Bring on the Reign: Tacoma can help put women’s sports equality on firm footing

Hands down, one of the best things to happen to the South Sound this year was the relocation of Reign FC, one of nine professional clubs in the National Women’s Soccer League.

And we’re not just saying that because right now women’s soccer is hot, hot, hot.

Sure, a cause for celebratory fireworks came early last week when the Women’s U.S. National team defeated England 2-1 in the World Cup semifinals. The last time the Brits fought so hard in a losing effort they wore red coats, not soccer jerseys.

The U.S. women are determined to secure their second straight World Cup championship by beating the Netherlands Sunday.

The string of success gives us one more reason to applaud the shrewd move by Reign FC, the former Seattle-based soccer club, to pack up and move south where the reception was a mite more hospitable.

Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium offered the team formerly known as the Seattle Reign something the Emerald City couldn’t: improved training facilities, better fan amenities and a soccer-starved community ready to cheer athletes who rise to the level of greatness.

Reign FC has eight players representing multiple countries in the Women’s World Cup. To think that two U.S. teammates — Megan Rapinoe, the goal-scoring media sensation who rocks a pinkish-purple hairstyle, and defender Allie Long — call T-town home turf should make us all proud.

Rapinoe’s name was on everyone’s lips after her meme-worthy celebratory pose during the quarterfinal game against France. It was criticized as over-confident, but we think those outstretched arms represent the hard-won victory female athletes across generations have fought for.

Stars like Rapinoe are aware of the role they play in the struggle for equality. Wage gaps between men and women exist in the wider world, but they are given full-court exposure in sports.

According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, the women’s national team has generated more total revenue than men, yet for every winning game women earn less than $5,000. Compare that to the men’s national-team players who earned an average of $13,166 for each victory.

Not that the men have taken home a lot of those top-dollar paychecks. In 2018, they even failed to qualify for the World Cup.

The women have taken home three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals, yet the top salary on the U.S. women’s team is still only $46,000, a sum that might buy an SUV without the frills and a full tank of gas. The minimum salary for a female soccer player is $16,000.

The disparity goes beyond salaries and is found in travel arrangements, training conditions and media promotion. It’s why the U.S. women’s team filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer and FIFA, a dispute that will enter mediation after the World Cup.

Viewers from all over the world have tuned in to watch the tournament, including countries not known for progressive policies toward women. And the more attention these women get, the faster misinformation is laid to rest — myths like female athletes lack the skill, strength or bravado of their male counterparts.

Sports have always been the best ambassador for gender equality and civility. They provide the only safe arena wherein tribal instincts are tethered to fair play.

Certainly, soccer has given women like Rapinoe a much-needed platform to advocate for gender and racial equality and to speak out on behalf of the LGBTQ community.

True, the U.S. National women’s team co-captain caused fireworks when she said she wouldn’t go to the White House if invited. She later expressed regret over use of an expletive, but her word choice sealed our suspicion that Rapinoe should feel right at home in Grit City.

National team obligations have taken Rapinoe and her teammates far afield. But they’ll be back, and when they are, we’re confident they’ll be met with a growing fan base.

A new TV contract with ESPN, which will bring the Reign to national audiences three times this year, including one match at Cheney Stadium, should help.

So would a professional soccer stadium near Cheney, if the host Tacoma Rainiers organization and other local boosters can get it off the ground. Playing soccer in a facility designed for baseball is less than ideal for both the Reign and the Tacoma Defiance, the men’s team that serves as reserve squad for the Seattle Sounders. A feasibility study for a 5,000-seat soccer stadium is overdue.

Can the South Sound be a torchbearer for the excitement generated by the World Cup? Absolutely. Can the Reign overcome the slight decline in attendance it’s seen this year and regularly fill the stadium, like it did by drawing a crowd of more than 5,300 for the home opener in April? Yes, they can.

Seattle may have been shaky ground for women’s soccer, but here in Tacoma, we say “game on.”