Seattle Reign owner Bill Predmore once told me that the inability to make professional women's soccer viable was a simple accounting problem. Figure out the numbers, he said, and there's no reason it couldn't work.
Just days before the start of their inaugural season, Predmore now admits this undertaking was a little more daunting than he originally thought.
"Looking back, somewhat naively, I think i thought it was going to be less difficult than it has proven to be," he said during a Thursday press conference. "I just underestimated the task at hand and how short four months really is. We had to do everything from getting a business license to getting phones hooked up to getting an office. On one hand, it's been super exciting of going through that process. It's frustrating, it's heart breaking. It's been more complex than we thought it was going to be."
That's not to suggest Predmore is discouraged. The press conference, after all, was to announce that the Reign had signed on Moda Health as their shirt sponsor. They are just one of a handful of NWSL teams that will enter this season with a shirt sponsor.
"We viewed it as pretty critical," Predmore said. "The economic model doesn't work without some sponsorship support. Outside of Portland, there's just not enough ticket revenue. Sponsors have to be a part of that, either at the league level or team level."
Which brings us to one of the many aspects of the Reign's launch that has not gone quite as hoped. Predmore declined to give specific numbers -- or even an approximation -- but he was open about ticket sales failing to meet expectations.
Coming off a year in which the Sounders Women averaged more than 4,000 fans per game at Starfire Sports Comnplex, many believed it was automatic that most of those fans would simply sign on as Reign fans.
That hasn't really been the case. Predmore described the Reign's ticket sales as being on par with "quote the rest of the league" excluding the Portland Thorns. I'm guessing that means their season-ticket base is probably in the low-thousands, maybe even in the high-hundreds.
The reasons for lagging sales actually aren't that hard to figure out.
The Sounders Women, of course, remain a viable entity and have retained some percentage of the fan base they built over the years. I'm sure it's considerably smaller than it was a year ago -- when a host of United States national team stars played for free -- but that was clearly a massive boost to the brand and carried some staying power. They won't average anywhere near what they did last year, but I won't be surprised if their season-ticket base is on par with the Reign's.
There's also seems to be a bubbling undercurrent of skepticism. Some of that is from people who seem to feel as though the NWSL made a mistake by picking Predmore's group over the Sounders Women. Some of that is from people who just aren't ready to sign on as supporters for their third professional league in the past 15 years. The Reign and the league still have work to do in order to win over those folks.
It's also impossible to deny that the Reign have had their share of bad luck. Whether it was losing out on the Alex Morgan sweepstakes, not being able to start the season with any of the three USWNT players that were allocated to them or losing their general manager just days before the start of the season, the breaks have not really gone their way. Some of that is possibly of their own doing (the situation surrounding Amy Carnell's departure is about as clear as mud) but none of it has brought positive press.
While I'm sure the trip to Japan was a net positive in terms of team building, I'm wondering if that wasn't another miscalculation. Rather than training in Seattle and providing plenty of opportunities to interact with the locals, the Reign willingly spent about two weeks virtually out of sight and out of mind. Probably not the best idea for a team that is still trying to figure out how to improve their standing.
The good news is that all of this is relatively reversible. By all accounts head coach/GM Laura Harvey knows what she's doing and opening their home schedule with a few wins already under their belts would go a long way to transforming the narrative. There are some great players with great stories to tell. Here's hoping most of this is just a product of the normal growing process.