The OL Reign/Seattle Sounders PNW Experience doubleheader against Portland in 2021 was by all measures a huge success. A record-shattering crowd arrived early to watch the Reign defeat the Thorns, and even more fans streamed into the venue to watch the Sounders' lackluster loss to the Timbers in the evening. The music and events surrounding the games turned the day into a festival atmosphere and despite the massive logistical challenges of scheduling such a complex event, there was significant demand to stage a repeat in the future.
Despite the Reign moving to Lumen Field full time in 2022, we didn’t get a similar event last year, although there were several times where the two teams played separately ticketed home games during the same weekend.
The official event returned last weekend, featuring the same opposition but with the two matches flipped in order and scheduled more closely together. The marketing for the event was less extensive, about 3,500 fewer fans came through the turnstiles this time and we won’t have an official count of how many fans stayed for the nightcap, but it was still by far the best-attended game of the season for both the Sounders and Reign.
However, I think it’s fair to say that this year’s version was a bit of a letdown overall, and failed to capture the same magic as the original. Some of that comes down to the disappointing results of the games themselves, but even in the buildup to the matches it felt as if some of the magic was missing this time around.
If the Sounders want to continue collaborating with the Reign on big weekends in the future, it’s time to rethink what that should look like and address some of the pain points which reduce equity and limit the potential to really capitalize on these events for both teams.
It’s too long and expensive a day for many fans
The idea in the abstract sounds great — spend a day at the stadium watching what should be two exciting matches against arch-rivals. But then the reality sets in that you’re basically committing 8+ hours if you plan to attend both games. And the tickets are not cheap — if you’ve got children you’re either spending a small fortune on additional tickets for them or on a full day of childcare, before getting into the need for concessions (or to bring a pantry’s worth of snacks with you) in order to stay safely hydrated and fed. One of the appealing hooks of Reign games, beyond the high quality of play, is that their matches remain affordable at a time when many people have long since been outpriced from attending most other top-level pro sports.
It adds a burden and extra expense for OL Reign season ticket holders
Sounders season-ticket holders received this game as part of their package. If there was an extra price for the match compared to all of the other games in the package, it was hard to notice and was a small percentage of the overall cost for the entire season. Reign season-ticket holders, on the other hand, had to purchase this game separately, and if they wanted comparable seats they were looking at prices for one game which were 25-30% of the price of an entire season of NWSL matches.
The underlying reasons for this were understandable — you can’t have two people sitting in the same seat and some fans have season tickets for both teams, so the solution was to offer Reign STHs a modest discount and priority to buy seats elsewhere in the stadium — but the reality was that Sounders STHs got a lot of additional benefit from this and had the luxury of being able to sell very desirable tickets on the secondary market if they opted to not attend, whereas any Reign fans who might have little-to-no interest in the Sounders essentially had to either forgo attending the game, or subsidize the MLS match by purchasing a ticket for double what it would command for any other NWSL game this season.
The Reign can draw a big crowd for a match like this on their own
As we saw last season and continuing into this year, Reign attendance is on a strong upward trajectory, with 25% growth in their first five regular-season games this year compared to the same span in 2022. A game against an appealing opponent like Portland with a good marketing push would have comfortably drawn well over 10,000 fans on its own, and more importantly, nearly all of those fans would have been there for the explicit purpose of seeing the Reign and cheering them on to victory.
The 2021 doubleheader provided an opportunity for the Reign to finally push their limits and go beyond the capacity of Cheney Stadium to demonstrate that there was significant latent demand they could tap into if they were in a larger venue. Now that they have that opportunity to play weekly at Lumen, the demand can be met for any match and the novelty simply isn’t there to justify the huge extra cost and time commitment. And at this point, the vast majority of Sounders fans are aware of the Reign and most of those who might be convinced to attend Reign matches have already been exposed. Further growth for the Reign is likely going to come more from attracting people who aren’t in the typical Sounders demographic, and for whom the prospect of a doubleheader won’t be appealing in the same way other marketing and promotions might be.
The vibes get weird when many fans only attend one of the two games
With the Reign now at Lumen full-time, they know what the atmosphere and energy is like for their games. Their fans have established their own routines, rituals, and chants. The drums and flags in the Brougham End, the bulk of fans on the east. It wasn’t like that on Saturday, and it also wasn’t the atmosphere people are accustomed to at Sounders games, after half the crowd departed following the Sounders’ tepid 0-0 draw.
With a lot of remaining fans migrating to vacated seats in shady areas of the stadium after roasting through the first match, the view on TV was not nearly what you’d expect from a big derby. In-stadium it also felt weird — instead of the usual atmosphere of a Reign game turned up to 11 thanks to a big crowd, Reign City Riot was on the wrong side of the stadium and often out-of-sync with the Royal Guard at the other end, and there were swaths of empty seats all around in an area that would normally be packed full of fans creating a critical mass and channeling their energy toward the field for the players to feed off. Potential new fans were left with a false impression of what the atmosphere is like at most Reign games.
If the teams want to stage another big event like this in the future, it’s time to consider some alternate ideas that make the Reign more equal partners in the endeavor, rather than being graciously permitted to join in a big Sounders day. Making it into a full weekend event with one game on Saturday and the other on Sunday along with ancillary events like concerts, such as Jeremiah suggested in 2021, would be one way to spark interest and address most of the shortcomings of this year’s doubleheader. Picking a different opponent, such as Angel City/LAFC or KC Current/Sporting KC, would be another way to add novelty and draw interest while letting the Portland games sell on their own merits, though it would leave issues of equity unaddressed.