A few hours before the big announcement, Aaron Artman admitted having a case of the nerves.
The feeling was understandable. Years of work and planning had led up to this, Artman said.
The president of the Tacoma Rainiers was preparing to help officially announce a partnership between the Rainiers and Seattle Sounders FC that will bring the Sounders’ United Soccer League S2 franchise to Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium starting in the 2018 season.
The deal, however, could be much bigger than soccer.
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The partnership, announced Wednesday during a press conference at Doyle’s Public House, will give Tacoma another professional sports franchise, two years earlier than expected — guaranteeing, at a minimum, that S2 will play at Cheney for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
In May, as you might recall, the teams announced plans to move S2 to Tacoma in 2020 and hopefully build a 5,000-seat soccer stadium as a home for the squad. A confluence of factors sped up S2’s expected arrival in the City of Destiny.
To most, that’s the story. A new team for Tacoma to root for, even before the new soccer stadium that we’ve seen the pretty renderings for gets the go-ahead.
Hear Artman and others talk about it — as I did Wednesday before the official press conference — and you get the sense that the significance of the deal could go far beyond the pitch. With the city and Metro Parks on board, there’s hope that the move will serve as the impetus for all sorts of game-changers for Tacoma.
The next step is what you really need to care about.
Metro Parks Executive Director Shon Sylvia
“The next step is what you really need to care about,” said Metro Parks Executive Director Shon Sylvia, whose agency likely will need to play a crucial role if the stadium aspirations are to become reality.
Rose-colored optimism from folks whose job it is to sell this thing? Absolutely. Even the venerable Norm Dicks got involved Wednesday evening, which tells you something.
But, you’ve got to admit, they paint a pretty picture.
There’s talk of a greatly expanded youth soccer programs, community access to the playing field and outside-the-box collaborations with the school district. Eventually, there’s hope for a village of sports-related development, with the new stadium as its anchor, home to housing, retail and restaurants.
Even a soccer ball for every student in the city?
Sure, why not.
“There’s a lot here that, over time, if we do it right can really be become a community asset,” Artman said. “It’s bigger than us. There is an altruist angle to what we’ve done at Cheney that carries over to this. Tacoma gets to be the case study for what the Sounders are capable of doing.”
Now for the necessary reality check: None of this will be easy. Very little is certain aside from the fact that we now know the S2 squad will spend the next two seasons playing at Cheney.
I asked Artman if things could go sideways.
Always, he said.
For starters, before a new stadium is built, the Rainiers have to figure out how to make soccer an enjoyable fan experience at their existing one. Baseball at Cheney is a known entity. Soccer, on the other hand, is not. Exhibition matches at the stadium haven’t exactly been spectacular successes in the past.
“I’m cautiously confident in our ability to deliver a great experience,” Artman assured.
Then there’s the simple question of whether Tacoma will support a developmental soccer club. After all, if no one shows up to S2 matches, none of this visionary talk of grandeur will really matter. That’s just the cold reality.
Finally, there’s the biggest cautionary flag of all. Not to be lost in all the hype is the simple fact that building the soccer-specific stadium that the Sounders want, especially by 2020, is far from a done deal.
All we really have is a memorandum of understanding.
Go ahead and ask the next Sonics fan you see what those get you.
Sylvia and Artman both acknowledged that there are a number of significant hurdles yet to clear for a new stadium to be built. Business proformas need to be calculated, they said. Funding specifics need to be agreed upon, they admitted.
In other words, a real deal — including where the money is going to come from — still needs to be hashed out.
“I love the concept,” Sylvia said of the proposed stadium. “But if I needed to sign on the bottom line today, I couldn’t.”
“The stakeholders … seem to be enthusiastic and want to try to figure it out,” Artman added. “But we’re not to a point where we have lease terms, or financial terms. I don’t think we want to be there yet anyway. We want to see how this performs in ’18.”
That’s probably prudent. But time is not unlimited, either.
If the relocation of S2 to Tacoma is to be the big, transformational move so many are hoping for, there’s a lot of work that remains.
The good news for Tacoma was that, at least on Wednesday night, no one had to sign on the bottom line. That will be a different press conference if and when it happens.
No, this was a day dedicated to looking toward the future and dreaming about what might be. From where Artman was standing, the horizon looks bright.
“I’m excited and I’m nervous,” Artman said shortly before facing the cameras. “I feel really cool about being a part of a group that was able to bring another sports franchise to our city.
“I’m proud of that, and I hope the community is proud of it,” he continued. “I want it to be loved.”