Sent to the Sidelines
Why Are Some Soccer Teams Getting Pushed Off Public Fields?
As spring soccer season begins, a local group of female soccer players insists they're being shut out from the best public soccer fields at prime times. And while it may seem like a minor tussle, it's emblematic of the kinds of bureaucratic disputes that affect quality of life—taxpayers fighting to use resources they pay for, women fighting for equitable access to sports fields, city policies that look okay on paper but don't work so well in real life.
And in the middle of it all is Carrie Lewis.
A longtime soccer player, Lewis started her own soccer league last spring, after quitting the city's biggest soccer league because she felt that their women's division was treated poorly. She named her league Recreational Adult Team Soccer, or RATS. "We're celebrating our first year at RATS, but this first week [of the season] has hardly been a celebration," she tells me glumly. Instead of fighting a large league for better access to fields, she's now fighting the city, whose arcane assignment policy gives established sports leagues first pick of ball fields and leaves her scrappy start-up trying to get by with less desirable fields at inconvenient hours.
"On some days, it's no fields," she says of the spring game schedule she got from the parks department. On other days, she got less than 10 percent of what she requested.
Understanding the forces at play requires understanding the influence of the city's largest soccer league, called Co-Rec Soccer. They've been around since the 1980s and serve hundreds of teams, and thanks to their seniority and size, they're something of a gorilla when the city assigns fields. Lewis left to form RATS after a falling-out with Co-Rec's management, when a group of women's teams felt they were being shortchanged on field assignments. Tellingly, every Co-Rec women's team followed Lewis to RATS.
Sara Hale, a lawyer who heads one of those teams, told me Co-Rec's schedules had "a real problem with predictability." Her team comprises a lot of "soccer moms who started playing because their kids were playing," and they found themselves repeatedly scheduled to play on faraway fields, on the wrong days of the week.
Other women's teams told me the same thing—if you're a casual Tuesday-night team from Seattle, and suddenly half your games are on Sunday in Bellevue, players stop showing up. "Especially people with kids," says Hale. "They just couldn't swing it."
But when the new league started, with a plan to focus on good scheduling and a robust women's division, they came up against a new foe: the city.
Seattle Parks rents fields based on a sports league's "historical use," meaning leagues get approximately the same field time from year to year. Brand-new leagues, of course, didn't use any time the previous year because they didn't exist. So a new league—even a new league composed of already-existing teams—must wait for older leagues to return unused field time, thereby relegating them to less popular fields at less desirable times.
For Lewis, it's infuriating: "As a Seattle resident, it bothers me that my tax money has gone toward a field I could never play at because I am not in the right league." Seattle passed a $146 million parks levy in 2008, which paid for a lot of field renovations, but to play on them, you go through a league, and the soccer league with the best field access is Co-Rec. Which league you play for "should never come down to who can offer the best publicly funded field," says Lewis. Adding insult to injury, Lewis says, a lot of her teams helped build up the historical use Co-Rec can now claim as its own.
Co-Rec Soccer's management wouldn't speak on the record, but in a statement they call the parks policy "fair," saying it's "first come, first served" and pointing out that they had to work for years to earn the use of the fields they now enjoy.
The city also "stands behind" its historical use policy, according to parks spokeswoman Joelle Hammerstad, who told me "if an organization as young as RATS goes to the front of the line, then that creates unfairness in other places."
But it seems like the department may want to reread their field-use policy, which says only that "historical use will be considered" when different groups vie for the same fields, and also contains express instructions that the city "provide a reasonable amount of equity for gender" when scheduling sports leagues. I pressed Hammerstad on the equity aspect, asking if the gender makeup of the leagues changed, should field assignments reflect that?
Unfortunately, the parks department has no real mechanism for ensuring that equity other than waiting for complaints, she says. "It would be very difficult for us to manage the gender makeup of the teams that we serve," she said—there are hundreds of leagues playing dozens of sports across the city.