Tacoma is moving very quickly in taking its place as a professional soccer city. In the last year and a half, the city has added both a USL Championship team and a NWSL franchise. And now there’s talk of a soccer-specific stadium as soon as 2021.
Last month the NWSL’s Reign announced they would be leaving Seattle for Tacoma and begin play at Cheney Stadium, home to Minor League Baseball’s Rainiers (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League), starting in 2019. Just last year, the facility hosted its first season of soccer, as the Seattle Sounders USL franchise, Sounders 2, played the 2018 season there.
Sounders 2 are being re-branded next season as the Tacoma Defiance for USL Championship competition. The Reign will lose the Seattle in their name, and compete as Reign FC.
The model of Minor League Baseball sharing a facility with a USL franchise is becoming more common across the country. Adding a third team to the mix is a new model for facility sharing.
Aaron Artman, President of the Tacoma Rainiers, said the first season of soccer at Cheney Stadium went very well—Sounders 2 averaged 3,370 per game, a significant bump over their 2017 numbers—but “it’s never perfect when you’re playing soccer in a baseball stadium.” The Rainiers organization has taken over business operations for the Defiance, and will have a similar arrangement with Reign FC. Baseball Club of Tacoma LLC, led by Mikal Thomsen, as well as Seattle Sounders FC majority owner Adrian Hanauer and his mother Lenore Hanauer, are now minority owners of Reign FC. Bill and Teresa Predmore remain the Reign’s majority owners.
Artman did say that new investments have been made by Sounders FC at Cheney Stadium, originally built in 1960 for the PCL’s Giants and renovated in 2011, to facilitate the conversion from baseball to soccer. A first of its kind mound system has been installed, and new, more sophisticated systems are being used to stitch turf in over the infield so the soccer pitch can be close to the stands to retain the park’s intimacy and sightlines.
“Baseball fans have loved the soccer experience, and the die-hard soccer fans have been understanding that it is as good as it can get—the community is really embracing having both baseball and soccer.”
Going forward, one would think scheduling three teams on one field would be a challenge, but Artman says that the leagues have made it easy. Baseball’s schedule is set far in advance, and USL and NWSL officials have effectively worked around both the Rainiers and each other, scheduling soccer matches on weekends—with a USL game one day and an NWSL the other. Artman says the leagues deserve massive credit for making the model work.
Soccer-Specific Stadium Part of Future Ambitions
The hope, according to Artman, is that they can build a new soccer-specific facility adjacent to the current stadium, ideally for the 2021 season.
A feasibility study is underway with the organization and its Tacoma municipal partners to study a new stadium, multi-field soccer complex, and mixed use-development on the site.
Artman says the new stadium would be have an approximately capacity of 7,000, with 5,000 seats. Preliminary plans feature an asymmetrical design, with one side of the pitch featuring fixed seating, and the other side a mixture of communal and hospitality spaces–possibly including food trucks and various bars and social areas.
Artman was also excited about community soccer programs they have planned–youth soccer fields for tournament play and a program to get youth players on a professional field early in their soccer careers. “We hope it will be a way to build the community’s passion for soccer, and that it will serve as a model for other cities.”
One of the most intriguing elements in the new stadium plan, in the category of mixed-use development, is a health center planned for the site. Defiance kit sponsor Multicare Health System has promised to build a 60,000-square-foot healthcare facility on the site if approved. The health center would be attached to the stadium, with locker rooms on the first floor, and sports medicine and physical therapy facilities just an elevator ride away for Reign and Defiance players. Artman noted that the facility would have an in-stadium urgent care clinic, possibly a first in professional sports, as well as nursing stations available for young moms during games.
In terms of fans, Artman hopes that the established, passionate fan base the Reign established in Seattle will follow the team to Tacoma, and he noted that club owners Bill and Teresa Predmore are making every effort to facilitate transportation for fans who want to make the trip. Refunds were offered to season-ticket holders, but Artman says he’s encouraged by how few fans have taken advantage. He also believes that Tacoma will embrace the new club, and that they need Tacoma and South Sound fans to sell out the stadium and be a long-term success.
In terms of USL and NWSL soccer sharing a facility, Artman said “I think in some ways, it’s a completely different market for USL and NWSL.” Artman suggested that USL is more like Minor League Baseball—people are looking for and getting a great fan experience, but NWSL is on another level—it showcases the “best athletes in the world in their sport. These will be the highest caliber professional athletes we’ve ever had in Tacoma, and that’s important.”
The timing of the Reign’s move is pretty fortuitous, too, with the Women’s World Cup this summer. “It doesn’t hurt that the eyes of the world are on women’s soccer this summer, and our fans will get the chance to see players from that event, and hopefully a 2019 World Cup winner in the Reign’s Megan Rapinoe, in a 7,000-seat venue. That’s pretty special.”
Building an Intriguing Future
The addition of Reign FC to the USL’s Defiance in Tacoma is an exciting development for both clubs and the community. The potential for a soccer-specific stadium development in the near future would truly cement the future of professional soccer in Tacoma.
Cheney Stadium was constructed in 1960 in 42 working days in order to capture the Giants AAA affiliate for Tacoma. The soccer stadium plan won’t move that quickly… but if things continue at pace, Tacoma will have gone from no professional soccer to two professional organizations and a stadium in less than five years. When it comes to soccer, Tacoma is on the front foot.