With a report surfacing that the Seattle Sounders are “in advanced talks” to buy OL Reign, now seems like as good of a time as any to go through the region’s history of high-level women’s soccer. There’s also been a bit of misinformation circulating that is probably worth clarifying.
This is a brief history of the Sounders' involvement with the Reign:
In 2000, the Seattle Sounders launched a women's team called Sounders Select Women that played in an early version of the W-League. This was a league run by the USL, the same organization that ran the league in which the Sounders played. The Sounders Women were an amateur team that was a mix of high-level high school players, collegians on summer break and adults just trying to hang on.
That's how it continued until 2008 when the women's team was sold ahead of the Sounders' move to MLS. The Sounders Women were able to retain use of the name through a licensing agreement, but no longer had any other official connection to the Sounders.
The Sounders Women burst into the spotlight in 2012, however. After the folding of the WPS earlier that year, players were scrambling for places to play ahead of the London Olympics. As it turned out, four players who would make the USWNT roster – Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan – would suit up for the Sounders Women that year, playing in front of sold-out crowds at Starfire Stadium. The Athletic had a really nice retrospective on that team that's worth reading.
The NWSL era
The success of that team likely helped pave the way for the newly founded NWSL to choose Seattle as one of its inaugural markets. Sounders Women owners Lane Smith and Cliff McElroy did make a bid to take their team to the NWSL, but Bill and Teresa Predmore's was the one that ultimately won out.
The newly christened Seattle Reign were unable to ride any of the momentum built by Sounders Women, though, and struggled mightily out of the gate. Although there was never really any chance that Sounders Women would have been allowed to keep their name if they had moved to NWSL, there was a sense that at least part of the Reign's struggles were from a lack of affiliation. More likely, they suffered from the fact that they had virtually no runway, were a bare-bones operation and were kinda invisible while playing mostly very bad soccer at Starfire (they finished seventh in the eight-team league).
After the Reign moved to Memorial Stadium in 2014, though, things improved. Coming off a 5-14-3 campaign, the Reign went 16-2-6 to run away with the NWSL Shield, only to fall in the championship game. Attendance also increased by nearly 60% in Year 2. Around the same time, the Reign and Sounders began to have a more visible relationship, with players often showing up at each other's games.
After five seasons at Memorial Stadium, the Reign were forced to find a new home ahead of the 2019 season. At one point, the Reign had plans to move to Lumen Field but eventually decided that was going to be too expensive.
Instead, they opted to move to Tacoma, where the Sounders and Tacoma Rainiers were already partnering on a soccer-specific stadium near Cheney Stadium. As part of the move, Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer and his mom, Lenore, joined the Reign as minority owners.
That year, the Sounders and Reign even combined forces to sell Zulilly on becoming both teams’ shirt sponsor.
By the end of 2019, though, the Hanauers sold their stakes when OL Groupe bought the majority share of the Reign from the Predmores.
Although the Sounders and Reign no longer had any ownership ties, they continued to work together. In 2021, that resulted in the first-ever PNW Experience doubleheader. The event was considered a massive success by most, with the Reign drawing an announced crowd of 27,278 to their half of the doubleheader and the Sounders bringing in 45,737 to theirs. It was the highest single-game attendance for either team that year, with the Reign actually setting an NWSL record.
The doubleheader returned in 2023, albeit with more mixed reviews. With the Reign having moved to Lumen Field fulltime in 2022, the novelty had pretty clearly worn off for their fans as more seemed to be annoyed at having to give up their tickets than excited about playing to a bigger-than-normal crowd.
Keeping in mind that nothing is yet official and there's been no indication how a new ownership group might be structured, it's fair to wonder why the Sounders are suddenly so much more interested in women's soccer more 10 years after the Reign were born.
Hanauer has told me on numerous occasions that his main concern about owning a women's team was the stadium component. Part of what made him interested in getting involved in 2019 was the belief that the Reign could thrive in a Tacoma stadium. In fact, a clause in the Sounders memorandum of understanding with the city of Tacoma on the stadium was a guarantee to have an NWSL team as a tenant. That was inserted as a hedge against OL Group potentially moving the team.
Although the Tacoma stadium appears to be completely dead, the last couple of seasons have shown that Lumen Field might be a perfectly suitable home for the Reign. They've drawn more than 7,000 on 18 separate occasions over the last two seasons, topped 10,000 five times this year and set an NWSL single-game attendance record when 34,130 showed up for Rapinoe's farewell match on Oct. 6. Even without this year's doubleheader, the Reign brought nearly 150,000 fans to Lumen Field this year in their 15 other competitive matches there.