremony for Griffey’s jersey number “24” in August. Otherwise, they may need to go across the street to a Sounders match if they’re looking for a dynamic summertime sports experience in Seattle.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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