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Seattle soccer: A city drinks in Drew Carey's love of the game

COLUMN ONE

The comedian and part-owner of Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders has a grand vision for making the sport popular in the U.S. To Carey, it all starts with the fans.

June 06, 2009|Kurt Streeter

SEATTLE — Hey bartender, have you seen Drew Carey?"

"Sure," she says, pointing to a thicket of blue and green. Soccer lovers -- Seattle Sounders lovers to be precise -- crammed inside a beer-drenched bar.

His famous outline emerges, wide and square-jawed. The popular comedian and host of TV's "The Price Is Right" stands by a bar stool, one of the gang -- the gang being the Emerald City Supporters, one of several fan groups that live and breathe the Sounders, the Major League Soccer team Carey partly owns that is playing its first season.

Game time is in two hours at nearby Qwest Field against the San Jose Earthquakes, and the fans are hyped.

Some thank him for bringing big-time soccer -- as big as it's played in America at least -- to Seattle.

"Drew, Drew, never thought I'd see anything like this. You're totally awesome, man!" says one. Others offer advice, from what to do about a struggling player to where the team's crackerjack band should sit. "Drew, bud, we gotta talk. . . ." "Drew, ever think of this . . .?" "Drew, Drew, hey Mr. Carey . . ."

Most team owners would steer well clear of a place like this. But Carey, guided by his populist instincts and curiosity, wants to soak up the fans' energy and hear their opinions.

Carey, schlumpy son of middle America, has become a soccer fiend and one of the game's most ardent evangelists. He wants fans to share his goal of making soccer deeply popular in this country. He wants pro sports teams in the United States, particularly ones like the soulless L.A. Clippers, to replicate the Seattle Sounders' tight, almost brotherly connection with fans.

Impossible, right? Team owners aren't known for welcoming change. To think a trend will develop, says David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, "is simply wishful thinking."

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Soccer is hardly fertile ground for such a movement. This is Major League Soccer's 14th season, yet ESPN this year scuttled its weekly "Primetime Thursday" showcase game because of meager ratings.

The Sounders, though, lead the MLS in attendance, having sold out the 29,000-seat Qwest Field for all 15 of their home games, right up to the final match in October that ends the 30-game season.

On this particular night in late April, as game time approaches, Carey ambles down the street toward the stadium, still surrounded by scores of fans, signing autographs, giving hugs. This is the start of the Sounders' pregame parade. And Carey is at the heart of it.

With the wide-eyed, vaguely surprised look of a man who can't get over his good fortune, he scans the crowd.

"Drew," a woman says, pointing to a sea of fans lifting green-and-blue Sounders scarves to the sky. "Really beautiful!"

"Geez, I thought they'd be cool," he says, noting that to build unity every season ticket holder was given a scarf, the way it's done in Europe. "I mean, look at this. Wow."

There is one more stop before the stadium -- Occidental Park, to listen to one of his great loves, the team's marching band, 53 musicians strong. The rally, two blocks from the stadium, is a swelling sea of blue and green and part of the parade process.

A man approaches, his face painted in Sounders colors.

"Drew Carey, whoa," he says, speaking loud enough to be heard over the trumpets and trombones. "Ever thought of painting half of your face blue and half of your face green?"

"Uh, no," Carey deadpans. "If that's your thing, man, that's cool. Just keep coming to the games."

It was serendipity that led Carey to became a soccer fiend. As a teen, he knew of the North American Soccer League, which included the first incarnation of the Seattle Sounders. He also recalls adults saying that no one would get hurt playing the game, predicting it would be the next big thing. It wasn't. It did have a superstar, though: Brazil's Pele.

When the NASL folded in 1984, Carey felt no loss.

"It was just that league that had Pele and then went down in a heap," he says. "That's all I ever thought . . . that soccer in America equals failure."

By 2004, the comedian had his own fame thanks to his nine-year run on ABC with the sitcom "The Drew Carey Show." He took some time off and returned to a childhood love: sports photography.

To practice, he chose soccer because the sport received so little attention. He could go to a U.S. national team game, sit on the sidelines with his camera and nobody would notice. He did well enough that a wire service hired him to shoot the 2006 World Cup. That changed his life.

"A complete revelation," Carey says of World Cup play. "The sport all the parents tried to sell as not competitive . . . it was violent! Nothing but elbows and forearms. . . . Not competitive? Not tough? That's like if someone were going to tell you, 'Hey, you're going to make your living going up for rebounds against LeBron James, but don't worry, it's not going to be very physical. It's not going to hurt.' I was hooked!"

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