Smaller crowd for Seattle's 1st major event since outbreak

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A man makes use of a hand-sanitizing station at CenturyLink Field prior to an MLS soccer match between the Seattle Sounders and the Chicago Fire, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Seattle. Major North American professional sports leagues are talking to health officials and informing teams about the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SEATTLE, Wash. – Four months ago, Occidental Park, a couple of blocks north of CenturyLink Field, was crammed with thousands of Seattle Sounders fans clad in green and blue marching to the stadium. They sang, they set off smoke bombs and a few hours later celebrated the Sounders winning their second MLS Cup title.

On Saturday night the same march took place with many of the same fans wearing green and blue. Except instead of a few thousand, or even 1,000, there were just a couple hundred making the walk to the stadium.

Clearly, Seattle becoming the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States made a dent in the first major sporting event in the city since the region saw a significant rise in the number of diagnosed cases and deaths.

The crowd of 33,080 that did show up for Seattle's 1-1 draw with Columbus would have been the envy of many other MLS markets. But for Seattle, it was noticeably different. It was the smallest crowd for an MLS regular-season match in Seattle since the club's inaugural season of 2009.

Still, club officials were thrilled with those who did show up. With the quick rise in the number of diagnosed coronavirus cases, Sounders officials said they followed the lead of public health authorities. When they were told the game could proceed as scheduled, the Sounders moved forward, but with little sense of how full the stadium would look.

“It was an extraordinary week. It was hardly anything but normal,” said Sounders president of business operations Peter Tomozawa. “We spent an incredible amount of time thinking through all the issues of hosting a game, all the permutations and combinations of what could happen, what might happen. Really we had one thought, public safety is our number one priority. Full stop.”

Tomozawa and Seattle's front office was in extensive communications with MLS, other teams around the league and most importantly public health officials in the Seattle area and Washington state to determine the best course of action.

But they also tried to be proactive. Tomozawa said several weeks ago the club put together an internal task force after the coronavirus first surfaced in China and started to gather information in the possible eventuality it became an issue that impacted the team.