Mark Canizaro was standing in his apartment among the scarves, jerseys, and posters covering his walls. He was standing there, talking to me on the phone, and he wondered out loud if it was all over.
"I'm nowhere near dealing with it," Canizaro said. "Nowhere near even knowing how I feel about it. I’ve been walking around like a zombie a couple of days."
Earlier this week, Seattle Reign FC, our women's professional soccer team, announced that they were ditching the "Seattle" from their name and relocating to Tacoma.
The team's old home field, Memorial Stadium, is over 70 years old and in desperate need of repairs. But, those weren't feasible. In an open letter sent out this week, Reign owners Bill and Teresa Predmore spelled out the desperate hunt for a new Seattle home for the team. No dice. They informed their season ticket holders a couple days before the general public of the imminent move.
Starting in the 2019 season, Reign FC will take up residency in Cheney Stadium in Tacoma. The team and the ownership—now featuring new investors and a much-needed influx of cash—are excited; the field will be real grass, there will be parking, and, most importantly, beer, something forbidden by the Seattle Public Schools-owned Memorial Stadium. The fans aren't as convinced.
"There’s a lot of us who have put a lot of passion in this team," Canizaro, a long-time Reign fan, said. "I’ll get to go to some games in Tacoma but they’re no longer branded Seattle. I’m already feeling that that’s going to make a difference for me and I’m a little ashamed of that, I am."
Canizaro walked to games at Memorial, he took transit. He's car-free. Canizaro has only missed three games in six years. Sure, fans are arranging carpools already, but it's going to be a whole lot harder to be a dedicated fan.
The move could be good in the long run. Just being "Reign FC" makes the team more global and more accessible for the region as a whole. Tacoma is a budding market for sports teams and has the space to grow.
"The sports scene is so crowded in Seattle and that seems to be part of why we haven’t been able to grow our attendance levels," Jocelyn Houghton, a Reign fan, said. Attendance levels dipped to an average of 3,824 fans per game last year in the 6,000-capacity Memorial venue, according to the Seattle Times.
Still, it's less than ideal. Cheney Stadium, where the Reign will play, is a baseball stadium. The way that seating is arranged isn’t meant for soccer. Most of the seats will be behind the goal, according to Canizaro. A soccer-specific stadium will be built in Tacoma by 2021.
"If there’s someone we can point a finger at it’s the city for failing in every imaginable way," Canizaro said. In the five years in Memorial Stadium with two Supporters’ Shields titles and name brand soccer stars like Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe, support for the Reign didn't take off. "If the city, the population, and the media had paid attention to this team they would not be leaving town."
The Portland Thorns are the Reign's biggest rivals. Canizaro hates to say it, but the Thorns have done everything right.
"My animosity toward the Portland club is immense but what they have done has been magnificent," Canizaro said. "That city and the public—they support that team. I’ve got no complaints about the club here, they did everything they could do."
There are pervasive issues throughout the National Women's Soccer League. For instance, the Reign has tripled their base salary in the last three years. As of 2017, the league minimum was $15,000. There's just no money, especially for teams like the Reign who are owned by independent owners instead of Major League Soccer teams. Still, it's hard when a city doesn't stand behind their team.
"When we got a new mayor in the middle of the 2017 season she made an announcement about how proud she was about the sports teams in Seattle," Canizaro said. "She listed them all: the Seahawks, the Sounders, the Storm, the Mariners. She didn’t even mention the Reign."
The Reign's future is complicated, especially for its Seattle-area fans. But, the team is getting more space, more funding, and more opportunity to grow in Tacoma. In the meantime, it's doing what it can to keep its Seattle fanbase excited, like open training sessions in Seattle where fans can attend and meet the players afterward.
"I’m crushed, I’m heartbroken, but let's get some people to Tacoma," Canizaro said, "The team is gonna still be there this year."