When the Seattle Sounders unveiled their newest and most famous sponsor during an event at Renton High School two weeks ago, the reaction was celebratory. Players toss shirts into the stands, high school students participate in a class-by-class competition to see who can do the best “boom-boom-clap,” and there’s much talk of how Providence is sponsoring do more than put their name on the front of the Sounders’ jersey.
The biggest part of that “much more” is the youth mental health program that will be made available to Renton County students in partnership with Providence.
By the time Sounders officials began checking social media and reading emails, however, it quickly became apparent that the announcement had not been received as expected. The inbox and the timeline were filled with negative reactions and concerns, with accusations that the Sounders had abandoned their core principles by partnering with a health organization with a history of limiting reproductive choice. accused of discriminating against LGTBQ patients and is currently being sued by the Washington attorney general for charging low-income patients for care they are entitled to receive for free.
The volume and intensity of the fan reactions was significant enough that Speakers called an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss a plan of action. Almost immediately, the Sounders set up meetings with Emerald City Supporters, Gorilla FC and the Alliance Board in an attempt to calm concerns.
In the same way the Speakers reach us with the goal 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 have received. You can listen to the full hour-long conversation here, but I also wanted to share some of my first takeaways:
Perhaps the broadest takeaway I have from our interviews is the belief that the problem is one of delivery. At one point, we openly suggested that the team was prepared to answer some of these questions about the incorrect core values in the printer, but no one asked. While there may be some truth to that sentiment – and I would have planned to find out and ask those questions if it weren’t for having two sick children at home – I think it’s a bit simplistic and maybe even disingenuous to suggest that all this could have been avoided if only they would ask the right questions in the open.
Let’s be clear: the problem is not that they don’t say loudly enough that their core values don’t change. It turns out that working with an organization like Providence will require more than re-stating those values. Some fans, maybe even most, probably want to be patient. For others, though, I think there is a more significant loss of confidence. Maybe future acts can bring those fans back, but it will play a real cohesive role beyond hosting pride events or putting out details on Twitter.
If there is a positive release, it is that Graham and Mendoza-Exstrom believe that this partnership will not diminish any of the work that the Speakers do in the community, and can actually improve it. They insist that Broadcasters are not shy about taking a stand on social issues ranging from the “right to play” to women’s reproductive choices. There is even a consensus 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 imply that there are at least some workers who share the same concern. However, they argue that just being able to have that kind of communication internally and externally is part of what makes them different from most sports organizations.
Anyone hoping that the Speakers would separate themselves from Providence in almost any way as a result of exile will probably be disappointed. At no point did Graham or Mendoza-Exstrom express any concern or sense of uneasiness with Providence. They also said they are not concerned that Providence could be using the Sounders brand as a game breaker, in part because of how they have worked extensively with other sports teams.
“This is not the first time that Providence has invested in delivering their product and growing their business through sports,” Graham said when asked specifically about breaking the game. “When we talk to our colleagues who have done partnership with Providence, the starting point in every area first. If you go back to the people and those who trust that? From individuals, we do. From organizations, we do. They are proud of the work they do with Providence through the work they do in the LGTBQI field. They are empowering us to lead in this field and to be Broadcasters. I do not have any concerns in this field. We invest in this field and we intend to sent.”
One aspect the Speakers are returning to as a reason to be excited 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 obviously be the backbone of their outreach, but they are still waiting to hear from Renton schools to be more specific about what is needed. Considering that the details of how this program will be rolled out are still unknown, it’s hard to know exactly how to feel, but the Sounders are clearly optimistic about it and confident that LGBTQ youth will receive mental health care. you should Mendoza-Exstrom said “30-50” Renton students have shown some interest in using the service, something she takes as a sign of how valuable it can be. There is great agreement that many of these issues are all related and the Speakers intend for this to be a brand of holistic care.
There is no extensive word on how much Providence is paying the broadcasters, but it has been reported that the deal will be worth close to $100 million over its 10-year life. That’s more important than the team gets from previous shirt sponsors XBOX or Zulily. Graham admits the price tag is part of what makes it attractive, but also insists they feel a lot of good can be done with all that money and resources. Graham suggested that the resources would be used to help fund a variety of social justice initiatives such as quality improvement on advertising.
The key to all of this is that words can be very expressive. All is well and good for the Speakers to say that their values have not changed, that they believe that a lot of good can come out of this and that they are confident that Providence will be a good partner. But they also agree that the proof will be in the actions.
“We’re a team that’s determined to do it,” Graham said. “We will be held accountable for action in due course. Hopefully, this team’s track record and being able to deliver against that is something that can instill some confidence back into our goal 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 team is the same team and we will be held accountable at some point. “
One perception I’ve heard over and over is that the Sounders seem to want to have their cake (being seen as a progressive team) and eating it too (taking money from an organization that is at least perceived to be working hard against some factions.core value). I’m not entirely sure that any of what was said during this interview will dissuade die-hard fans from that idea. Presumably, the Sounders choose to champion social causes because they believe it is the right thing to do, but one consequence of that is that they put themselves in a position to be judged when they do things that seem it is against those values. No one made them partner with Providence and it would be up to them to square this circle.
At the end of the interview, I tried to share with them what actions they think the team can take and what the fans can do to hold them accountable. I’m not sure that many will still be convinced by their answers, which are basically “be patient” and “blame your ticket and Alliance Council representatives or work on the Alliance Council itself.”
In the meantime, I suspect many fans will simply vote with their wallets, either by choosing not to buy anything with Providence on it or maybe even something worse.