2018 – Around the World and Close to Home
Deadly, expansive wildfires, sever hurricanes and other major natural disasters around the world increase attention to climate change. Special counsel Robert Mueller investigates whether President Donald Trump's campaign colluded with Russia. Midterm elections flip the House of Representatives in favor of the Democrats for the first time in eight years. France wins the FIFA World Cup by defeating Croatia, 4-2, in the final in Moscow. Seattle is awarded an NHL franchise for $650 million and receives 10,000 season ticket deposits in the first 12 minutes and eventually more than 33,000 overall. Behind MVP Breanna Stewart, the Seattle Storm win their third WNBA title, sweeping Washington.
Seeking the Secret Sauce There’s an adage that occasionally makes the rounds: How does a multi-millionaire become a millionaire? Answer: Buy a soccer team.
While the state’s centerpiece has long been the Sounders, there have been dozens of other professional and semipro clubs, from Bellingham to Bremerton to Yakima and Spokane. And the similarity for each of those cities and the ones in-between, including Seattle, is they’ve all seen a hometown club come and go.
In 2018, while the Sounders were on firm footing and averaging over 40,000 in attendance, circumstances were much more fluid for every other club around Washington. The Sounders’ feed team, known as Sounders 2 or S2, had moved from Tukwila to Tacoma. The Reign, seeking to find a larger audience and perhaps share a future home with S2, would depart Seattle several months later and also land at Cheney Stadium.
Sixteen clubs operating around the state at the semipro and senior amateur level were competing in four national leagues and the Evergreen Premier League to widely varying levels of success. In Kent, the Tacoma Stars were consistently pulling over 2,500 to watch indoor during the winter. Meanwhile, the Kitsap Pumas called it quits after 10 seasons in Bremerton.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that around 20 percent of new businesses fail during the first two years of opening, 45 percent in the first five years and 65 percent flop in the first 10 years. Only 25 percent make it to their 15th anniversary. In the six decades since a semipro club was first launched in Washington, those percentages largely prove to be true.
Bill Hurme, a real estate developer, already owned a stake in the A-League Sounders when he purchased a USL Premier Development League (PDL) franchise in 1995. Within a few months of the acquisition, Hurme’s BigFoot began playing games in Everett. The on-field product and fan support were respectable the BigFoot made the playoffs, and attendance at Everett Memorial was around 600-700, with a couple crowds in excess of 2,000 those two seasons.
“Those first couple years were the best,” concluded Hurme some 25 years later. “With perfect hindsight, we should have folded sooner than we did.” In reality, he funded the team for five seasons, rebranding it and moving it south to facilities around Seattle – and together with his partner losing some $500,000. It had been a family business, with his daughter administering and his son coaching. But, he said, that was enough.
If Hurme could do it over again and start a second- or third-division club, his metrics would lead him far away from Puget Sound. “The best market in the northwest for minor league soccer is Spokane,” he claimed. “Perfect size, it has its own media,” and proven past community support for baseball, hockey and soccer. Hurme says the PDL Shadow (1995-2005) broke even at Joe Albi Stadium, twice averaging around 2,000. Spokane, a metro area that has swelled to 560,00 by 2020, will open a new downtown stadium in 2023, with a League 1 team as a tenant.
“The problem with Everett, Tacoma or Olympia is getting the Seattle media. It makes it tough,” he said, drawing from his own experience. Vancouver, because of its proximity to Portland, would also be challenging. “Spokane is a great market for a USL team.”
Tri-Cities or Yakima, in his estimation, could support USL League 1 or 2. The Reds were a Yakima fixture for 14 seasons (1997-2010).
Bellingham is another city with proven support. The Bellingham Orcas attracted a sizable following from 1996-97. In 2012, Jeff McIntyre founded Bellingham United, which played in the Pacific Coast League, again pulling enthusiastic and respectable-sized crowds.
“For me, Bellingham was the only place that made sense,” explained McIntyre. “You need a sizable city with no other competing team in the immediate vicinity a venue that the locals will want to come to for matches and, also, a talent pool of players to draw from, such as a university team. In Bellingham we had Western and Whatcom players, Civic Stadium, and we were far enough away from the Sounders and any other semipro teams, so we could foster our own local support.”
Given reasonable rent at an adequate facility, sponsorships can defray the next-biggest expenses. Hurme announced the arrival of the BigFoot barely three months before first kick. “We should have done much more preparatory work in terms of outreach to the soccer community, including sponsors,” he admitted. “To break even, you need sponsorships.”
Many owners project bigger crowds and fewer expenses in their initial planning. Mike Jennings both owned and coached the PDL Tacoma Tide. Jennings was approached by neighboring PDL owners when the Shadow folded. Fortunately, his existing connections with businesses, not to mention his own sports medicine company, paid off. After three seasons, Jennings brought on Lane Smith and Cliff McElroy as co-owners. The Tide rebranded as the Sounders U23s and added the Sounders Women in 2009. The synergy was maximized by adding the MASL Tacoma Stars in 2015.
For Jennings, taking good care of the players and coaches is paramount. Whether it’s playing gear, travel accommodations or per diem, they affect the product and the club’s most visible ambassadors. They often have choices where to play, with up to a half-dozen PDL and PCL teams across the state at a given time since 1995. Hurme recalls 250 attending the initial BigFoot tryout session.
Below the top level of USL, most teams utilize amateur players, usually those with remaining collegiate eligibility. Kitsap and Everett were among those that paid. Hurme paid his top players $500 a month, and everyone got $50 per game.
“What surprised me is that the salaried players, even with those small salaries, they took great pride in it,” he noticed. “It wasn’t the amount. It was the fact they were getting paid to do something they loved and had dreams of doing. It made a difference.”