A new Reign begins: Women’s soccer makes itself a home in Tacoma
The Women's World Cup helped the Reign FC attract new fans. But a new home in a smaller market could be what gives the team true staying power.
The listed capacity for baseball games at Cheney Stadium is 6,500. But when the Tacoma stadium, built for the minor league Rainiers ball club in 1960, hosted a match between the Reign FC and Chicago’s Red Stars this summer, it had been reconfigured for a soccer match and for even more fans. Good thing, as the match attracted a sellout crowd of 7,479 fans.
It was dubbed the “World Cup Homecoming” for the nine Reign players who had competed for various teams in the widely watched FIFA Women's World Cup that had concluded in France just a few weeks before. This National Women’s Soccer League match on July 28 was the moment that the U.S. team’s victory, and its star player, Megan Rapinoe, would come home to the Puget Sound area. That the arrival was marked in Tacoma, instead of Seattle, didn’t appear to matter to the fans, who set a new franchise record for attendance.
The atmosphere at the minor league baseball stadium was electric. The press boxes at Cheney Stadium, also packed to capacity and sitting right on top of the field-level seats, filled with the sounds of every cheer of a successful pass, every groan of a perceived awful call by the referee.
On that July afternoon, many were there to see Rapinoe. And almost certainly for many it was their first time attending a Reign FC match. Rapinoe had become a bona fide superstar in the month prior, playing an instrumental role in the U.S. team’s repeat as World Cup champions on the field, while also courting praise for her stances off the field. She received the Golden Ball award, for best overall player, and the Golden Boot, for the top scorer (with six goals). She has since become a celebrity, appearing on television programs like The Rachel Maddow Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live and the podcast Pod Save America. In her post-World Cup media tour, Rapinoe’s message was clear: Support the NWSL and keep fighting for equality.
Rapinoe did not play in the match against the Red Stars because of an Achilles injury she picked up at the World Cup, but she was still the center of attention. Among the fans who celebrated Rapinoe's homecoming was Victoria Woodards, the Tacoma mayor, who during a pregame ceremony proudly proclaimed, “Guess what, Tacoma? She plays here!”
Rapinoe responded by replicating “The Pose,” the iconic post-goal celebration that became her trademark throughout the World Cup.
The Reign lost on the field that July afternoon, but the celebration continued: Rapinoe and fellow World Cup champion Allie Long signed autographs and took selfies with fans for upwards of two hours after the match. Long was so dedicated to providing as many signatures and selfies as she could that she asked a club staffer to remember where she was on the line of fans so she could resume after a momentary break to participate in a post-match press conference with media.
Even as the global sporting event faded into memory, the fans continued to come. By the end of the Reign's season, the average match attendance was over 5,000 for the first time in the club's history, an increase of over 30% from the average in 2018. The club’s regular season home finale against rival Portland Thorns FC on Sunday, Sept. 29, drew 7,370. Joining the crowd were the bright lights of ESPN, which broadcast the match on ESPN2 as that morning’s slate of NFL games were happening across the country.
The team returned to ESPN three weeks later in a playoff loss to the North Carolina Courage, which brought the historic season to an end. The story of the team’s success, though, continues, as head coach Vlatko Andonovski is being considered as the next head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team after his handling of the Reign team in a season riddled with injuries.
Many soccer fans are accustomed to seeing 30,000 fans fill CenturyLink Field week after week, cheering on the Seattle Sounders FC. But for the Reign FC, who have struggled to get even a sliver of attention in a sports market crowded with NFL, Major League Baseball and college football, attracting a large fan base has not been easy.
Yet the past season has all the appearances of an inflection point for the team. Much of this has to do with the ascendance of women’s soccer over the past few months and the efforts to sustain interest in the sport beyond the quadrennial flash of interest. But the ability of the Reign to continue and grow may have more to do with the place that the team now calls home: Tacoma
For the first six years of its existence, the Reign played further north, first at the Starfire Sports Stadium in Tukwila for a year, and then at Memorial Stadium in Seattle. Then, in January of this year, owners Bill and Teresa Predmore posted an open letter to fans on the team website, announcing that the Reign would be moving south, to Tacoma. They explained that the playing surface at Memorial Stadium was no longer suitable for league play. Additionally, the antiquated infrastructure of the stadium made it unsuitable for national television broadcasts, which is a league requirement. Built in 1946 and opened a year later, the stadium, at Seattle Center, is owned by the Seattle School District and has been the subject of discussion of a teardown and rebuild. These were forces beyond the Reign FC’s control, they said, so a move was necessary.
The Predmores said they had looked at CenturyLink Field as a possible new home, but Tacoma held greater appeal. They had been talking with the owners of the Tacoma Rainiers baseball club throughout 2018 and saw benefits to the infrastructure that existed in Tacoma, which supported the Rainiers and the Tacoma Defiance, a developmental team of the Seattle Sounders FC.
Both the Tacoma Rainiers and Seattle Sounder FC majority owner Adrian Hanauer, along with his mother, Lenore, were brought on as minority shareowners of the club to help facilitate the move. On Jan. 30, the announcement was made — Reign FC was relocating to Tacoma and playing at Cheney Stadium. The entire Reign FC front office staff, players, and coaches were moving south.
Even before the first match at Cheney Stadium, the buzz was building. And perhaps no one was more enthusiastic than Woodards, the mayor.
“Can you believe that right here in Tacoma, we’re getting a women’s professional soccer team,” Woodards said energetically at the January press conference officially announcing the move.
In early March, Reign FC welcomed the community to an open house at Cheney Stadium, allowing fans to tour the team’s new home and renewing season ticket holders to view their new seats.
The team reached out as well. It held a season kickoff party at Rhein Haus, where they would later host World Cup viewing parties for all U.S. matches. Players visited Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and many connected with the community simply by becoming a part of it, living in club-provided housing in the city.
“The reception from the city of Tacoma has been amazing," Bill Predmore told Crosscut. "We have incredible support from Mayor Woodards, who has been a tireless advocate for the team from the moment we announced the move. We have also seen great support from the business community, both from a match attendance and sponsorship perspective.”
Predmore went on to say that the relocation to Tacoma allowed the club to introduce their players and the NWSL as a whole to a wider audience. "We do believe that the move to Tacoma expanded our audience, allowing us to represent our entire region," he said.
In an interview published ahead of the team’s inaugural match at Cheney Stadium on April 21, Woodards upped the ante: “Let’s be frank with one another. Women have not always received the most investment in sports. But here in Tacoma, we’re going to get it right. We’re making investments not just in the sport, but in the women who play the sport. They deserve to play on fields and play in spaces that are just as great as the stadiums that we have built for men’s sports teams. That’s what we’ll do in Tacoma.”
That was more than rhetoric. In November 2017, the Seattle Sounders FC and Tacoma Rainiers announced plans to develop a soccer-specific stadium for the team now known as the Tacoma Defiance. This plan has since expanded to include the Reign and evolved into what is now called the Heidelberg Sports Village, the centerpiece of which is a proposed 5,000-seat, $60 million soccer-specific stadium next to Cheney Stadium at the current Heidelberg Davis Park. A feasibility study launched in December 2017 was presented to the Tacoma City Council in July, and the city is currently collecting public feedback on the project.
“The Sounders are taking the lead on the stadium project and appear to be making great progress," said Predmore, when asked for a status update on the stadium proposal. “We’ll continue to do whatever we can to support the efforts by the Sounders, the city of Tacoma and Metro Parks Tacoma to help make the project a reality as soon as possible."
According to the feasibility study, the stadium and surrounding mixed-use development would become a destination for central Tacoma. The study summarizes that the prospect of residential and commercial properties within the Heidelberg Sports Village would improve the quality of life and provide an economic boon to the region. As it stands, the proposed stadium would open sometime in 2021.
“Tacoma itself is in the midst of major growth and change so the timing of the Reign moving here really couldn’t be better,” said Reign fan Ryan Healy.
The Reign FC beat the Portland Thorns FC, 2-0, in front of crowd of 7,370 at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Sept. 29, 2019. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)
Healy is a part of that growth and, like the Reign, arrived in town after struggling to make ends meet in Seattle. The cost of living in the Ballard neighborhood was becoming too much for him, his wife, Jen, and their 9-month-old daughter. So they moved to Tacoma, where they could afford to buy a home. Healy said he had gone to a game or two in each of the five seasons Reign FC played at Memorial Stadium in Seattle. With the move, he has been able to attend more matches this season. And he’s contemplating getting season tickets for next year.
“We attended two World Cup viewing parties with the Reign, which were a lot of fun,” he said. “The Reign aren’t a minor league team full of players looking to be promoted to a higher level. This is it. These are the best players in the world playing in the best league in the world.”
Stephanie Van Slageren has been following the team since their inaugural season in 2013. She has witnessed some of the club’s highest successes on the field, when it won back-to-back NWSL Shields in 2014 and 2015 for best regular season record, and the struggle for the team to resonate in Seattle where sports saturation is thick.
She sees more potential for the team to break through the noise in a smaller market like Tacoma and has even witnessed the marketing at work. Whenever Van Slageren attended either Rainiers or Defiance games, she would hear announcements for upcoming Reign FC matches. And while driving around town she would see billboards for the team. The ads featured the slogan that the team had adopted in the wake of the U.S. team's World Cup success. “She Plays Here,” they read.
“I think over the next two years, they are just going to take off and have that regular fan base they have been trying to have,” said Van Slageren. “Seattle missed out huge, but there was just so much there that it crowded their growth. Down here, people will eat it up.”