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The curious case of Seattle Reign FC’s attendance

Some people go to Reign FC matches, some don’t. We wanted to know more about those who don’t.

Photo credit - MikeRussellFoto

On Saturday, July 22, 4,464 fans were at Memorial Stadium and experienced the NWSL's version of a summer blockbuster movie. The Seattle Reign FC and Sky Blue FC combined for nine goals. The match could have playoff implications for both teams, as well as possibly becoming a playoff match-up in the not-too-distant future.

So far this season, the Reign are averaging an attendance of 3,696, and while we won't know the final average until the conclusion of the regular season and whatever playoff game the Reign FC might host, there stands good reason to think this year will see another small increase, continuing a positive upward trend ever since the Reign called Memorial Stadium their home in 2014.

While incremental growth has happened and is appreciated, it still stands to ponder about the struggles the Reign FC have in getting people into the stands.

Not too long ago, I created a simple survey for the good, soccer-loving folks of Seattle to answer. We all know plenty of people go to Sounders FC games. However, how many of those who go to Sounders FC matches also go to Reign FC matches? If they did not, I wanted to know why.

I got around 100 responses as to why people don't go to Reign FC matches, and even before the first response came in, I knew which two would be the most likely reasons people didn't. The results matched what I’d heard anecdotally, and I want to unpack both key reasons in more detail. Over the course of this piece, we’ll share some of the responses people left as to why they don’t attend Reign FC matches.

The work/life/Sounders balance

This is a no-brainer. We all have lives. We all have jobs and/or school. Our spare time to invest in something we like is at a premium, especially in a city like Seattle where there's tons to do. Most of the responses to the survey cited that most of their free time is spent attending Sounders FC matches, because they were here first. Investing free time and money on the Sounders is enough of a commitment, and they don't mean ill in not doing the same for Reign FC.

I only want to dedicate time to following one team. My group of friends have been Sounders season ticketholders since the 2009 inaugural season, and don't have any plans to give them up. I have considered going to an occasional Reign match, but my soccer friends are not that interested, and I'm unlikely to attend alone. Also, Memorial Stadium is a pretty shabby experience. So its largely an issue of lack of time, and momentum.

Even with their respective regular season schedules complementing each other, it's easier said than done to, say, plan one Saturday going to a Sounders FC match and then the next day go to a Reign FC match. Or, if the Sounders are on the road, but the Reign have a match at Memorial Stadium, it could be a viewing party for said Sounders away match is on their calendar. Or they could be using that free weekend evening for something else in their life.

I used to but now I have a toddler. Can't wait to take her when she's a little older.

Yes, we Seattleites love our soccer, but we all have other interests and passions outside of soccer. Just think of all the other entertainment options available to us in Seattle that we try our best to fit in our calendars. The incredibly deep arts and music scene. The culinary scene. The places you can explore on a day or weekend hike. There's so much to do around here, and that's not counting the other sports teams that are competing for our time and money. We have to respect the context that if someone says they don't have time for the Reign, that it's likely not because they're a hater of women's soccer.

We also have to respect that attendance struggles is not just exclusive to the Reign. League-wide, attendance is a bit down. There's no major international tournament that the United States are involved in that brings a post-tournament bump like 2015 did with the World Cup in Canada, or last year's Summer Olympics in Rio provided. Adding to that is that the bigger picture of the shaky times we live in because of the state of politics. Unease over what happens in Washington, D.C., and what it can do to the economy, one certainly can't hold it against people if they're being more cautious with their money.

Because it's Memorial Stadium

We know it. Reign FC knows it. Seattle Public Schools’ Memorial Stadium is old. It looks like it could fall apart at any minute, especially if you've spent any time up in its press box. Yet it is still Seattle Reign FC's home, and they have made the most they can out of making it their home where they are allowed to. The Seattle School District owns the property, and it is on them to make the long overdue building upgrades for it. They have some big plans for the property, provided Key Arena next door gets a big shiny renovation, but realistically that's still a few years away.

Memorial stadium sucks. They should be at Clink, Starfire, or something other than a horrible venue.

The Reign's priority is upgrading the facilities for their players, and if you talk to any of the players that have been here since the inaugural 2013 season, they'll tell you Memorial Stadium is home to them. The small, narrow field complete with the charms of painted over American football lines is as much a home field advantage for them, as they've only lost two matches there. Would Reign FC love to do more in terms of fixing up the bleachers, providing better concessions, fixing that scoreboard that at times has an unreadable clock? Absolutely. However any facilities change Reign FC has wanted to do has to be approved by the Seattle School District—and for the most part, they have said no.

I go to ~3 per year. I'd go to more if Memorial Stadium weren't such a dump.

Sure, we can ask the school district to make those changes, but they are in no rush to do so, nor is there any incentive for them—at least not until Key Arena sees some construction equipment as part of the grand revitalization of Seattle Center. Believe me, if I won the lottery, I would ask the school district how many zeroes on a check would it take for them to give up the deed to the property to start off my campaign to rebuild Memorial Stadium and give Seattle Reign FC a proper home, bells and whistles loaded. And yes, there will be free ice cream sandwiches as part of the house rules.

When the very aged Memorial Stadium gets cited, it often comes up with a follow-up question of: Why don't they go back to Starfire Stadium in Tukwila? There's a simple answer to that—Reign FC do not like Starfire Stadium. Talk to anyone that was there for the inaugural season, and they’ll tell you they did not like the facilities and in general view playing in the suburbs of Tukwila counter-productive to trying to get people out to their matches.

Yes, Memorial Stadium is old, but it is directly in the heart of the city, next to bars and restaurants. Look at NWSL teams like Chicago Red Stars and FC Kansas City, whose stadiums are not in direct city limits and transportation options are limited to just the personal car. Their attendance are well below Seattle’s. Is parking around Seattle Center and Queen Anne an odyssey? Yes, but that can be said of parking in Seattle in general. Ever since Reign FC moved to Memorial Stadium in 2014, their fans have planned accordingly on how to get there on match day, so it's not exactly Mission: Impossible.

And to be frank, the cosmetics of the venue isn't the focus here, it's Seattle Reign FC. The team that redefined women's club soccer in the United States for two years, featuring players with entertaining personalities to match their incredible skill on the field. When they are on form and an attack starts from reigning NWSL Defender of the Year and co-captain Lauren Barnes to perennial NWSL Best XI, co-captain, and legitimate dragon Jess Fishlock, to U.S. international Megan Rapinoe, with some sprinkle touches by the likes of Nahomi Kawasumi and Beverly Yanez, you're seeing art on a soccer field. And you wouldn't give a thought about a couple old wooden benches. Kim Little treated the pitch like her personal canvas and far more people should have come to Memorial Stadium to witness her greatness in person.

Reign FC know how to put on a show. They are the show. Not the songs, chants or flags in the stands. The eleven players on the field wearing the blue shirts with the Reign FC badge printed on them are why people go there and tolerate the old benches, the high angle steps, and cower their heads into their shoulders when the seagulls fly by.

So what's Reign FC to do?

You might raise your eyebrow at this, but there is the uncomfortable truth that despite the team playing for five seasons, there's still a good deal of people that aren't fully aware that there is a professional women's soccer team here in Seattle. And that they're quite good. The team has been active in getting more media outlets to spread the word about the team and their players, and kudos to them, the local media is interested in helping out however they can. This confession of not knowing the Reign exist tends to come with an inquiry about whether they are affiliated with the Sounders, and if not, suggest that perhaps they should be so they can use their resources and run ad campaigns on the scale that the Sounders do.

Our schedule does not allow. Plus, have noticed some match dates conflicting with Sounders match dates. Do support from afar (online)

The thing is, Reign FC ownership has shown a NWSL club can do just fine independent of being affiliated with an MLS club. We know what the benefits are if an NWSL club is affiliated with an MLS club (see Portland and Orlando) but credit should be given to clubs like Seattle, Chicago, and Boston for establishing footholds in their markets that are rich with other sports teams. Sure, the road they took has been harder, but I think if you were to ask any of them, they wouldn't have it any other way. So while being directly affiliated with the Sounders might be counter-productive for the Reign, there is some partnership that could be done to get more people coming to Memorial Stadium.

The Sounders FC have somewhere around 32,000 to 35,000 season ticket holders, and renewal rates have been high since day one. If the Reign had access to that base and worked out an agreement with the Sounders to offer, say, a free ticket to a Reign FC match for however many Sounders season tickets they have, you're not going to have many people turn down a free ticket. Now you might be asking: for what match? To keep this hypothetical easy, let's say it would be for next season's first Reign FC match at home. Yes, it might be too far out for some to commit to, so this is where Reign FC can add something of an insurance policy that if they are unable to attend said home opener, then they can reschedule it for another match, say the first time the Portland Thorns come up to Seattle.

People for the most part hate having something go to waste. If Sounders season ticket holders were given a free ticket to a future Reign match, I believe a good deal of them will try to attend that match—and if for whatever reason they cannot, would greatly appreciate the option to reschedule for a future match. This could solve the "not knowing" the team and help handle some of the logistics (putting it on the calendar) in getting them out to a Reign FC match.

It also strengthens the sense of community between two soccer teams that as far as we know have a good relationship. Every so often, you see Reign FC players doing meet & greets in the concourse on a Sounders FC matchday. We saw Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe lead the Emerald City Supporters in singing “Build A Bonfire.” Yes they’re ultimately competing for our time and money, but the relationship between the Reign FC and Sounders FC is far from adversarial.

One thing that seems to be forgotten when discussing the launch of the Seattle Reign FC in comparison to how the Seattle Sounders FC made their MLS debut in grand fashion was from 2007 to 2014, the Sounders had shared business operations and resources with the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL. You know, that sport that owns a day (or days) of the week. It wasn't until the 2014 season (the Reign's second season) that the Sounders broke away from sharing business operations and resources with the Seahawks and do things their own way.

It's one thing to say that if the Reign had partnered with the Sounders, marketing campaigns would be effortless and XYZ happens. But that ignores a major reason it seemed "so easy" for the Sounders—they used people long experienced in sports marketing and knew how to tap into the rich history of the Sounders through their many iterations of professional soccer. The Seattle Reign FC and NWSL are still very new to a lot of people, even if they've beaten the third year curse that doomed the previous women's professional soccer leagues, which Seattle was never a part of.

It's been said that when someone attends their first Reign FC match, they become hooked. Myself and the other contributors of Ride of the Valkyries have direct testimony from friends we've brought to a match. For some, they just need that first introduction to it—just like how many of us got hooked on the Sounders. Perhaps this is a solution that results in a huge step in the direction of getting more people into the stands at Memorial Stadium. Get more people in there for just one game, and maybe a good deal of those will come back for a second match, and another.

There were other very specific and very unique answers as to why some do not go to Reign FC matches, but the majority of them were around the two main points of not having enough time to commit to another sports team and/or the venue itself. One of those has a viable and possibly immediate solution that maybe can make the second point of contention tolerable for at least 90 minutes. This is why this article exists, to give everyone hopefully a clearer picture of where things are as we are deep into the fifth season of the Seattle Reign FC and the league as whole.

There is a clear future for the league and the team. There are still growing pains for the league in ensuring sustainability. The Reign FC are not immune to those growing pains, and getting more people into the stands to watch their awesome style of soccer remains the challenge, but it's a challenge that can be beat.

Perhaps there is an uncomfortable truth for the Seattle soccer community. Perhaps developing a bravado behind clever, albeit kind of hokey marketing slogans like "Soccer Capital" or "Soccer City, USA" means nothing if there isn't healthy support for all levels of professional soccer. It certainly is served on a platter for outsiders to take potshots at us when they say, "Seattle can't be a soccer town when they don't turn out for the women's game like they do the men's."

Of course, it's not as black and white as they want you to think. There are nuances to what is still something of a hard sell like women's soccer—given how new it is and especially to a city like Seattle with, frankly, plenty of things to do for fun. Just recently, 15,748 were in attendance at CenturyLink Field for the first leg of the Tournament of Nations double-header. It had people talking about the validity of Seattle being a soccer town and allowed those potshots to come about—forgetting some important factors like the entirety of CenturyLink Field wasn't used. Why not? Because it's a friendly. U.S. Soccer shouldn't expect a demand for a friendly that would warrant all of CenturyLink Field being used.

Now, if U.S. Soccer wants Seattle to host a World Cup Qualifier for the USWNT, you will have higher interest in a game "that matters." Another thing to consider is it was a friendly that really wasn't on the favorable side of ticket prices. After taxes and fees, the lowest price was around $40. That may seem reasonable for a single adult that's fine with just getting a beer and hot dog at the concession stands. Consider that same $40 ticket for a family of four given all the other expenses they have to account for. Easier said than done, right? And all things considered, 15,748 falls in line with averages for other USWNT friendlies in recent history.

Sure, we can hope one day for a full stadium sellout of CenturyLink Field the next time the U.S. national team (men's or women's) has a match here, much like we can hope for Reign FC to constantly have 10,000 at Memorial Stadium. Maybe we'll see those days someday, but I don't think a measurable like attendance figures should be explicitly bound to a marketing slogan as if it were gospel. These things take time, and the efforts fans, media, and those that have come and gone in working for the Seattle Reign FC and fellow NWSL franchises shouldn't be dismissed so easily.

There are three regular season home matches left for Seattle Reign FC. Each of them are going to be important games for the Reign if they want to get back into the playoffs. There is plenty of soccer left for the Reign with tons on the line for them. Oh, and did I mention one of those final home three matches is against the Portland Thorns, the same weekend the Sounders host the Timbers? I mean, hello #BeatPortlandWeekend.

Did this all feel TL;DR? Then just look at this awesome comic by Amy Camber. Hopefully it can inspire you to get out for one of the final three home matches.

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