The Seawolves Championship Hunt Begins With A Stunner

Guest blogger, David Drown details the experience attending the Seawolves’ Western Conference Semifinal—his first ever rugby match.

My first time going to a Seattle Seawolves match was a lot like my first time going to a Seattle Sounders match: both were playoff matches and both were unforgettable. But what set the Seawolves apart was its intimacy. The ability for a stadium a fraction of the size of most pro arenas to produce such a vibrant atmosphere left me questioning the value we place on our big box entertainment venues. 

Don’t get me wrong, watching a professional sport alongside 30,000+ screaming fans in an architectural superstructure is an incomparable experience. But as stadiums grow in size and amenities, the actual sport itself often becomes lost amidst the fanfare. All kinds of distractions seep in, forcing your attention toward everything but the game. What I experienced this past Sunday in Tukwila felt like the antithesis to that. Watching the Seawolves in the Western Conference Semifinal at Starfire Stadium felt like a return to the purity of sport, a practice in athletic mindfulness that reoriented the fan-athlete relationship and reminded me of why we even show up in the first place.

The threat of rain loomed overhead as my partner and I made our way to the front gate of Starfire, a common backdrop for many Seattle sporting events. Teenagers tossed a rugby ball back and forth in the parking lot, weaving their way in and out of the sea of couples, families, and groups of friends funneling toward the stadium. I studied their movements in detail, hoping to get a crash course in the general flow of rugby before watching my first ever match. 

Before I knew it, we were inside the stadium. But something about that distinction didn’t feel right. Unlike most sports venues, there wasn’t a clear boundary between inside and out. The grounds felt open and fluid, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding neighborhood. This feeling extended to the Starfire staff themselves, with ticket sellers, concessions operators, and merch vendors all operating like a tight community—like they knew each other well beyond their occupations. After exploring the merch tents, we grabbed ourselves a couple of drinks and a giant pretzel for pennies on the dollar and headed for our seats.

The thundering roar of fireworks announced the introduction of the Seawolves. Fans stood and cheered wildly, many still pinching themselves, happy to be back in the postseason. John, a season ticket holder from West Seattle and Seawolves fan since day one, explained that “last season was a tough one… [but] it’s good to see all the fans out tonight.” What sets Seawolves games apart for John is the camaraderie, even “the way [opposing] fans are welcomed” here at Starfire. There isn’t the fan aggression you might encounter at some other professional sporting events. “There’s something special here,” John says.

The match began with a flurry of action. Their opponent, the San Diego Legion, took an early lead, making a try just a few minutes into the first half. Even as a new fan my heart sunk, worried that this could spell the beginning of a long and painful night. But the Seawolves answered back and then kept answering back. Soon they were ahead with what felt like a comfortable lead heading into halftime. I hesitated to get too excited though. Superstitious tendencies from my days religiously following my favorite hockey team bubbled to the surface. Just 40 minutes into my time at Starfire and I felt a connection with the sea of green and blue filling the stands, and I hesitated to say anything that might jinx the game.

At the start of the second half, we made our way down behind the endzone to get closer to the action. The Seawolves maintained their momentum, charging back and forth down the pitch with ease. A young fan next to me piped up, “Come on dad!”, as the horde of giant players tumbled toward us. It marked a surreal moment when the lives of the professional athletes transcended the pitch. Not something usually experienced in giant sports stadiums, I suddenly looked around and realized that many of the people near me had direct connections with the players; some even family; some even “dad.”

What just 50 minutes before looked like a mess of players frantically running about knocking into one another quickly crystallized into an organized sway of forces. The flow of the game has a way of revealing itself even if you have no knowledge of strategy. The groups of players move about the pitch like flocks of starlings, their murmurations crafting complex shapes and patterns that ask the viewer to let go of rigid expectation. “Rugby is a continuous play sport,” describes Brent, a Seawolves fan and wheelchair rugby player, “those types of sports [just] take longer to gain traction.” But like most Seawolves fans, Brent is optimistic that the Seattle area is becoming more open to this often underappreciated game.

It became clear well into the second half that this was a night for celebration. As we hit the 80 minute mark the game ended just as it began, with a thunderous display of fireworks. The final score, Seawolves 43 – Legion 19. Standing along the perimeter of the pitch transfixed by the lights and sounds, my partner and I were caught off guard when the gate suddenly opened and fans rushed out onto the grass to congratulate the players. This sort of interaction was so foreign to us. Fans are fans and athletes are athletes, we thought. But Starfire seemed unconcerned with that distinction which pervades so much of pro sports.

After we made our way back through the parking lot, I worked my way through memories from the night. I tried parsing out the moments, segmenting the groups of fans, sectioning off chunks of time in an attempt to more easily understand the night. But this felt counter to what I had just experienced. It quickly became evident to me that what separated watching a Seawolves match from other pro sporting events was its very lack of separateness at all levels. From the openness of the stadium to the interaction between players and fans, there was no clear beginning or end to the Seawolves experience. The Seawolves are a team within a family, within a community; there is no division; there are no distractions. This is sport at its essence.

With this huge first round win, the Seawolves head to Houston to take on the SaberCats in the Western Conference Final on Saturday, June 18th at 4pm. Head over to Billy Baroo’s in Tukwila for the official watch party where the Seawolves community will come out in full force—including Rucky, the beloved team mascot—to cheer on the hometown heroes.

The Seawolves Make History at Starfire

Guest blogger Claire Schmitt details her experience attending a Seawolves Major League Rugby match. 

Sunday, May 8th, matchday. After a quick 25-minute drive south on I-5 from North Seattle and a whopping $6 for parking, we’re at the front gate of Starfire Sports in Tukwila. There’s a sense of familiarity and intimacy about the stadium. People of all ethnicities and ages walk around repping their Seawolves green and blue. It’s the epitome of a family-friendly spot; kids with soccer balls keep themselves entertained on the surrounding fields by taking shots into goals while the adults gather nearby to chat and grab refreshments before the match starts. It smells like well-manicured grass and summer days at the park. I’m in love already.

I leave my friends temporarily at the Chick’N Fix food truck, head past the concession stand and swag booth, get my bag checked, ticket scanned, hand stamped, and enter the stadium. The team is running warm-up drills on the pitch. As I stand at the perimeter field fence, the players are so close I could casually chat with them about what they ate for breakfast if I wanted to. Head Coach Allen Clarke walks up to some folks also standing near me and shakes their hands. I’ve never been to a major league sports event like this before—there’s almost no separation between the players and their fans. The whole atmosphere is refreshing. It feels personal, as if it’s the norm for the team to interact with the community at this level.

People keep steadily coming in and make their way to their seats. I head upstairs to grab myself a beer ($7 for stadium beer? I’ll take it!). When I get up there I see two women dressed head to toe in Seawolves gear. They look legit and one girl is eating a soft pretzel so I decide to approach. Their names are Mikaela Mattes and Kate Crabtree, it turns out they host the PNW Showdown Podcast. Mikaela and Kate cover a wide variety of Seattle sports but tell me rugby is special. 

“There’s a high level of respect in this game,” Kate says. “It’s relatively new in the U.S., but people here are really willing to explain all the rules of the game and what’s going on so it feels very welcoming and friendly,” she explains.

Mikaela chimes in,”Yeah, it’s like its own little pod here…” They exchange a look at each other as they realize the Seawolves pun she just unintendedly made. “Ooh, that’s a good one. We should use that,” Kate tells Mikaela and we all laugh. They tip me off about an exciting distinction for tonight’s game. Referee Kat Roche, the first female lead referee in MLR history, is back at Starfire. 

The match starts and my crew barely has enough time to get settled in our seats before the Seawolves make their first try (rugby’s version of a football touchdown or a soccer goal). The place goes wild. Green fireworks explode into the air. The Seawolves are leading the match within the first minute, not a bad way to start. 

The Dallas Jackals attempt to make it a real game when they score a try of their own at minute 8. For a split second you start to think, can we pull off this win? The Seawolves respond at minute 12, as if to answer my question directly, yes. #TogetherWeHunt. And together, they make it happen. They score another try and AJ Alatimu makes the conversion.

These guys are huge and when their bodies collide the sound it creates upon impact is loud enough to make every single person in the stands wince slightly. I’m half in horror at the fact none of them are wearing pads and half think it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. The Seawolves dominate the pitch (aka the field). It seems like every time they get possession of the ball they systematically manage to drive their way towards the try zone.

Minute 19:40 – Seawolves score a try and conversion. Fireworks go off. Fans erupt.
Minute 31:52 – Seawolves score a try. Fireworks go off. Fans erupt.
Minute 34:16 – Seawolves score a try and conversion. Fireworks go off. Fans erupt.

It’s the end of the first half and it isn’t looking good for the other team. Rucky the Seawolf, the team’s beloved Orca mascot, is making their way around waving and saying hello to all the families celebrating Mother’s Day. There’s a Mother and son duo sitting in front of me looking enthralled. I lean over and ask the kid where he got the Dippin’ Dots he’s eating. He’s missing a tooth when he turns around and smiles at me. He shyly tells me, “the concession stand at the entrance.” I ask him how old he is, “eleven.” It’s their first Seawolves game, the mom tells me. We politely chat about the beautiful weather and I let them get back to watching the game. 

A whistle blows and the second half begins, but it’s already clear this will be a blowout. The Seawolves are relentless and won’t let up. Around the 60-minute mark, the Seawolves have scored so much that Starfire has run out of fireworks for celebration. 

Jim Stewart Allen or “Broccoli Guy”, a local legend and 2nd-grade substitute teacher turned social media influencer, has been dancing all game at the try line. I can’t resist an opportunity to meet him in person and take a selfie. Jim says the Seawolves have been extending him the personal invite for their games but he started attending during the 2021 season. “Starfire is unique because you get to be so close to the players and the game. I find that Seawolves games create an environment for more fan engagement which is really fun to be around,” he says. And I feel it too. 

When the scoreboard hits 80 minutes, the Seawolves stadium erupts in one last outburst of cheers and “Sweet Caroline” starts playing, setting the celebratory mood as folks file down the aisles towards the pitch and exit. We start to gather our belongings, but something strange is happening. No one is really leaving. The Seawolves and Jackals players are gathering together, shaking hands, taking photos, and in some cases even hugging one another. Weren’t you guys just trying to tear each other’s faces off? 

Players from both teams are approaching the fence to greet the fans and thank them for coming out to the game. Even Referee Kat Roche comes over! I shake her hand, congratulate her on the game, give player JP Smith a high-five, and take a photo with Seawolf (and 2x Tam USA Rugby Olympian!) Martin Iosefo. It’s a celebration, but not just for the winners or even one team. It’s a celebration for the sport of rugby.

The final score turns out to be an MLR record-setting outcome of 74-7, the most points and tries ever scored by a single team and the largest margin of victory at 67 points. But all records aside, to me, the fan experience is about whether or not I see myself as being a part of the Seawolves community. After this amazing night, the answer is clear. So to you, dear reader, I share the secret of the Seawolves. You’ll thank me later.

 

Visit https://seawolves.rugby to learn more about the Seattle Seawolves and find tickets to upcoming matches.