Ranking every NWSL stadium from worst to best, with photos: Where should you see a game?

Published on: 10 May 2024

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Talk to anyone around the NWSL these days, and just about every conversation relates to one thing: stadiums.

Controlling revenue to grow a team's business? Owners such as Angie and Chris Long in Kansas City will tell you about how important their custom-built stadium is for that.

Scheduling games on prime nights on the calendar? That's also about control of the stadium, which most teams in the NWSL don't have.

The next cities to add expansion teams? Stadiums are a deciding factor in that, too, as NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman recently told ESPN.

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With all that in mind, there are important questions about which stadiums are improving -- or not -- across the league, and what it all means for each team. For now, though, we are taking a look across the league for an albeit subjective ranking of all 14 stadium experiences. This is a look from the fan's perspective -- in other words, it's not purely about architecture or field maintenance, so we'll let issues like field drainage and artificial turf slide.

Sure, the locals will have the nitty-gritty on why the stadium ticket scanners or bag policies are awful, how the parking really isn't that bad, or how the sun hits your eyes in the worst possible way in that one section of seats at some specific time. But we're taking a broad look and answering one simple question: Given the choice, where would you want to go see a game?

14. SeatGeek Stadium (Chicago Red Stars)Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports

There's no other way to say it: SeatGeek Stadium is not a long-term solution for the Red Stars, just as it was not for MLS' Chicago Fire. It is far from Chicago's center, hard to access and lacking surrounding amenities. As a fan, it's more of a hassle than anything, and the prospects of the Red Stars ever regularly filling the 28,000-capacity stadium feels nearly impossible.

There are no secrets this one, so we won't belabor the point: This stadium just doesn't work. New Red Stars majority owner Laura Ricketts told ESPN as much: The team needs a different solution. She and her business partners are actively working on finding one.

13. WakeMed Soccer Park (North Carolina Courage)Jaylynn Nash/USA TODAY Sports

WakeMed Soccer Park wins the award for the NWSL stadium with the most untapped potential. It has some history and the ability to offer everything you'd you want from a compact stadium, but it lacks some core necessities and the atmosphere is generally lacking.

North Carolina averaged shy of 5,400 fans last season, roughly half of the stadium's capacity, and the atmosphere is often flat. WakeMed is a utilitarian stadium with charm, but it lacks any true luxury experiences. Combine that with a location that isn't terrible, but sits in one of the Triangle's many suburbs, and this venue is not keeping pace with the league or the modern stadium era.

12. Lumen Field (Seattle Reign FC)Kirby Lee/Getty Images

Seattle's stadium situation has always been a choice between the lesser evils. Memorial Stadium, right in the shadow of the Space Needle, was falling apart. Starfire is nowhere near up to current NWSL standards. Tacoma was, well, not in Seattle, and that wasn't even the worst of it.

Seattle's full-time move to Lumen Field in 2022 clearly needed to be made after playing in a makeshift baseball stadium in Tacoma. Lumen Field's downtown Seattle location is perfect, and it boasts an interesting variety of concessions thanks to its primary use as an NFL venue.

While it is already established as a great soccer venue thanks to the Seattle Sounders, this ranking is specific to Reign games. The issue for the Reign is still the fact that it is a 68,000-seat stadium, and the team averaged about 13,609 fans. The atmosphere ends up being better than those numbers suggest, but there's no getting around the cavernous feeling thanks to tens of thousands of empty seats.

The long-awaited ownership change, which will create more direct ties to the Sounders, will hopefully prove fruitful for the Reign. Lumen is clearly the team's long-term home and, therefore, ownership's task is getting more people in the door.

11. Shell Energy Stadium (Houston Dash)Omar Vega/Getty Images

Look, Shell Energy Stadium has upside: it gives off the vibe of a new soccer stadium and it sits adjacent to Minute Maid Park, meaning it isn't out on its own -- a fatal flaw of the first wave of MLS stadiums. But we're talking about the actual fan experience here, and Houston has long struggled when it comes to atmosphere. Frequently low attendance at the 22,000-seat stadium is compounded by stifling heat and humidity (plus thunderstorms, all of which are out of the team's control, obviously).

Recent upgrades include mesh seating to help cool people off in that weather, plus upgraded food and beverage options. There has been slow progress to crowds in Houston, but both the Dash and brother club Houston Dynamo ranked near or at the bottom of average league attendance in 2023.

10. Inter&Co. Stadium (Orlando Pride)Morgan Tencza/USA TODAY Sports

Orlando made plenty of offseason investments in its stadium, including adding upgraded technology like better Wi-Fi and Amazon's "Just Walk Out" checkout. The club also overhauled its food and beverage offerings to include local favorites.

Paid attendance is up 64% year-over-year, so that is a positive sign. Overall attendance at large is still a struggle, however, and it will take time to improve that in a noticeable way.

It helps that this looks like the best Pride team in history, which could bring some more people through the door after years of struggles on the field. Still, there are too many empty purple seats among the stadium's 25,500 as companions to fans. This stadium is just about downtown and right off a major highway, making for generally easy access.

9. Lynn Family Stadium (Racing Louisville FC)Joe Robbins/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Similar to North Carolina, there is untapped potential with crowds that need to improve. In Louisville, however, the modern structure already exists.

A record crowd of 11,365 fans showed up for Racing's 5-1 thrashing of Utah in April. The atmosphere in the 11,700-seat stadium was electric, and it provided a glimpse of what could be in Louisville. That crowd was tied into a promotion for a local airshow, so there is an asterisk.

The stadium is only four years old, and there isn't a bad seat in the house for views of the field and spectacular sunsets. An open concourse is relatively easy to navigate, and there are decent food options. This is objectively a great place to watch a game with pretty easy in-and-out access thanks to its location and market size. The drawback is that it's just lacking a consistently strong atmosphere and fan presence.

8. Red Bull Arena (NJ/NY Gotham FC)Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Gotham's move to Red Bull Arena three years ago was a massive step forward from the dark days of playing at a college campus in central New Jersey. It made the entire team experience instantly more professional for players, and it was a major upgrade for fans -- especially as the team tried to tap into the New York City market.

However, attracting that crowd has been a challenge. Gotham ranked middle of the pack in average attendance last year with about 6,300 fans per game. Red Bull Arena holds 25,000 fans, which means the crowds often look poor, although they typically sound pretty good thanks to a wraparound roof that retains noise.

Getting to the game is still a hassle even with the PATH train across the street, but once you get there, the stadium shines. The team still needs to draw better to make Gotham games feel like the big-time events they want them to be.

7. America First Stadium (Utah Royals)Isaac Hale/USA TODAY Sports

Some of the consideration in how to rank America First Field is about weighing expectations with reality.

It is a solid, respectable stadium from the earlier years of the MLS building boom with the right mix of suites, concessions and a beautiful location (even if it isn't in Salt Lake City proper). The Royals have put up relatively strong attendance numbers thus far, just as they did in their first era of existence from 2018 to 2020.

The reality is that the team still performs well at the gate relative to the rest of the NWSL, but large batches of empty seats in the 20,000-seat venue can create a slightly unfair perception of poor attendance. The expansion team's struggles on the field don't help with creating a buzz and hopefully won't deter fans from continuing to come out. As it stands, this is still an above-average stadium experience in the NWSL.

6. Audi Field (Washington Spirit)Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports

Audi Field is well-located with great field views and a generally strong atmosphere for the Spirit, who last month attracted a crowd north of 15,000 fans to a match, which filled 75% capacity.

It is not the fanciest stadium ever built, but it is new enough to boast the modern approach of field-level premium suites. A solid group of Spirit supporters and a growing fan base create good energy around the grounds.

Average crowds of nearly 11,000 fans last year marked a drastic improvement from 2022, and crowds are trending well this season. A strong start to the year and the impending arrival of the biggest coaching hire in league history add to the buzz. Spirit games feel like an event -- especially in light of D.C. United's struggles in recent years -- and that momentum means something.

5. PayPal Park (Bay FC)Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports

The sample size for Bay FC is small, but the product is encouraging. Even amid some expected early struggles for a new expansion team, PayPal Park has been loud and relatively full, including a sold-out home opener. The energy is palpable even on TV. The stadium's massive bar behind the north goal -- fans call it LOBINA, or "The Longest Outdoor Bar In North America" -- is a unique (even if polarizing) feature.

The San Jose Earthquakes rank toward the bottom of MLS attendance in the same venue, but Bay FC games have been a hit at the 18,000-seat stadium. It helps that there have been several thrilling games played in Bay FC's brief existence.

Bay FC has the benefit of being new and interesting right now -- the challenge will be sustaining this game-day environment.

4. Snapdragon Stadium (San Diego Wave FC)Jessica Alcheh/USA TODAY Sports

San Diego led the NWSL in attendance in 2023 with an average of over 20,000 fans per game. The Wave draws consistently strong crowds to make the most of a high-end, 35,000-seat stadium that would be too big for just about any other NWSL team.

Snapdragon is the second-newest stadium in the NWSL, opened in late 2022, and it was built next to the rubble of the old Qualcomm Stadium, with its own convenient stop on the light rail. It boasts great seats throughout, plus higher-end experiences such as the Cutwater Bar (pass a Paloma) and the Sycuan Piers, which feels about as close as you might get to watching a game as an overhead drone while catching a 360-degree view of the beautiful surroundings.

Scheduling concerns loom as MLS comes to town and appears to be puffing its chest as the (highly debatable) bigger-ticket event. But as experiences this season go, going to a game in San Diego is a great vibe no matter what time of year -- and a ticket to a Wave game is in demand.

3. Providence Park (Portland Thorns)Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports

Built in 1926, Providence Park is the oldest stadium in the NWSL, but for a decade it was the clear standard-bearer in the league. Plenty of new stadiums offer other bells and whistles, but Providence Park is an experience you can't replicate.

There is a charm to some of the old tunnels and the quirks like a south end that abuts another building, but there are modern amenities, too, thanks to the latest round of renovations that added three new decks of seating, which were opened in 2019.

So what makes Providence Park so great? Well, it is smack in the middle of the city and easy to access -- even on foot for many. It has an intimate vibe, but seats around 25,000 and is always full enough to be rocking thanks to the Thorns drawing an average attendance of about 19,000 last year. The team's pulsating supporters group, the Rose City Riveters, and their impressive wall of fans behind the north goal creates an experience one might expect from a storied team abroad with decades more history.

Relative to the NWSL, the Thorns are that historic giant as one of the founding teams in the league, and Providence Park has always been the place (minus the artificial turf) that players and fans want to be.

2. BMO Stadium (Angel City FC)Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Angel City FC games nail the glamorous L.A. vibe, which is a must if they are to succeed in the market. The team backed up its marketing with a strong gameday experience that ranges from live music or stunts before games to an engaged, loud crowd throughout the match.

BMO Field is in a relatively perfect location given the sprawling landscape of greater L.A., and the view of downtown -- especially as the sun sets -- is a wonderful touch. Everything in the stadium screams luxury, including multiple clubs and lounges and the Sunset Deck.

Angel City's struggle to gain priority as a tenant remains a major point of concern, as evidenced by the team rescheduling its 2024 home opener and as noted in our NWSL Ambition Rankings -- but that is more of a business issue. The 22,000-capacity BMO Field was built for an exceptional soccer experience, and Angel City does its part on game days as well as anyone in the NWSL (and better than plenty of MLS teams, too, for the record).

1. CPKC Stadium (Kansas City Current)Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports

The first stadium built specifically for an NWSL team was always going to top this list. Count this writer among the 11,500-plus people in the building for its sellout grand opening in March, plenty of whom were not just locals, but came from some distance to experience history.

The stadium delivers in several ways. First, it is unmistakable thanks to its location on the riverfront and next to a major bridge. Its size (which can be expanded in the future) creates a demand for tickets and packs everyone in the building within 100 linear feet of the sideline, creating perfect views of the field and the river from most seats. Plus, it means the place gets loud, and the unbeaten Current have clearly benefited from that.

There are high-end touches, from the suites and lounge that give the feel of an exclusive restaurant, to the mesh seating that makes even the average fan feel like they got an upgrade from the usual plastic. If you love the NWSL or soccer, period, seeing a Current game at CPKC Stadium is a bucket list item. How many women's teams around the world can say that?

Source: espn.co.uk

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