The Gasman’s New Game

Sports talk has long tuned out soccer. Now, less than a year after Mike Gastineau left his radio career behind, the iconic commentator is using his new-found freedom to tell the story of the beautiful game in Seattle.

In flip-flops and shorts, Mike “The Gasman” Gastineau is downing beers at happy hour on the F.X. McRory’s patio like he’s been here before. It’s been nine months since The Gasman signed off of the KJR sports-talk airwaves. He doesn’t appear anxious or particularly nervous. But he is in uncharted territory.

The date is September 11, two nights before Seattle Sounders FC will take down Real Salt Lake 2-0 at a packed CenturyLink Field. The win will give the Sounders sole possession of first place in the Western Conference—at least momentarily—and mark the squad’s fifth victory in a row, a franchise record. A crowd of 55,107 will witness the win in person. An average of 177,000 viewers will watch it across the country on the NBC Sports Network, making it the station’s second-most-watched MLS game of the season to date. The Sounders faithful will cheer an electric third-minute goal by Obafemi Martins, and later revel at a late-match sighting of the team’s new star, Clint Dempsey, straight off his U.S. National Team appearance in Columbus, Ohio.

From the patio on this waning summer afternoon, Gastineau peers toward October and the release of his self-published book, Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece: The Inside Story of the Best Franchise Launch in Sports History. It’s a career transition that The Gasman—who reached iconic sports-talk status in Seattle during his 21 years at KJR 950 AM—has dedicated himself to since last December, when he abruptly announced his plan to leave the station.

“Probably three weeks after I determined that I was going to leave KJR, I knew [this book] was going to be my project,” Gastineau says with conviction.

Gastineau’s gamble is monetary, in that he left a six-figure salary at KJR, worked unpaid for nearly a year, and spent in the “low five figures” of his own money to bring the book to life. But, more important, it’s personal: The Gasman first stepped up to a microphone at age 15 and earned his name in Seattle behind one. He’s traded his comfortable radio status for a pen, and for a sport that—outside Seattle, at least— is considered fringe.

“It takes tremendous guts. I know it’s the type of guts I don’t have at this point,” says Gastineau’s longtime on-air partner, Dave “The Groz” Grosby, of Gastineau’s career pivot from established radio jock to self-publishing soccer author. “It’s really taking a chance.” The Groz left KJR for KIRO 710 ESPN in 2010, but starting in May 1996, he and Gastineau established themselves as a Seattle sports-talk institution. By the early aughts, the duo was the top-rated afternoon talk show on the AM dial.

The Gasman’s decision to abandon his successful sports-talk career surprised some, as did the fact that he left to write a book about soccer. As Gastineau puts it, “I stepped away from a sure thing to gamble”—a choice he says he’s “never had an ounce of doubt” about.

On air or off, Gastineau loves a good story. And the launch of the Sounders, he promises, is just that. As Gastineau writes in his book’s opening:

Pulling it off took the faith and cooperation of one of the richest men in the world, one of the most powerful movie executives in Hollywood, and a minor league sports owner who would have to take a big leap into the world of big league sports.

Along the way they’d get help from a former NFL executive who spent much of his NFL days ridiculing anyone who watched soccer. They’d find a coach who had almost become an accountant. They’d build the on-field product around that trickiest of sports stars: the local hero attempting to come home to finish his career on a high.

They’d do their primary customer research not at youth soccer fields in the suburbs, but at dark, beer-drenched soccer bars tucked away in various Seattle neighborhoods. They’d form a union with the most dedicated group of sports fans any of them had ever encountered. Then they held their collective breath hoping that union would work.

The qualities that made The Gasman an on-air success permeate Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece. During his two decades at KJR, Gastineau established a reputation for being different, employing a relatable style that Seattle listeners came to appreciate. “I think I was honest,” he says of his time on the air. Instead of the contrived, hotheaded takes that are commonplace in the sports-talk genre these days, the Gasman told stories. Instead of the view from the press box, Gastineau preferred the view from the stands—a perspective that resonated in his on-air persona. “I wanted to feel the pain of paying $8 for a beer and getting elbowed in the ribs in the men’s room at halftime,” The Gasman says.

This everyman approach went beyond the booth. Originally from Indianapolis—a self-described “son of the Midwest”—Gastineau endeared himself to the community by being approachable and giving back. The Kares-A-Thon, an annual fundraiser he created at KJR in 1995 that continues to this day, has raised more than a million dollars for various charities since its inception. The first Kares-A-Thon benefited the Northwest Literacy Foundation. In 2005, only weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Kares-A-Thon sent all its proceeds to New Orleans.

Charity work is just one way Gastineau has left a mark on the city he’s come to love. Many of these marks are on a personal level. Talk to Gastineau’s friends and former colleagues, and they’ll tell you of the importance The Gasman places on the relationships he’s built over the years since his arrival in June 1991 from a station in the small city of Harrisonburg, Va.

“You can belly up to the bar with him. He was perfect for us,” says KJR station manager Rich Moore.

“Mike Gastineau is a radio icon. . . . He’s the guy that started it all,” says current KJR DJ Dave “Softy” Mahler. “In a lot of ways, I owe everything to Mike.”

“It was tough to swallow,” he says of Gastineau’s decision to leave KJR.

For Gastineau, however, the decision was easy. New business realities of sports talk in Seattle had changed the game, and an amplified pressure for ratings in a suddenly crowded market only increased his desire to do something different. A man who had spent the past 37 years on the radio was left wondering where his voice fit.

“This is just the kind of story you can’t even tell on sports radio anymore,” says Gastineau of his book.

People start pouring out of the Pioneer Square bar Fuel and into Occidental Park a little over an hour before the match. The Gasman and I are among them. It’s two days after we’d first met at F.X. McRory’s, we’re a couple beers in, and the showdown with the hated Real Salt Lake has arrived. First place in the Western Conference is on the line.

We’re headed to March to the Match, a ritual that precedes every Sounders home game. Led by the Emerald City Supporters—a “supporters group” of fans who, in the fashion of European soccer traditions, sit behind the south goal (or Brougham End) at CenturyLink Field—the March goes from Occidental Park to the stadium gates. Gastineau says it’s something I have to see—one of the many aspects that makes the Sounders experience unique. Pioneer Square feels fueled by beer, brimming with green scarves and fight songs:

I’m a Sounder, I’m seldom sober

I’m a Sounder, all blue and green

It’s when I’m drinking,

I’m always drinking,

To a Sounders victory!

No one likes us, no one likes us!

No one likes us, we don’t care!

We are Sounders,

Mighty Sounders,

We are Sounders, from Brougham End!

The March to the Match is just beginning as Gastineau and I duck into Nord Alley and attempt to head off the herd at Jackson. It works perfectly, and seeing the swath of humanity come toward us is impressive. The occasional smoke bomb makes it even a little theatrical. In front of tonight’s wall of Rave Green passion walks Sounders majority owner Joe Roth, wearing warm-up pants and giving an interview to a backpedaling Jeffrey Hayzlett of Bloomberg TV’s C-Suite, in town for a piece chronicling the Sounders’ financial success. Roth—a Hollywood film executive and former chairman of 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios —has a reported net worth of $700 million.

“Think Chuck Armstrong, or even Paul Allen, would be out there like that?” Gastineau asks me, pointing at the Sounders’ main money man. “He’s basically throwing himself to the wolves.”

As the scene around us confirms, Sounders diehards are different. And the team’s relationship with its legion of supporters is even more unusual. There are 55,000 people flowing toward the stadium for tonight’s game, and most don’t fit the profile of the mainstream sports fan. When arch-rival Portland was in town in August, the number swelled to 67,000—an NFL-like figure.

If soccer isn’t mainstream in Seattle, it has created a stream of its own.

“Niche sport my ass,” remarks Gastineau of what transpires around us. “Not here.”

In some ways it was the Sounders’ fervent fanbase—the envy of the MLS—that originally drew Gastineau to the sport and this story. In the grand scheme, he’s relatively new to soccer, but he’s been a Sounders season-ticket holder since the team’s MLS debut season in 2009. “I never had the typical media view of soccer, of hating it or being scared of it,” says Gastineau, one of a “minority” at KJR that ventured into Sounders talk on-air. “I wasn’t head-over-heels about [soccer], either. I was just kind of fascinated by the quirkiness of it, and by the massive support.”

Locally—even nationally—there’s nothing like what the Sounders have cultivated in Seattle. Attending a match at CenturyLink feels as much like a cultural experience as a sporting event. It’s hard not to get caught up in the moment. Since the Sounders joined the MLS, the team has logged the league’s top four all-time season attendance averages—a number that’s increased each year, with an average of 43,144 in 2012. The team’s average attendance is double that of the next best MLS team, and two of the MLS’s all-time top 10 most-attended games were in Seattle, in 2012 and 2013 against the Portland Timbers. The Sounders have sold out all 81 home MLS matches to date, and the club’s 2013 average attendance so far—42,576—would rank seventh in the English Premier League, third in Spain’s La Liga, second in Italy’s Serie A, and 10th in the German Bundesliga.

According to Matt “Stretch” Johnson, who hosts the pre- and post-game shows for the Sounders on KIRO Radio, local interest in the team has its roots in the area’s robust youth participation and the seeds sown by the original North American Soccer League Sounders, 1974–83, winning lifelong soccer fans at games at Memorial Stadium and the Kingdome while the league around it struggled to find a footing. The NASL Sounders folded at the conclusion of the 1983 outdoor season, to the dismay of many. The league followed suit a year later.

Soccer would return to the Emerald City in 1994, with the Seattle Sounders of the American Professional Soccer League attempting to fill the void left by the departure of the club that first bore the name. The club won two championships in three years before joining the USL in 1997—where it would claim two more titles. Despite this on-field success, those who’ve closely followed Seattle soccer say it was the creation of the MLS Sounders FC that truly unlocked the fanbase cultivated in the ’70s and early ’80s. When the USL Sounders made way for Sounders FC in 2009, many of those original hardcore NASL fans—and now their soccer-playing children—were here, waiting.

“Everybody in this area played soccer at some point growing up,” says Johnson, who’s from the Northwest and participates in the sport to this day. “It is mainstream to a lot of people.”

The numbers seem to back Johnson up. Washington Youth Soccer—the state’s largest youth soccer organization, and the Washington affiliate of the national US Youth Soccer organization—boasts more than 105,000 players, 15,000 coaches, 12,000 teams, and 6,500 referees. That’s the 10th largest membership of any youth soccer organization in the nation. Even more telling, about 90,000 of those soccer-playing kids—or 85 percent—are located in western Washington.

“The original 1974 Sounders . . . really laid the foundation for soccer in Seattle and the Northwest,” says current-day Sounders FC co-owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer, who also served as a majority shareholder and general manager for the USL Sounders. “From there, youth systems thrived, high-school programs thrived, college programs thrived. . . . There was just this massive amount of pent-up demand that was built in the community for high-level professional soccer.”

Rabid fans and attendance records aside, what really hooked Gastineau was a chance to tell the story behind the Sounders’ 2009 launch. It’s a birth unlike any other in the history of major sports, he says, and the way the team’s original visionaries—Roth, Hanauer, former team CEO Tod Leiweke, famed minority owner Drew Carey, and others—worked with Seattle soccer fans to pull it off is nothing short of remarkable. With the might and organization of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports & Entertainment (which also owns the Seahawks and the Portland Trailblazers) adding oomph to the operation, the ownership group’s collective genius includes its willingness to retain the name Sounders—a nod to Seattle soccer history—and the creation of the Alliance, the official members’ association, open to season-ticket holders and those willing to cough up the $125 annual fee. Among other things, the Alliance elects a Council with direct influence over how the club is run, including the unprecedented power to fire the team’s general manager in an election held every four years. In 2012 Hanauer was retained, receiving 96.3 percent of the 13,755 votes cast. It was the first ever such vote in American sports history.

“I’m very excited about what we’re doing here in Seattle,” said Carey during the founding of the team, for which the host of The Price is Right spearheaded many fan-involvement initiatives. “Where else can the fans fire the general manager? I hope this becomes a model for every professional sports organization in America.”

At the very least, Gastineau hopes it’s a model—and a backstory—people will want to read about. Locally, that Sounders fans will buy his book seems like a given. But the longtime radio man has his sights set higher. He’s written before—a column for The Grand Salami, contributions to The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists, and even a musical back at Indianapolis’ North Central High School—but this is different. Gastineau’s self-published effort will likely define him as an author. And he knows it.

Sitting in his season-ticket seats and watching the Sounders dismantle Real Salt Lake, Gastineau allows himself to think big, comparing his book’s potential national appeal to that of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. “One of the early knocks on Moneyball was, ‘Well, it’s a book about the Oakland As.’ But it wasn’t. This is the same thing,” says Gastineau. “This is a book about culture, about changing times, about how come every sports franchise doesn’t interact with its fans this way. . . . I mean, there’s just so much that’s cool about it.”

“To have the kind of success I’d like to see, I do think it has to get out nationally,” he adds.

Others, however, remain more measured. “Anything’s possible. You never say never, especially in publishing,” says national sportswriter John Feinstein, a friend of Gastineau’s who remembers bluntly telling The Gasman that his chances of attracting a publisher for his Sounders book were slim to none. “I just wanted him to not get disappointed and discouraged,” he says of the conversation, which ultimately led to Gastineau’s decision to self-publish without pitching the idea to a single conventional publishing house. “I think it’s going to have to, in some way, embody something universal that people will grab onto,” Feinstein offers of Gastineau’s literary gamble. “If you can do that, then you can reach an audience.”

Gastineau watches his words carefully when discussing his decision to leave KJR, to ensure he doesn’t come off as angry or bitter. He never has been, he insists, and he offers a resoundingly positive endorsement of his former employer. It was simply time for something different, he says repeatedly. But he also admits that changes at KJR—and throughout the sports-talk industry—spurred the move.

“People don’t remember that sports radio started in the mid-’80s. . . . We were basically the third station in the country to do it. You’re talking about a guy who’s been there from the very, very beginning,” says Grosby of his former colleague and the early days at KJR. WFAN in New York and WIP in Philadelphia are generally considered the first stations to adopt a full-time sports-talk platform.

“This town was so fun in the ’90s. Shit, everybody had money, things were happening in music and culture, the Sonics were good, the Mariners were good, the Seahawks were getting better, we were getting stadiums built,” Gastineau remembers. “Then, kind of like every place, things changed.”

By 2001, a station once run locally by billboard mogul and former Sonics owner Barry Ackerley was an asset of the massive Clear Channel Communications, which today owns and operates more than 1,200 radio stations in the United States—thanks in large part to the the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated ownership and allowed the company to go on a purchasing spree. Slowly, says Gastineau, things began to change at KJR—a transition he attributes to industry shifts and new economic realities. Different managers were brought in. Fewer producers were employed. From a corporate standpoint, Gastineau says, he feels that Clear Channel’s focus moved to its music stations. Meanwhile, two new competing sports-talk stations emerged in Seattle—KIRO 710 ESPN and CBS’ 1090 The Fan—creating a fight for listeners and advertising dollars.

“I knew there were some issues with Clear Channel,” says Grosby of the scene at KJR. “A lot of people who were there were no longer there.”

Last September, Gastineau says, it hit him. The moment of career clarity, he recalls, came upon learning KJR management would all be in Las Vegas for a Clear Channel music festival on the day of the 17th annual Kares-A-Thon.

Again, Gastineau pointedly reiterates, he wasn’t angry. If anything, he was relieved. His next move was suddenly obvious. “Just shitty timing. Nobody went out and said, ‘Let’s screw Gas over,’ ” Gastineau recalls of the scheduling conflict. “But I remember thinking, ‘I’ve put so much into this—my heart and my soul—and nobody can stay behind? Everybody has to go?’

“Rather than being pissed off, it was like, ‘OK, I see what way the wind’s blowing now.’ . . . I didn’t get down in the dumps . . . my first thought was, ‘I’m leaving.’ It was like, ‘I’ve been looking for this. Thank you. This is the sign.’ . . . It just kind of hit me, all at once, that the ground had really shifted beneath me.”

If the new business realities of sports talk in Seattle helped make Gastineau’s decision easy, the amplified pressure for ratings in a suddenly crowded market, and an industry-wide trend to push NFL-dominated content, only solidified it. These days, judging by the ratings, what listeners want is not soccer. It’s football—and as much of it as humanly possible.

“We never talk soccer on the air,” says Grosby of his KIRO show. “Our ratings haven’t been hurt by it. . . . I don’t think soccer fans are your traditional sports-radio listener.”

Likewise, KJR station manager Rich Moore presents a programming plan devoid of the Beautiful Game, despite the approaching MLS playoffs. “We go fast. We’re playing the hits. Right now we’re talking Seahawks, Seahawks, Seahawks, and Husky football.”

It’s not a development Gastineau finds appealing. “More and more competition has led to [more NFL talk],” says Gastineau. “The NFL is just a monster. It’s a behemoth. . . . I hear the guys at KIRO 710 have been told by ESPN in Bristol to talk NFL 50 percent of the show, 365 days a year. . . . I can’t do that. I’m not going to make up stuff to talk about.”

With his book now officially available via Amazon, Gastineau has made it to October, but that doesn’t mean his work is done. Minus a publisher, one of the most famous names in Seattle radio history is working on distribution deals at small local bookstores, scheduling book signings, and once again peering into the future. He’s done some freelance work for Sirius XM’s Pearl Jam Radio; if things work out he may write another book; and he doesn’t rule out an eventual return to the local sports-talk airwaves. What lies ahead, he says, is anyone’s guess.

If he does return to sports-talk radio, you can bet Gastineau will find time to talk about the Sounders. And who knows?—the rest of sports-talk radio may one day follow suit.

“Not to sound confrontational, but I think this generation of sports-talk radio personalities will probably be the last generation that doesn’t know the game and is maybe unwilling to embrace [soccer],” Hanauer told Seattle Weekly, citing changing demographics and increased national diversity. “A lot of those guys got to where they are by talking about football, baseball, and basketball, and trashing on soccer—kind of a cool jock thing to do. Eventually, that’s going to lead them to not having jobs. It’s only a matter of time.”

Tickets are still available for the Sounders’ final regular-season home game against the LA Galaxy, 6 p.m. Sun., Oct. 27. $25 and up.

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