The move to Tacoma was well rewarded for Reign FC, who had their best-ever year for attendance in 2019, drawing 62,551 fans in total and averaging 5,213 per match. This easily surpassed their former best of 4,602 per game at Memorial Stadium in 2016. But the Reign could have drawn even more in the aftermath of the World Cup had they not been constrained by the limits of Cheney Stadium, and the future Heidelberg Soccer Stadium in Tacoma will limit them further. The time is now for the team to be bold if they do not want to fall behind the rest of the booming NWSL. Reign FC needs to play at least one match at CenturyLink Field in 2020, and needs to push for a larger stadium in Tacoma if they envision a long-term future in that city.
The most recent Heidelberg plans call for a 5,000-seat stadium plus a 500-capacity grass berm along the north side (feasibility study, page 104 [PDF]). The Heidelberg feasibility study was done with an assumption of 3,550 average attendance for Tacoma Defiance games and some room to grow (page 106), but did not consider Reign FC’s needs or the NWSL’s surging growth. In Reign FC’s seven post-World Cup home games in 2019, the team averaged 6,360 fans, including two sold-out matches surpassing 7,300 that could have drawn significantly more had there been additional seats available. Heidelberg Stadium needs to provide at least that much capacity, and ideally even more, for it to be a suitable long-term home for an NWSL team.
Just in the past two weeks we’ve seen the other two NWSL teams who played in stadiums with smaller capacity — Sky Blue FC and the Washington Spirit — announce moves to much larger venues. Sky Blue will relocate full-time to Red Bull Arena in 2020, while the Spirit will play four games at Washington, D.C.’s Audi Field next year with plans to eventually have all matches in the MLS stadium. Both teams tested the market by playing multiple games in 2019 at these larger venues, which showed that there was demand to justify a permanent move. This has been a pattern repeated around the globe in the past six months, from Mexico to Spain to England, and even in Brazil. Reign FC are the only NWSL team in a sub-10k venue to have never played a home game in a stadium with larger capacity.
With the Spirit and Sky Blue moves, no other team in the league will be playing all of their home games in a stadium with capacity of less than 10,000. (Houston Dash officially list their capacity as 7,000, but open more sections of BBVA Stadium as demand warrants.)
To be sure, playing a Reign FC game at CenturyLink Field would have additional challenges not faced by other NWSL teams when they’ve done similar. For one, the Sounders don’t control the stadium, so the Reign would need to work with First and Goal to negotiate terms such as rent, scheduling, staffing, vendors, etc. Second, the stadium itself is also significantly larger, which has major effects on operational costs and how “full” the stadium feels. With the additional marketing and outreach needed to properly handle a special event such as this, it could add up to mean that the team earns less revenue from a game with 18,000 fans at CenturyLink than they would from a game with 5,500 fans in Tacoma.
The bottom line is Reign drew 7,300+ for two games, and averaged more than 6,300 for the second half of the year. Yes, it took the United States repeating as World Cup champions and Megan Rapinoe transcending to a rarefied air of celebrity, but a lot more people paid attention this time around than in the past. There’s little question that Heidelberg Stadium should be built and the Reign could easily pack it on a weekly basis and surpass the Defiance (and even Rainiers) as Tacoma’s premier team.
But what happened this year should at least make calls to play at least one match at CenturyLink Field all the more loud. By not even testing the upper bounds of the market for women’s soccer in the Puget Sound region and limiting themselves to a stadium with significantly smaller capacity than they have already shown they can draw, the Reign are setting themselves up to be left behind as NWSL continues to grow.