Will Reign FC thrive, or just survive? The NWSL's cloudy future in Seattle
It starts at Pioneer Square, three blocks north of the NFL stadium that has become one of North America's soccer cathedrals.
Behind a banner leading a squad of hundreds, Emerald City Supporters' March to the Match has become one of the iconic parts of MLS culture — a cacophonous, tribal ritual from the same fan base which averaged an MLS-best 42,636 attendees per Sounders game at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field during the 2016 season.
Turn that parade around, though, and march north instead of south, and you'll soon arrive at a much different picture of professional soccer.
There, at Memorial Stadium, you’ve had the opportunity to see players like Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo and Sydney Leroux — names that have reached the apex of sports consciousness thanks to their roles with the United States women's national team.
You've been able to see a league MVP in Kim Little, two regular season-winning teams and a brand of soccer which, around the National Women’s Soccer League, is universally acknowledged as one of the circuit's most active and exciting approaches.
What you won't find, though, is the same number of fans. There is no Emerald City Supporters-esque group packing an entire stadium stand at Memorial. There's no tradition that rivals the March to the Match, and there is nothing that compares to the record-setting crowds the Sounders have drawn to their south downtown venue. Instead, the Reign drew 4,602 per game to their 6,000-seat home last season, a new high for the five-year-old club.
That owners Bill and Teresa Predmore have been able to reach that point is a significant accomplishment. When they founded the team in 2012, they were starting from scratch, and doing so among a fanbase that proved slightly hostile to a team that wasn't linked to the city's dominant soccer brand. In many ways, a city that was supposed to be a hotbed of U.S. soccer has been a hindrance to the Reign’s growth.
At some point, though, that context becomes irrelevant, and the team's ability to be viable beyond its obstacles is all that matters. And right now, it’s unclear when that viability will surface.
The pressure points for Reign soccer
On one level, this is a forecast of the Seattle Reign's future. On second, this post is about another NWSL team. It could be Sky Blue FC. It could also be the Boston Breakers, the Chicago Red Stars, or one of the many futures that's hanging over FC Kansas City.
The Reign’s situation, in some form, mimics the pressure that faces every small NWSL club. At its core, the NWSL is an aspirational league imploring teams for solutions. Where there are none, teams will struggle to keep up, or survive at all.
Last week, in the context of Kansas City's more immediate problems, we described the Seattle Reign as enduring unsustainable losses. The team’s owner, Bill Predmore, pushed back against that description, but the difference comes down to something like the half-full, half-empty chestnut.
Predmore, to his credit, is willing to sustain those losses to build an organization that can aspire to world-class status. That, along with Laura Harvey's presence (for which Predmore also deserves credit), is why Seattle has become a destination team for many NWSL players. Whereas Predmore would be justified limiting losses, accepting the present realities, and hoping for better fortune in the future, he is actively trying to mold the present. Seattle's two NWSL Shields speak to his success.
That, however, doesn't make the team's current spending any more sustainable. The team is engaging in a full startup's gambit with the same uncertainties surrounding the organization’s future. It makes sense to invest for the day your product reaches a threshold of sustainability, but if you have no path to that threshold, you're just spending money. Expenditures, at some point, have to be offset; if not fully, then enough for the team to be sustainable.
That's where we have to consider the realities of the Reign's landscape. After the 2018 season, the team can't play at Memorial Stadium anymore. Predmore admitted as much last week, alluding to new playing-surface standards that are coming into play in the NWSL.
But even if those new standards weren't taking hold, the sunset on Memorial was approaching. Seattle Public Schools, the organization that controls the venue and its land, plans to build a new high school at that location, and while a new stadium is also part of those preliminary plans, it’s unclear when, or if, the Reign will have access to the venue.
In terms of geography, Memorial really is the perfect spot. Located near the Space Needle and Key Arena (where the WNBA's Seattle Storm play) in Seattle's Lower Queen Anne district, the venue is a centrally-located place that lowers the commitment for casual fans who want to try the product.