April 25, 2009
“These kids know what a beer’s for!”
Ever since pro sports arrived in earnest in Seattle — which is to say when the Kingdome opened in 1976 — Pioneer Square eating and drinking establishments have been within a Kasey Keller goalkick of the action.
Consider that the NASL Sounders opened the Kingdome with the legendary Pele game, the Seahawks and Mariners soon took up residence in the building, and the NBA Supersonics played the majority of their home games there between 1978 and 1985. The Dome hosted the NFL Pro Bowl in 1977, the MLB All Star game in 1979, and the NBA All Star game in 1987. The NCAA Final Four was played in the building three times (1984, 1989, and 1995).
And when the Dome was imploded in spectacular fashion in 2000, it took two new stadiums to take its place … and of course they both went in the same area at the south edge of the Pioneer Square neighborhood. Right there, waiting to greet them across King Street from the Kingdome then and Century Link Field now has been Mick McHugh, the original, longtime, and only proprietor of legendary Seattle watering hole F.X. McRory’s.
McRORY’S HAS BEEN SERVING Seattle sports fans food and drink since it opened in 1977, and McHugh enthusiastically embraced the idea of the Sounders moving to MLS; a reaction based more on being a business owner than a soccer fan. He knew that adding 20 major events a year to the neighborhood would mean more customers on more nights. He just didn’t realize how much more.
Like much of Seattle he was pleasantly surprised by how big the crowds were and he immediately ramped up his staff on game nights to take care of the before and after crowd of hungry and thirsty fans. In the midst of the Great Recession, the increase in economic activity in the area made all the difference to McRory’s and another dozen establishments.
Amid the din of a bar packed with Sounders fans following a 2-nil win over San Jose, a friend shouted to McHugh, “How’s business?” He glanced over the crowd with a smile on his face and maybe the slightest glint of dollar signs in his eyes, and thundered: “Let me tell you something about soccer fans…. These kids know what a beer’s for!”
McHugh refers to everyone younger than him (a significant portion of the population in his bar) as kids. And he has come to love the “kids” who support the Sounders. After all, they saved his business.
“Those 20 soccer days saved us,” he says. “We’re married to the Mariners for 81 days, and that’s a huge chunk of why we’re here from April 1 to October 1. We’d plan everything around Mariners home stands.”
That was a plan that worked well between 1995 and 2003 when the Mariners were good enough to set attendance records. But as the club became stuck in a decade-long slump, attendance dropped significantly, and along with it, revenue for bars and restaurants in the area.
Cue the cavalry, here came the Sounders!
“To have those games with 40,000 people,” McHugh says, “It’s been huge for the whole neighborhood. These guys were the saviors. They put some life back in the city.”
On game nights, McHugh’s joint is packed to the point he sets up a small bar in the lobby to help handle the crush of thirsty fans. He quickly noticed something interesting about the soccer crowd that was different than a football crowd. At the request of some Sounders fans he started stocking the British beer Boddington’s Pub Ale in his lobby bar.
“There’s a tremendous British influence on this crowd,” McHugh says. So tremendous that before long Boddington’s was outselling Budweiser on Sounders game nights. “That,” he says, “never happens.”
JOHN BAYLISS or GARETH ETCHELLS could have given McHugh a scouting report on the British influence on soccer fans and how passionate these fans were going to be. Bayliss (from Hereford, England) owns The George and Dragon Pub, which has become known as the soccer pub in Seattle. This is the Fremont-area bar where the Sounders executives first began to formulate the idea of marketing the team to soccer fans, rather than soccer moms.
Bayliss laughs when his pub is referred to as a “soccer bar,” saying “You can go anywhere around the world, go into the smallest bar and restaurant, and if there’s a game on, there’s going to be a TV with people glued to it. In Europe you can walk into a place that dates from the 1500s and there’s a TV in there somewhere and soccer is on. So the term ‘soccer bar’ is kind of funny.”
Nevertheless, the George and Dragon has become legendary for hosting big matches. The legend dates to the pub’s opening in 1995 when it was one of the few (if not only) places that showed European league games. Bayliss invested significant money in satellite TV technology that allowed him to show games that no one else could get. “We were the only place where you could watch the English league. When we opened in 1995 we’d have big crowds coming in to watch games at ungodly hours. It was all closed circuit and it was only us carrying it.”
Soccer fans from as far away as eastern Washington and even Vancouver, B.C., went to the George and Dragon to watch Premier League games. Kasey Keller’s mom occasionally watched her son play there. So, funny or not, Bayliss’s pub became known as a soccer bar.
Etchells (from Cambridge, England) was a bartender at the George and Dragon before opening up his own English-style pub called the Atlantic Crossing, on Seattle’s north side, Roosevelt District. The Atlantic Crossing has become known as the primary drinking home of the Emerald City Supporters since hosting the first ECS viewing party for a USL playoff game in 2008.
When Seattle-based Red Hook Brewery collaborated with ECS to brew a beer specifically for the group, the concoction (ECS No Equal Amber Lager) was first poured at the Atlantic Crossing. It is even the home of the Cascadia Cup; the supporters trophy awarded each year to whichever team has the best record in games between Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver.
So, Bayliss and Etchells could have told McHugh that soccer fans would be ready to party. Bayliss remembers a time when the police were called to the George and Dragon on a noise complaint. This is not an unheard of phenomenon for a neighborhood pub, but on this occasion the cops showed up to investigate a party raging at 7:30 … on a Thursday morning.
The US Men’s national team was playing Ghana in the 2006 World Cup. “I think it was a 7 a.m. kickoff,” Bayliss says. “We opened the parking lot as a beer garden. We had 200 inside and 200 outside. We’ve also got some pretty good-sized speakers for the commentary. So the police came by and said, ‘someone’s complained about the noise, all these people out here chanting and cheering.’”
Bayliss explained to the officer that it was the World Cup and it was team USA after all. “I told him ‘if you want to ask the people who complained to come down and ask us to turn it down you can.’ The policeman, perhaps infused with a sudden dose of patriotism, elected to let the party rage on.
“These kids know what a beer’s for!”
ETCHELLS REMEMBERS EARLY morning duties at games like that as a bartender at the George and Dragon. Later, when he owned his own place there was another World Cup game involving the US team set to kick off at just after 4 a.m. Etchells announced that, of course, the Atlantic Crossing would show the match, and when he arrived at 3:45 a.m. to open, he had to actually elbow his way into his own place since the line to get in stretched from his front door to the end of the block. At three forty-five in the morning!
Etchells had to serve the crowd coffee and soft drinks because even with a temporary license that allowed for his bar to be open at one of the thin hours between “last night” and “tomorrow morning,” he still wasn’t allowed to serve the good stuff until 6 a.m. “People were looking at their watches counting the minutes until 6 o’clock,” he laughs. “They’re staring at their watch and saying ‘one more minute! God I need a beer!’ We went through several big pots of coffee waiting for 6 a.m.”
Asked about the typical atmosphere during games at the Atlantic Crossing, Etchells jerks a thumb skyward toward a ceiling with several stains. “That’s beer all over the ceiling. That’s a good sign of how crowds get in here during games. That’s from goals. We sometimes have beer dripping on your head after a goal.”
Like McHugh and Bayliss, Etchells says his bar is so crowded for Sounders games (both home and away) that he doubles his staff to handle the extra demand. Bayliss went further than that to handle the demand of a growing soccer fan base. He doubled his bars. In 2010 he opened The Market Arms Pub in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood (about 10 minutes from the George and Dragon). The bar opened at 7 a.m. on the first day of the 2010 World Cup and in a refrain that should be familiar by now, it was filled with 200 customers by 7:05.
“These kids know what a beer’s for.”
The Seattle soccer pub scene was about more than just raising hell and drinking beer with your scrambled eggs, or nervously counting down the seconds until you could drink a beer with your scrambled eggs.) Places like the George and Dragon and the Atlantic Crossing were where Seattle’s soccer culture was developing. At these bars you were more likely to hear someone discussing the recent Arsenal-Tottenham match than last night’s Mariners game. They became places where soccer fans, often marginalized by mainstream sports fans, got to know one another.
“It was kind of like, ‘oh … you’re into soccer, too!’” says Etchells. “It was how you met people. You’d be cheering together, and a goal would be scored, and you’d hug the guy next to you. Then you’d introduce yourself and say ‘you know, typically, I wouldn’t be hugging you.’”
Aaron Reed joined the ECS in 2009 and eventually became the group’s travel coordinator. “A lot of places you go people will give you shit for being a soccer fan. Atlantic Crossing gave soccer fans a regular place to go where they could be themselves.” It also became an incubator for the fledgling support group.
The ECS of those days was a much smaller group following a minor-league team. Games drew less than 4,000 fans, but the Sounders were usually good. They won the league in 2005 and 2007 and they made the playoffs in 2008, where they were assigned a first-round match at Montreal.
There wasn’t any traditional over-the-air or cable TV broadcasts of the game, but the USL did make an on line feed available on the league website. The ECS planned a viewing party at the Atlantic Crossing. ECS co-president Greg Mockos remembers that the viewing portion of the viewing party was less than stellar.
“We put in a shitty, grainy feed from a lap top on a wifi that was shitty into the TV,” he says. The broadcast quality? You can figure out the one word answer to that question.
But it was the crowd at the event that impressed Mockos. “That was the first time the Sounders organization had acknowledged ECS. We had 200 people come out to that event and that was the first time we kind of realized how big it could be.”
THE AWAY GAME VIEWING party became a valuable recruiting tool for ECS during the Sounders early days in MLS. The parties were typically held at the Atlantic Crossing or other soccer friendly pubs where the group was allowed, in Reed’s words, to “sing, chant, and be dumb asses for as long as wanted.” This behavior naturally attracted attention and led to people wanting to join in on the fun. Reed gives a lot of credit for the group’s growth during this time to Zach Crisman, an ECS member who died in 2011 at the age of 29.
“He was our outreach guy, this big guy wearing a scarf who would walk up to and engage anyone. He was the evangelical supporter of the Sounders. If someone was standing over in the corner and didn’t know what was going on or didn’t know the words to the song, he’d put his arm around him and explain what was going on. He made sure everyone felt included.”
The Seattle soccer community continued to grow and as it did, Bayliss says, “There was a feeling that with all these guys in here watching it at 7 a.m. live on the TV, wouldn’t it be great to go to a nice, big stadium and see it week in and week out?”
In what became yet another happy accident on the road to the launch of the Sounders into MLS, two of the team’s key officials already knew about the George and Dragon and knew about the passion on display there from fans seemingly all day every day. Gary Wright had discovered it after his sudden plunge into soccer in 1998 when he needed a place to watch the semifinals of the World Cup. He had since become, if not quite a regular, a frequent visitor (“He was in here all the time watching Champions League games,” Bayliss remembers.)
“It was part of what convinced me that soccer could work so well here,” Wright says. “I’d go to watch games there and it was packed … 7 a.m. for a Liverpool game, packed … 4 p.m. for an Arsenal game, packed.”
Adrian Hanauer also was a frequent visitor to the pub to watch games. When the Sounders executive team and ownership group was being assembled in the fall of 2007 and decisions were being made on how best to market the team, both Wright and Hanauer told Tod Leiweke that he should visit the George and Dragon. Leiweke had never heard of the place, but he began dropping by the bar to learn about soccer fan culture.
“I was in there one night with my nephew,” he says. “They were showing a replay of a Champions League match and it was just crazy. I was lucky enough to find a stool. My nephew was standing. I don’t know if that was the moment that it occurred to me, but it was an incredible reinforcement that there was this population that loves soccer that absolutely understood the phenomenon of global soccer, and they were right here in Seattle just looking for an organization.”
Neighborhood pubs like the Atlantic Crossing and the George and Dragon were where fans the Sounders were trying to capture watched big games, but with an MLS team coming to Seattle, those same fans would need a gathering place closer to the stadium on game nights. The fact that many of them assemble at the Pioneer Square bar Fuel is as much about luck, timing, and loyalty as it is some grand plan.
MIKE MORRIS HAD A LONGTIME dream to own a sports bar near the football and baseball stadiums in Seattle, and in March of 2006 that dream became a reality when he opened Fuel, a classic shot and a beer type spot three blocks from the stadiums. Morris grew up in Spokane, Washington, and played high school soccer and was the kicker on his school’s football team. So while he had a little background in soccer, he was mostly a sports fan, and had no inkling of Fuel becoming a gathering place for soccer fans. “When I choose this location soccer wasn’t even on my mind. Now, it’s the biggest thing that ever happened to us.”
Morris remembers noticing “maybe one or two fans” wearing Sounders jerseys in his bar in the spring of 2006 on nights the USL team played. He asked them about the team and says it dawned on him that in addition to marketing his new bar to Mariners and Seahawks fans, he could try soccer fans, too. A regular patron kept telling him soccer was going to be the future of his bar, and Morris decided to become proactive.
He reached out through the social media site of the day: “I got on Myspace and found this group called the Emerald City Supporters. I sent them a message inviting them to Fuel and offering to buy them some appetizers and maybe a drink or two. They hit me up on that.”
Morris found a small-but-dedicated group of Sounders fans. They had been meeting before games at Fado, an Irish pub a few blocks away, but had worn out their welcome there. Fado had told them they couldn’t sing their songs or do their chants because they were disturbing other customers.
Morris had brand new bar, loved sports and the accompanying fans (after all he was one of them) … and needed the customers. “I said ‘you can chant all you want here.’ And that’s where the relationship started. I opened my doors to them when they were in the USL and had 30 members. I had no idea the MLS was coming. Then, when it did … that’s when it exploded.”
When the ECS exploded, Morris found himself feeling like a guy who worked three jobs to put his better half through medical school only to get jilted when the goal was achieved.
“They had lots of bars try to take them away with this deal or that special,” he says, “but the one thing their leadership group always says is, I opened my doors to them when they were a nobody and allowed them to chant and sing. So when they went to MLS and the group changed from 30 to 2,000 people overnight, they remembered that I had opened the doors. So they made this their home bar.”
Morris has reciprocated that loyalty: ECS members always get 10% off their bill at Fuel and never have to pay a cover on nights when the bar hosts a band. Reed points out that Morris also, “didn’t bat an eye” when the group broke a table in the bar during a celebration when the Sounders won the 2009 US Open Cup tournament.
Game days at Fuel are like a giant chaotic family reunion. Hugs and high fives are exchanged, beers are quaffed, and nachos demolished by giant crowds dressed in rave green and wearing ECS scarves. For big games, Morris clears out the parking lot next door and creates a beer garden effectively doubling the space of his bar.
And those lucky enough to be in Fuel on the right day or night, might even get their drinks paid for.
“We call it the Drew Carey Power Hour,” Morris says. The Sounders owner and TV star contacts Morris about once a year on the day of a game and tells him he is coming by. Carey tweets out the word, and a few minutes later, in he walks ready to cover the entire bar’s beverages for an hour.
“Craziness ensues,” says Morris who has noticed his customers tend to up their game when Carey is paying. “People who are drinking a Bud Light suddenly say ‘can I have a pitcher of Bud Light and a Long Island Iced Tea and a shot of Patron, some nachos and a hamburger, and maybe a shot of Grey Goose.’”
Morris says Carey is monster tipper and says one of the added benefits is that despite the fact he only does it once a year, fans come by before every game to see if it’s the Drew Carey Power Hour. He echoes McHugh’s thoughts about what the Sounders and their fans have done for places like his in Pioneer Square.
“It’s been so huge for the entire neighborhood. Pioneer Square was really hurting in 2008, but soccer kept it alive. Soccer was its saving grace. In 2008 bars were going under left and right, everyone’s numbers were down. Then the Sounders came around and it changed. Everything started going back up hill.”
So along the way to their leap from the USL into MLS the Sounders were smart enough to recognize a huge community of people who didn’t just play soccer on weekends or watch their kids play. The Sounders embraced people who lived the sport, build their days around it, and make plans to always be at their favorite pub, no matter the time, to watch their favorite team.
Leiweke felt too many MLS teams in the past had discounted the existence of such a market in their communities, but he knew it existed in Seattle from first-hand experience and it was those fans that become primary targets of the Sounders original marketing efforts. “Those trips to the George and Dragon served as the inspiration for the core fan base we were going to build around. It was the epicenter.”
McHUGH INSISTS HE WASN’T all that surprised when the MLS Sounders made such a big wave. He’d opened F.X. McRory’s in the NASL glory days in Seattle and remembers some wild times, particularly when Vancouver came to town. “We had a great rivalry with them. They’d come down here with their big flags and they’d be marching around in here half looped and the pole would knock out one of our chandeliers. There’d be glass everywhere. I’m saying ‘Damn it you guys! Get the hell out of here.’”
McHugh laughs and then corrects himself. “Actually, I told them to take the guy with pole out of here, but the rest of them could stay and keep drinking. It was all great fun.”
He also experienced the great fun of having Carey in his bar after a Sounders win. Carey wasn’t looking to buy the house a round, and in fact on this occasion it was the other way around. McHugh made sure Carey’s group of four was taken care of and before they left he presented Carey with a copy of the famous Leroy Neiman painting of the bar.
When Carey asked for his tab the bartender told him McHugh had taken care of it. “So,” McHugh remembers, “he ordered a soft drink, paid for it with a card, and added a huge tip for the staff.”
The Sounders didn’t just hit on the idea of selling the team to the pub crowd; they’ve cultivated the relationship over the years. Their website has a list of MLS Pubs in Seattle and players, coaches, and management make regular appearances to visit with fans. Bayliss says his customers are always pleasantly surprised at how accessible the Sounders are at these appearances: “They are happy to sit down and chat with anybody.”
By the time they were ready to make the official announcement about an MLS team coming to Seattle, the Sounders had built up such a respect for the pub culture of soccer fans that they decided not to hold a press conference at a fancy hotel or the Space Needle or the stadium. No, Carey delivered the first official word of the team’s impending arrival in November of 2007 to a packed house at the George and Dragon.
“We were allowed to release a snippet on our website,” Bayliss recalls, “that there was going to be a special announcement regarding soccer locally, and of course that word spread pretty quick. By 11 that morning there’s 250 people there with Sounders scarves of old.”
John Rizzardini recalls that shortly after they arrived for the announcement Carey became somewhat of a loose cannon. Carey had proposed several radical ideas in meetings with team officials regarding how the team should interact with fans. Borrowing from European clubs, Carey wanted fans to be able to vote the General Manager out of office. He wanted fans to have a true voice in how the team was run.
“We had been talking privately, in meetings; about the idea of democracy in sports and having a vote on the GM,” Rizzardini says. “Drew had proposed that we have a marching band. We were considering his ideas, but maybe not doing all of it for the first season. We were supposed to meet after the announcement to discuss how and when we were going to do these things.”
The timetable for implementation of Carey’s plans changed the second the red light of the TV news cameras came on.
“He gets out of the limo,” Rizzardini says with a laugh, “and grabs the mike and starts announcing all these things we were going to do. I remember writing all of them down. ‘OK … he just said this so we’re doing this. He said that so we’re doing that.’ It was all things we should have done anyway.”
The fans obviously ate it all up. “There were cheers and a big celebration,” Bayliss says. “It was a pretty good day for us.”
It may have only been lunchtime on Monday but Carey’s announcement triggered a rush at the bar because after all, these kids know what a beer’s for.