Sounders minor league team on the horizon for Olympia?
The MLS and Seattle Sounders FC are currently working with United Soccer Leagues to transform their MLS Reserves squad to a second tier USL Pro team with it’s own city and identity. Tacoma appears to be the front runner after a Mother’s Day game between the Sounders Reserves and Orlando City at Cheney Stadium served as a market and stadium test and drew a respectable 2,174 fans.
Buried in this report from KING 5 News is that Everett and Olympia are also being considered as the home for the team. It seems far-fetched, I know, but could Olympia land the Sounders top minor league team in the next two or three years? I don’t think it is as impossible as it seems.
Sounders owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer admitted in KING 5’s report that Cheney Stadium is not the ideal place for soccer and the Sounders are interested in a soccer specific stadium, something that does not currently exist. So if the Sounders want a soccer specific stadium, they will probably have to build it or work to have it built themselves. The Olympia area has a lot of cheap land currently available with excellent infrastructure, the failed Lacey Gateway Town Center being the most obvious spot with the Nisqually Tribe looking to develop more than 250 acres in the area.
Olympia has no professional sports for a USL Pro team to compete with and if a team based in Olympia were given the right marketing and sales resources by the Sounders, it could easily build that into a big advantage for the club. But even with less competition for sponsorship dollars, the corporate base in Thurston County is extremely weak. A team in a Lacey stadium could be a more regional club drawing interest from companies in south Pierce County, but that is no guarantee.
Obviously, the biggest problem is population. Is Thurston County large enough people to draw between 2,000-3,000 fans a contest even as the only game in town? The USL Pro is based in much larger cities like Orange County (Los Angeles Blues), Rochester, Orlando and Pittsburgh. These are cities more similar to Seattle, maybe Tacoma, but definitely not Olympia. Even I, an ardent cheerleader for sports in Olympia, have my doubts. But again, if the Sounders would allocate the right marketing and sales resources, it’s not out of the question.
The Sounders organization has seen what the Olympia area can do with games at Tumwater Stadium between the Sounders U-23s and Portland Timbers U-23s drawing more than 1,200 fans twice in the past two years despite little to no general marketing efforts outside of partnering with Blackhills FC. That has to be at least a little intriguing.
Whatever the result, and most likely the team will go to Tacoma, at least Olympia is getting some consideration. I don’t think we are too far off until the area gets a professional, semi-professional or developmental team.
GoalWA.net has been championing the expansion of the National Professional Soccer League, a national semi-professional league that has seen some success lately with teams in Detroit, Tulsa and Chattanooga. The NPSL wants to expand to the Northwest with multiple teams making up a Northwest conference and Olympia is one of the obvious choices along with Yakima, Tri-Cities, Port Angeles, Wenatchee and Spokane. The league fee and operating costs are reasonable, however the revenue possibilities are a bit limited considering they would have to play at a high school stadium and would not be able to sell quality facility advertising and decent concessions, including alcohol.
The Premier Development League is another option, especially given the success the Sounders U-23s have had at Tumwater Stadium and the established nature of the PDL Northwest Division. But the league fees are much higher than the NPSL and the revenue possibilities are probably equal. Also, the rights to Thurston County might already be owned by the Sounders U-23s, and they might not be willing to give them up.
Another option is the Pacific Coast Soccer League, a British Columbia based league that has one Washington club, Bellingham United. Bellingham United has been a success story creating the second most popular men’s team in Washington State in just two years of existence despite playing in a substandard league. League costs are low and they have created a thriving supporters/pub culture that could be replicated in Olympia. However, the drive for every team in the league would be very long, overnight affairs that probably would lead the league to not expand to Olympia without financial assurances or league expansion into other Western Washington cities.
One last option, the Women’s Premier Soccer League, the second or third tier of women’s soccer, would make a lot of sense in Olympia and would bridge the travel gap between the Seattle based teams and Oregon based teams. But again, revenue opportunities are low. They play just 10 games, would play in a high school stadium and might have limited appeal.
One thing is for sure: any startup soccer team, or any sports team for that matter, needs to have proper resources to make it a go here. For a USL Pro team, they need the backing of the Sounders, a new soccer specific stadium and a full-time, professional marketing and sales staff. Other lower level leagues would need to have the resources to have at least one full-time person devoted to sales and someone skilled at marketing and communications. It will take money and effort, but it certainly can be done.