A pale blue and pink banner emblazoned with “Protect Trans Kids” hangs from a railing. A local non-profit leader known for her work with young people who identify as women raises a commemorative flag to a standing ovation. This night in mid-March feels like a fundraiser or community organizing event, until columns of fire explode upwards with a startling crash and 22 athletes race towards their positions on the field.
When the OL Reign took the field against the Portland Thorns at Lumen Field earlier this year, Megan Rapinoe and company brought their blend of football and social awareness to a new, much bigger arena. Since its first season in 2013, the National Women’s Soccer League team has bounced around smaller venues – Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Memorial Stadium in Seattle and Cheney Stadium in Tacoma. Seattle and the sprawling multi-deck field of the Sounders and Seahawks beckoned – and with them, the opportunity to gain a foothold in this football-mad city. “We have nothing to prove as to whether we should be here or not,” midfielder Jess Fishlock said after the club’s Challenge Cup opener.
In a tryout of sorts at Lumen last summer, the Reign shattered the NWSL single-game attendance record, drawing 27,248 fans in a doubles game with the Sounders. The crowd of 7,343 for the March 18 game with the Thorns was much smaller, but still the fourth largest ever for the club. It would have overwhelmed past homes in Tukwila or Tacoma. The average attendance at Memorial Stadium has never approached that number either.
Part of the team’s draw is their ability to weave successful off-court advocacy on the court. Rapinoe fought for the women’s national team to receive equal pay to their male counterparts. Quinn, a midfielder, became the first openly transgender and non-binary athlete to win an Olympic medal last year. The club wears its support for the Canadian on its sleeves; warm-up kits repeat the message “protect trans kids”. And instead of a corporate sponsor, Reign’s gameplay jerseys are the focus of the Black Future Co-op Fund, the first black-led philanthropy in Washington. “For a long time women have been trying to make the case that you should invest in them as athletes, and it’s made them look at themselves and know they’re so much more,” says Susie Rantz, who writes for the blog. reign Ride of the Valkyries.
This mindset extends to its followers. The Royal Guard, the diehards of the Kingdom, tweeted: ‘Some things are bigger than rivalries’, before displaying a banner with the words ‘Cut the rot’ during the game against the Thorns. It was a show of support for Portland players demanding transparency and accountability from club owners after two Thorns accused their former coach of sexual coercion and harassment last year.
Workplace misconduct wasn’t just a Portland problem. Former Reign manager Farid Benstiti resigned in 2021 after allegedly making inappropriate remarks about players’ fitness. And systemic abuse across the league has led to games being canceled and the league commissioner resigning.
In the aftermath of a managerial fiasco, the Reign chose to highlight its representatives on the ground. A new commemorative jersey manages to list, in lowercase, every player past or present. “We couldn’t be here without,” Fishlock said after the draw with the Thorns, stopping to point to her teammate’s jersey, “all the people on this jersey.”
This kit is nicknamed “the honor”; another is labeled “hope”. Coach Laura Harvey, who returns to the reigns after several years away, says sharing a stadium with the Sounders and Seahawks means the club has already achieved a goal. “We have always said that the day we play at this stadium is the day we can truly recognize how far we have come as a team and as a club.”