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Sounders, Reign preparing to have fans at season openers

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Gov. Inslee lifts ban on attending outdoor sports events, but it’s still not clear how many fans will be allowed into Lumen Field and Cheney Stadium.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Seattle Sounders and OL Reign are planning to have fans in attendance at their respective home openers on April 16 but are still working out a variety of details.

The announcements came shortly after Gov. Jay Inslee provided new guidance that paved the way for fan attendance at sporting events, considerably sooner than had been expected as recently as a few weeks ago.

“Because of Washingtonians’ diligence and commitment in fighting Covid-19, we are moving forward with more economic activity in our state,” Inslee said.

Inslee announced that the entire state of Washington will move into Phase 3 of the recovery process, meaning the Sounders will be authorized to allow fans into Lumen Field. With the announcement that outdoor stadiums could open to 25% capacity or 9,000 fans, whichever is smaller, the Seattle Mariners have already cleared plans with the state to potentially max out that number at T-Mobile Park. The Sounders, however, are not as far along on their plans and a team spokesperson suggested they are unlikely to push the extreme limits on what’s allowed. For OL Reign and the Tacoma Defiance, around 1,625 fans could theoretically be allowed into Cheney Stadium, but like the Sounders, they are still developing plans.

“Since our gates closed to the public nearly one year ago to this day, we have been waiting for the moment to safely gather together again in support of this team that means so much to us all,” Sounders President of Business Operations Peter Tomozawa said in a team statement. “To know that the day in question may just be over a month away is an incredibly exciting prospect for our entire Sounders family.”

Depending on the progress of vaccinations and assuming Covid-19 numbers continue to stay relatively low, Inslee said they will revisit this guidance in mid-April, and could adjust the capacity up or down.

“I’m thrilled we’re all moving forward as a state, and we want to keep going,” Inslee said.

The announcement marks a perverse milestone in the coronavirus pandemic, as MLS suspended operations for four months exactly a year ago to the day.

Since that time, the Sounders have returned to play at the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, completed the 2020 regular season, and advanced to the MLS Cup Final, all without the benefit of playing in front of fans. While a handful of teams did allow fans in the gates — if in limited numbers — Washington’s restrictions have long been among the most stringent.

The Reign likewise participated in the 2020 Challenge Cup in a closed bubble in Utah, then hosted two home games without fans as part of the Fall Series.

After an initial loosening of restrictions last summer, there was some optimism that fans could attend games in the fall. However a spike in cases caused Inslee to pull back, imposing new restrictions which effectively quashed any hope of fans returning to stands in Washington in 2020.

A combination of available vaccines and ongoing mask protocols and restrictions have allowed cases to plummet. Seattle, for instance, has the lowest rate of covid-related deaths among the 20 largest cities in the United States and the state continues to be one of the most effective at limiting the spread of the virus.

As a league, MLS more than any of the other major sports, relies on gameday revenue to support its operations. Its television deal — $90 million per year, which is shared with US Soccer — only provides approximately $3-4 million per year to each team. MLS Commissioner Don Garber estimated that the league lost $1 billion in revenue in 2020, a figure he said the league expects to come close to this year as well.

With this announcement, the Sounders will be able to begin to recoup some of those losses, and a bit earlier than they expected. However, the Sounders have yet to outline the protocol for how many fans will be allowed in, and which ones will get the chance. With a season-ticket base of about 34,000, the demand — reduced though it may be — could outstrip capacity. That could potentially create some headaches and heartache for fans who want to attend, but won’t get the chance. All things considered, that is likely a problem the Sounders will welcome.