While Thursday’s announcement that the Seattle Sounders and Seattle Reign would share Zulily as a kit sponsor may have been a surface-level partnership, Reign players in attendance were excited about the prospect of a potentially deeper relationship between the organizations.
Shea Groom, recently arrived from Sky Blue FC, said the differences between MLS-affiliated clubs and most independent NWSL teams were easily spotted.
“I’ve been a part of many clubs now,” Groom said. “It’s been interesting to see the discrepancy between an MLS-backed club and then some of these independent clubs. If you take something like Seattle that’s found success in being an independent club and they do it the right way. They treat their players well. They’re professional in everything they do. We’re striving for more, we’d love to be partnered NWSL-MLS. For the sport, it’s something that would be really cool and that’s something that we would strive for, but we’re so thankful for the way that Seattle does treat their players. To just be able to do some of these things with the Sounders and build that relationship, I think it’s really cool.”
Groom didn’t get specific, but it’s easy to imagine how her experiences might have been different at Sky Blue, which was called out by 2018 NWSL Golden Boot winner and former Sky Blue player Sam Kerr last summer, leading to reports that painted a grim picture of reality at the club.
Still, the reality for independent clubs—even one like the Reign where players feel well-treated—is a steeper climb to financial stability than their MLS-backed counterparts. The contrast between Adrian Hanauer’s thoughts on his club’s new deal with Zulily with Reign owner Bill Predmore’s was stark. Hanauer’s message was one of prosperity; Predmore’s was one of survival.
“Over the last six years my wife Teresa and I have owned Reign FC,” Predmore said. “We’ve seen and experienced first-hand some of the structural challenges that make it very hard to sustain economic sustainability for women’s soccer but really for women’s professional athletics as a whole.
“The genesis of the conversations with Zulily started with conversations with Adrian. It was, really for us, pretty serendipitous. The deal went together remarkably easily. I think for us, what this means for the long term is our continued existence and success, hopefully. We need companies in this market to step up and support us. It’s tough. There are a lot of great sports teams out there that get a lot of attention. I think it’s partnerships like this where we can raise our visibility and hopefully raise visibility for our partner as well.”
Defender Megan Oyster shared Groom’s view that MLS-backed clubs often provided greater stability for players.
“I just think it’s always great to have the backing of an organization that’s stable,” Oyster said. “You see that in other clubs throughout the country that are in our league and have the support of the men. They’re doing really well. They play at a great stadium, they have awesome fans. I think that’s a great duo and something that every team in this league probably strives to have. It’s awesome to now have the same logo on our jersey as the men. I think that will do great things for the marketing side of our game and hopefully build our team a little bit more.”
While Reign players often praise the support they receive, the same enthusiasm cannot be shared for Memorial Stadium. The 12,000-seat stadium is the worse for its 72 years of wear, and ownership by the Seattle School District complicates the sale and consumption of alcohol at matches.
There may be no easy answers to the challenges faced by independent clubs, but Groom made it clear she felt that the league was trending in the right direction for its players and fans.
“When you see a (Real Salt Lake-backed) Utah Royals come in to the mix and totally raise the bar, that continues to push other clubs and in the next couple years and I think you’ll see the league maybe turn to that, so to speak,” Groom said. “Continue to push that bar. I’m not sure there’s a specific mark. If we were doing it for the money, we’d be done a long time ago. I feel rich. I don’t have to work a crazy side job to make a living and we get to influence and pave the way for young girls that want to be in this sport and young boys that want to grow up to play too.”
While a full partnership between the Reign and the Sounders remains theoretical, there is no doubt that such a venture would go a long way toward assuring the long-term viability of professional women’s soccer in Seattle.