The OL Reign’s Journey to Higher Recognition

Years of demands for better treatment of women’s sports teams have led to significant improvements to playing facilities and wages as well as overall culture shifts within each fanbase.

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Rosalie Johnson

The sun sets on the Space Needle sitting behind Memorial Stadium, 2018.

by Rosalie Johnson, Reporter

The most magical and transformative moments of my childhood were spent with the Seattle Reign at Memorial Stadium. Many summer nights, what felt like weekend after weekend, my family and I would attend games, and I remember each night spent there as joyful, as simple, as perfect.

Often, those summer nights were warm, warm enough that I could wear shorts and a short-sleeved Reign jersey throughout the whole game without getting cold while the sun would just begin to set behind the walls of the World-War-II-era stadium. Throughout the match, there was an overarching feeling of peace and unity in the stands and between the supporters, a natural connection forged between the fans as they all experienced the same energetic yet tranquil culture through different lenses and backgrounds.

The supporters’ section, with their original and creative coordinated chants and cheers that coincided with the occurrences in the game, further created the sense of belonging for all fans – new and long-lasting, young and old – and augmented the magic and sense of belonging within the fans.

As a young kid attending the matches, my all-time favorite of these cheers was “We all cheer for Seattle Reign FC, Seattle Reign FC, Seattle Reign FC,” set to the tune of “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles. It was ebullient, it was interactive, it was happy – it was entirely reflective of the culture it took place in.

The natural and easy connection within supporter relationships was also felt between the supporters and the Reign athletes. The intimacy of the fans and the players was only existent because of the intimacy between the supporters themselves. The closeness of and deep admiration for the professional athletes extended to not only the adult supporters, but the youth there as well, and often those youth were seeking female and queer representation.

Growing up as a female soccer player meant that I had little major professional representation. At the time, there were only eight teams within the National Women’s Soccer League (the NWSL), and those teams were poorly promoted by advertisers, companies and even the cities the NWSL teams were home to. Though this was demeaning to female athletes and detrimental to their successes, it forced me to value the representation I was provided with with all of the appreciation and love I could muster, and it further developed the sense of connection and solidarity with the female athletes. 

I remember falling head over heels in love with each of the Reign players on the pitch, feeling represented, feeling seen, feeling known, as if they knew and loved me back.

I remember the true feeling of magic and spirit in the stands of Memorial Stadium.

But I also remember the feelings of frustration, anger and disappointment shared by supporters and the team alike in the face of abysmal team awareness, a lack of proper equipment access and low wages.

Despite the happiness and beautiful memories created there, Memorial Stadium was an old high school field with an unsatisfactory field, out-of-date technology, over worn bleachers for seating (even to the point of splintering), and was, overall, an inappropriate setting for professional play. Truly, the only reason the Seattle Reign had to play there was the sexism of the sport and the resulting lack of promotion and awareness they and other NWSL teams received. 

With time and pressure from fans and players demanding better access and treatment, the Reign gained attention and acknowledgement and in 2019 moved their game location to Cheney Stadium in Tacoma. Though it was a much more professional setting, Cheney was a baseball field that was modified into a soccer field for Reign training and competition.

While the facilities provided for the Reign were improved because it was an official baseball stadium – with better turf, more adequate locker rooms and proper storage for equipment – it still remained a baseball stadium unintended for soccer. The lack of typical soccer seating encircling the pitch damaged the thorough connection once experienced by Reign supporters. This knowledge that the Reign were now playing on a field that was not designed for their sport and team simultaneously increased frustrations regarding playing access and decreased the overall feeling of intimacy.

The OL Reign starting 11 are pictured at Cheney Stadium. (Jane Gershovich)

 Alongside Cheney being a baseball field, it was also based in Tacoma. The hometown connection to Seattle and age-old identity of the Reign itself felt like it was slowly dissipating. Though this disconnection from Seattle had opportunities to prove itself as beneficial to the Reign culture, the pure effervescence of what was once experienced through the Seattle Reign was misplaced.

Changes to a sports team and its culture, especially a relatively new sports team progressing to higher levels of recognition and power, are always inevitable; despite the discomfort of change, what is changing often finds itself in a better position than when it started. So, I told myself, in time, I will get used to this new setup, grow into this changed dynamic of the Reign fanbase and adore the Reign environment even more than when I was younger.

Then, in the middle of the Reign’s time at Cheney, French soccer club Olympique Lyonnais became the Reign’s majority owner and the team formerly known as the Seattle Reign was renamed the OL Reign. With this rebranding came a change to not only the Reign culture in the stands, but the marketing of the Reign as well. 

Throughout NWSL history, teams had been so poorly promoted to the extent of minimal match attendance and extremely low wages. The purchasing of the Reign by OL, a major and powerful soccer club, drastically improved the community presence of the Reign. Community exposure to and appreciation of the Reign and aided in increased game attendance, higher social media followings and overall improved awareness of the team itself.

I am so thankful that the Reign’s demands for access to a proper playing space and equipment have been met and opportunities for further improvement continue to become more and more realistic and promising. There had to be action taken to get to this point, and that action included improved promotion of the team.

However, there is a subtle difference between promotion and commercialization that can lead to a glaring culture shift. 

Promotion can indeed exist on its own, but commercialization cannot exist without the foundation of promotion. If companies or clubs are not careful, the promotion can bleed into commercialization, and further damage the intimate connection of the team and supporters to become more about increasing brand attention rather than increasing team attention.

Nevertheless, this promotion and commercialization proved successful in gaining access to improved facilities appropriate for soccer. In 2022, the OL Reign began their first season at Lumen Field, Seattle’s major soccer and football stadium, home to the Seattle Sounders and the Seattle Seahawks. Returning back to the city of Seattle as well as finally playing in a professional soccer setting felt healing to the Reign and the culture itself, as if we were being re-centered and re-grounded to our roots.

Half of Lumen Field is occupied as the OL Reign play the San Diego Wave FC on April 14, 2022 (Rosalie Johnson)

This professional recognition was exciting. The opportunities this presented for increased representation and improved playing and working conditions was a significant indicator that the world of sports was progressing towards equality.

However, with this shift in marketing, the Reign culture, rather than feeling thoroughly well-promoted and welcoming, now felt somewhat commercialized and forced. The magic I once felt as a young fan is gradually fading – in part because I am not nine years old anymore, also in part to the relative lack of a naturally-built culture with people who truly adore soccer and connect with its players.

An additional effect of the commercialization and movement back to Seattle was the slight alteration of the fanbase. As the Reign became more well-known, it felt like less of a soccer-centered experience and more of a fun-day-out experience. Though this displays the welcoming culture the Reign clearly has, it becomes more isolating as the games pass.

While the majority of the fans are extraordinarily passionate, committed to the game and contribute to the lively spirit of the culture, many of the match attendees are not there for the game itself. It feels as if they are there for the ambiance of a live soccer game in the background of a conversation. The lack of excitement they portray for the match and its occurrences – even Reign goals – is frustrating and disappointing, especially as I look to local male soccer games, where a lack of attention to and love for the game is unheard of (and this presents another way men’s sports are more funded and appreciated than women’s).

This contributes to the creation of a sense of “the OL Reign is playing at the Sounders’ field and is a substitute for a male team” rather than “Lumen Field is now also officially home to the OL Reign.”

The balance between the two – promotion and commercialization and its effects on recognition – proves to be tricky. In an environment with as many inequities and disparities as the sporting world, there is often a trade off: to gain more attention and recognition, promotion to the extent of commercialization may be necessary for higher wages and proper funding. This poses a risk to the natural and beautiful connection in the supporter-supporter relationship as well as the player-supporter relationship. 

But, in reality, it doesn’t have to be like that.

Instead of looking to replicating men’s teams and cultures – which, despite their connected and passionate culture, often possess traits of abrasiveness and hostility – following the lead of other strong and powerful women’s teams to form a culture of utmost appreciation for the game and the players themselves would not only better the Reign culture, but create another avenue of connecting and supporting women across all NWSL teams together against the systemic professional sexism in the world of soccer.

For example, new NWSL team Angel City FC, based in Los Angeles and founded by actress Natalie Portman, has seen massive successes within their first season because of the incredible promotion they have received in addition to their location in LA and owning by several high-profile celebrities, including Serena Williams, Abby Wambach, Uzo Aduba, Becky G and Eva Longoria. In fact, the average Angel City FC home match attendance adds up to nearly 20,000 fans in the stands

Even through a screen, the energy of the Angel City FC stadium is unmatched and nearly inconceivable for many female athletes. The pure excitement, joy and exhilaration of the fans had a noticeable and significant impact on the players of the game, both in terms of their energy and passion as well as their ability to effectively communicate with one another through the intense volume of the fans and cheers.

The difference between the OL Reign and Angel City FC is simply the promotion of the players and game as a soccer team rather than the promotion of the players and game as a brand, like seen with the OL Reign. NWSL players are infinitely more than icons for the brands that they are employed under as humans with their own unique and intricate lives and stories. The redevelopment of a culture surrounding the players themselves and the game itself rather than primarily the brand would be entirely beneficial to the restoration of the magic of the Reign’s culture.

The value and importance of the OL Reign as a team that provides female, gender-nonconforming and queer representation as well as an opportunity to facilitate community connections is exceptionally significant, especially to youth seeking this inspiration within direct community members. The magic of the Reign experience and the memories it produces is not lost and especially not lost to the point of no recovery; with a larger focus on the players, the team and game rather than the branding and marketing of the company, the intimate connections and whole-hearted spirit of the Reign I know and love will return and only continue in aiding the progression of equity in soccer.