During practice, in the front office, on the jerseys — technology is impacting the Seattle Sounders FC in a myriad of ways, both helping the franchise win games and grow its bottom line.
As the Sounders prepare to host the MLS Cup this Sunday against Toronto FC in what is expected to be the most attended soccer match in Seattle history, here’s a look at how tech tools and the city’s booming innovation industry affects the team, now valued at $405 million — up 30 percent from last year and good for fourth in Major League Soccer.
The Sounders have long been pioneers, at least among MLS teams, in applying sports science and analytics to help make on-field improvements. The club uses a variety of gadgets such as GPS trackers and heart rate monitors to measure how exactly their players are performing during and after on-field activity. Drones are also used to capture practice footage. The resulting data is crunched with tools such as SQL and Tableau to help make tactical decisions and prevent injury.
Ravi Ramineni, who previously worked at Microsoft for seven years on projects such as Bing and fraud management, joined the club in late 2012. His job has changed dramatically since then as the team captures deeper analytics and coaches increase the level of integration into decision making.
“We are truly integrating analytics now to the point where it’s just part of what we do,” Ramineni, now the director of soccer analytics, told GeekWire this week.
Ramineni said there is a lot of focus on helping create “high value opportunties to score” — like taking more shots closer to the goal — and putting players in places where they can be most successful. He credited the Sounders coaching staff for being “so open to actually get the dialogue going” when it comes to applying data to actual tweaks during practice or real matches.
The team hosted its first Sounders Analytics Conference this past June in Seattle, where soccer analytics experts from around the world gathered to discuss the future of data and sports. Talks ranged from “Turning Open Data into Knowledge,” to “Integrating Analytics into the Workflow” — similar to what you might find at any tech industry event as companies aim to transform how they work with the help of technology.
The Sounders also look at analytics for player personnel moves. Case in point: analyzing data about Nicolas Lodeiro played an important role in ultimately deciding to sign the Uruguayan midfielder back in 2016. Lodeiro has been a star for the Sounders, leading the team this season as captain with 12 assists and ranking third in goals scored, including this beauty during the Western Conference Finals against LAFC:
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) October 30, 2019
Tech execs join new ownership group
The connection between Seattle’s tech industry and the Sounders was never more clear than this past August, when the team announced a revamped ownership group that included an all-star roster of current and former technology executives such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
There were 11 families, all with Seattle roots, that put their dollars behind the city’s professional soccer franchise, including:
- Nadella and his wife Anu Nadella
- Former Microsoft executive and current Madrona Venture Group partner Terry Myerson and his wife Katie Myerson
- Microsoft CFO Amy Hood and her husband Max Kleinman
- Microsoft Corporate Vice President of Experiences and Devices Joe Belfiore and his wife Kristina Belfiore, a former director of Microsoft Recruiting
- Former Microsoft senior exec and current Madrona Venture Group Managing Director Soma Somasegar and his wife Akila Somasegar
- Twilio Chief Product Officer and former Amazon/Google/Microsoft executive Chee Chew and his wife Christine Chew, a former Microsoft program manager
- Former Pandora and aQuantive CEO Brian McAndrews and his wife Elise Holschuh
The group also includes Seahawks star quarterback Russell WIlson and his wife, music star Ciara, along with Seattle hip-hop legend Macklemore and his wife Tricia Davis.
Former longtime Microsoft exec Terry Myerson detailed the journey of recruiting his former colleagues and others from the Seattle community in a LinkedIn post. After an introduction from Microsoft board member John Stanton — who bought the Seattle Mariners from Nintendo in 2016 — Myerson met with Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer, who revealed a potential investment opportunity.
“I am honored to now be part of this club, with its great heritage, and so much future potential as a pillar of our great city of Seattle,” Myerson wrote. “Soccer has so much to offer all of us — lessons in teamwork, perseverance and hard work — and the opportunity for boys and girls, whole families, and friends to bond together across all walks of life and across generations. I look forward to the day when we bring our next championship home to Seattle, bringing together our entire Seattle community for a shared moment of pride and celebration.”
Speaking at a press event following the ownership change, Hanauer — a longtime tech investor and entrepreneur in Seattle — said having the support of so many Microsoft leaders is “a tremendous statement to the profile of the Sounders and how much they care about keeping this organization locally-rooted and their commitment to community.”
Asked if the new owners got involved because of the growing intersection of sports and tech, Hanauer said he didn’t think their participation was anything beyond community and supporting the Sounders and the city.
“That said, they may not know it yet, but I intend to tap into every bit of knowledge that we can organically to help us think through what the next 10 years look like,” Hanauer added. “It is a changing landscape with media consumption, sports betting, how sponsors look to measure results and success, how fans are engaging in-game, different demographics within the fanbase. So for sure we will tap that knowledge.”
From Microsoft to Zulily
A small space on the Sounders uniform reflects big marketing budgets for some of Seattle’s largest tech companies.
Microsoft was the original Sounders jersey sponsor, advertising its Xbox video game arm on the team’s kits and elsewhere throughout CenturyLink Field since Seattle’s MLS debut in 2009.
E-commerce company Zulily stepped in this season, paying for the rights to advertise its brand on the jerseys and other Sounders-related assets. The company also sponsors the jerseys for Seattle’s women’s professional soccer team, Seattle Reign FC.
For Zulily, founded in 2009 and acquired for $2.4 billion in 2015 by QVC parent Qurate, paying millions for sports sponsorship rights was uncharted territory. The primary motivation behind the deal was to build brand awareness in the Seattle community, said Kevin Saliba, Zulily’s senior vice president of marketing. He also cited the continued growth and popularity of MLS.
The timing couldn’t have worked out better for Zulily, given the Sounders’ success this season and hosting the MLS Cup in Seattle as its brand will be front-and-center on the national stage.
“We’re proud of the work we’ve been doing with both organizations and appreciate the opportunity it has presented for us to engage with our community and build awareness around Zulily as a local e-commerce and technology employer,” Saliba told GeekWire this week.
Zulily’s investment comes as the online retailer expands its footprint in the sports category, featuring brands such as PUMA and Fanatics, which debuted in its store this year. The company has also used the jersey deal to host off-the-field events such as a panel discussion about leadership advice for women.
Another tech-related symbiotic relationship features Slalom Consulting, the Seattle-based firm that employs 7,000 people across the globe and more than 1,000 in the Seattle region.
The company first partnered with the Sounders seven years ago. “We wanted to make sure to tie our name to the Sounders in any way we could,” said Kyle Kruse, general manager at Slalom Consulting. “We were on a mission to make sure we were synonymous with Seattle.”
That led to the creation of the “Slalom Experience,” a special seating area just off the pitch at CenturyLink Field that includes match tickets, food and beverages, a Sounders jersey, scarf, and more.
Slalom also later did tech work for the Sounders, helping the front office move to a new CRM system.
In recent years, Hanauer, the team’s majority owner, and Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer have spoken at Slalom events.
And in a funny coincidence, Sounders legend Zach Scott — known as “Mr. Sounder” given that he played 15 seasons and 349 games with the franchise, dating back to its United Soccer League era — took at job at Slalom in 2016 after retiring from soccer.
This week, the company secured 500 tickets to the MLS Cup for its Seattle-area employees.
Much like Zulily, recruitment is a key reason for why Slalom continues to partner with the Sounders.
“The Sounders fanbase is very much our employees, our recruits, our clients, and the community as a whole that we want to align ourselves with,” Kruse said. “It’s been very unique finding that partnership.”
Amperity is another example of a Seattle tech company working with their local soccer club. The marketing startup helps the Sounders get more granular data about their fans — such as match preferences, purchase timing, lifetime spend, and more — to improve relevant 1-to-1 communication and engagement with customers. “It’s driving some pretty dramatic business results for them,” said Amperity CEO Kabir Shahani.
And the Sounders didn’t have to go far to find mobile app developers — its iOS app is built by Broadside Digital, a Seattle firm that is also a partner of the Rave Foundation, the team’s philanthropic arm.