It’s a good time to be a Seattle sports fan. Not only is their American football team making a run in the playoffs, but they are about to see the NBA return to the city after a five year absence. As someone who has lived in Seattle, I can tell you that they are passionate about their teams and stick with them through the good times and bad (i.e. the Mariners). This extends to all the Pacific Northwest as well.
The epitome of the support the Pacific Northwest gives to their fans is the support shown to the local soccer teams, the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps. Since each club came into MLS (Seattle in 2009, Portland and Vancouver in 2011) each has helped break attendance records. Seattle averages 43,000 fans a match, good enough for sixth in the English Premier League and fourth in the La Liga. Each club has a rapid supporter’s section as well that gives each match a vibrant atmosphere. Fans love going to matches, players loving playing in front of fans, and sponsors love the devoted audience.
So what does this sporting love affair have to do with rugby? The other day we noted possible venues for the Eagles during their summer test series. Noticeably absent on that list was the Pacific Northwest (since this focuses on the U.S. we’ll leave out Vancouver for now). It’s not that rugby isn’t big in the area. It is, and it’s growing. Leading the charge are the folks at Serevi Rugby. They have been putting on youth clinics all over the region as well as building up high school and college programs. The Eastside Lions, run by the tireless Josh Young, are one of the biggest youth rugby teams in the country.
The region is home to other big programs. Chuckanut Bay Rugby in the northern part of Washington State has produces its fair share of players, including Eagle Shawn Pittman. Central Washington is one of the best college teams in the country and other programs like Western Washington are tabbed as emerging schools. Maybe the best example of a growing club is Old Puget Sound Beach, who were a laughingstock of the Rugby Super League a few years ago and have now turned themselves into a powerhouse that made the title match last year and have sent several players to the national team set-up. Additionally, rising star Scott LaValla hails from the area.
So with all that excitement around sports in the Pacific Northwest and the emergence of rugby, why has the region largely been left out of the discussion when it comes to hosting an Eagles match? In the end it comes down to the lack of a proper venue. The Seattle Sounders popularity has meant that they have grown too large for a soccer specific stadium and instead use the cavernous CenturyLink Field. At a time when U.S.A. Rugby is looking for venues that can accommodate fans as well as keep in mind costs, it just doesn’t seem feasible to rent a facility that large. Even if 20,000 people showed up to watch a match, they would be lost in the vastness of the stadium and there would be little atmosphere. The bad playing surface (it’s not very good turf and it is bowed) is another factor ruling out the facility.
There are other facilities in the region but each has its own drawbacks. The Starfire Sports Complex just south of Seattle has a nice 4,000 seat stadium, but the pitch is a little narrow and with the amount of support that can be expected from Pacific Northwest Fans, it is too small. Husky Stadium is too large to be considered. The Stadium Bowl in Tacoma holds 15,000 fans but it is probably too far away from the heart of Seattle to be in consideration. Memorial Stadium in the shadow of the Space Needle is probably the best option but it also has drawbacks. It seats 17,000 people, a good size for a potential Eagles match, but has a rough surface designed for American football and it sees heavy use throughout the year, in particular in June when several high schools have their graduation at the facility. It is also not the nicest facility for fans and for broadcasting the match. Still, it has hosted rugby in the past, specifically the Northwest College Rugby Conference 7’s tournament.
The lack of an appropriate size venue in Seattle may have Portlanders suggesting that the newly-revamped Jeld-wen Field would make a nice venue. It is has a tight, intimate atmosphere and can accommodate 20,000 fans. It has all the facilities for broadcasting the match and an alternative sport (for American fans) would do well in an alternative city. However, the biggest drawback for this facility is its dimensions. It is a fairly narrow and short field that may find it difficult to squeeze on a rugby pitch. The field is expanding for the upcoming MLS season so it may be possible to play rugby on the surface in the future.
Overall, it’s a disappoint situation that there isn’t a perfect venue in the Pacific Northwest in which to stage an Eagles match. The region is ready to explode in rugby and ready to support the Eagles. The U.S. needs the kind of enthusiasm the region can bring and should work to host other events that don’t require a perfect-sized venue, such as the Americas Rugby Championship. Still, with the passion for rugby in the region, it’s just a matter of time before they are treated to a home U.S. match. Now, if they can just find a good venue.
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