It was a seminal moment in the shared experience of Seattle area soccer history. To the casual observer it would’ve appeared to be American boys run amok. To Walter Schmetzer, however, it was the inspiration that would launch a business of 43 years and probably thousands of stories.
Forty-some years before Brian Schmetzer delivered an MLS Cup to Puget Sound, his family’s name became synonymous with quality soccer goods dispensed on Lake City Way and, more recently, Aurora Avenue. Schmetzer’s Sporthaus helped outfit generations of players in a region gone mad over the game, until closing the doors for good earlier this month.
One of the first such stores in the Northwest, Schmetzer’s was the region’s longest-running soccer shop. It preceded premier academies and every women’s collegiate program in the state, and thrived while multiple professional clubs fell by the wayside.
At its essence, Sporthaus was a family business dedicated to delivering exceptional equipment and service to a demanding demographic. It was not always easy, and shrewd stewardship from two generations of Schmetzers proved to be the essential ingredient. While its closing after nearly 43 years may make some wistful, it leaves behind a mass of memories, beginning with Walter Schmetzer’s recollection of a summer day in 1974.
Pursuing a Vision
From the day Schmetzer and his young family arrived in 1962, they have been a fixture in its growth. He was a celebrated, speedy winger for Germania of the state’s first division. However, once his oldest son, Brian, turned 7, Walter stopped playing and volunteered to organize and coach a neighborhood team that would become legendary for its dominance: The Lake City Hawks.
Halfway through their run of six state championships, Walter Schmetzer took his little Hawks back to his native Germany. It was 1974 and as reigning European champion, West Germany was hosting the World Cup and poised to take its place at the top of world soccer. In the midst of all this national fervor, little Lake City was playing games against the youth teams of Hertha Berlin, Stuttgart and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
In between those matches, Schmetzer took the team to a local sporting goods store. Typically, pre-teen boys find shopping to be tedious at best and more often loathsome. Instead, on this excursion, Brian and his teammates exhibited signs of the ultimate sugar high, bouncing up and down the aisles to absorb all the store had to offer in soccer goods.
“I was amazed at how crazy they went,” remembers Walter, “because they had things we didn’t have (in Seattle).”
This was Schmetzer’s “aha moment.” Although a machinist by trade, he was entrepreneurial by nature, and instantly envisioned opening his own soccer shop.
“I knew how much soccer was growing in the Seattle area, and I knew the customers would be here; it was just a matter of getting all the equipment,” he explained 42 years later. “I was pretty convinced by the kids going wild in the sporting goods store; they went wild and bought as much as they had money for.”
This, then, was when the concept of Sporthaus Schmetzer was conceived. In the coming months, a storefront would be established, the shelves stocked and soccer folks from throughout the Northwest would begin converging on Lake City to find a treasure trove of gear, previously unattainable.
Sporting goods stores of that time gave precious little shelf space to soccer. Since the early Seventies, Denzil Miskell had been selling to teams out of a couple import businesses before opening Sports Specialties in Belltown. Denzil’s was where you went for deals on largely off-brand gear sourced from the U.K., at least initially. Miskell described it not-so-affectionately as “down and dirty.” Still it was a successful business model for 31 years.
“The entire country had very little to offer with regard to soccer supplies,” remembers Cliff McCrath, then five years into his 38 seasons as coach of Seattle Pacific University. “Sporthaus arrived and, immediately, the culture began to change. They stepped up the culture and became the place for higher quality – and a greater variety of products.”
Walter Schmetzer Jr. (Walt) recounts his early days playing in the Seattle Youth Soccer Association. “Everybody in Lake City got these royal blue uniforms with a white collar,” and neighboring clubs were basic colors as well. Walter Sr. introduced the first Adidas kits, although they came through the back door.
Sporthaus focused on soccer from the start, but the first incarnation, located at the corner of 30th Ave NE and NE 125th, also featured necessities for tennis, baseball and a few other sports, with Walter even stringing rackets. Initially, sales quotas for Adidas and Puma were beyond the reach of Schmetzer. Instead, he carried German studs made by little-known Möbus; his brother-in-law in Germany procured and personally shipped the first sets of three-striped uniforms.
All in the Family
While Schmetzer knew soccer, running a retail business was all new to him. At the outset, he kept his day job of manufacturing aircraft parts. His shift began at 4 a.m. By noon, he was on his way to the shop to relieve his wife, Ursula (Ulla). She had opened the store at 10, bringing along her young twins, Andy and Walt.
“It was just a lot of work,” says Walter Sr. It was an all-out family enterprise. Ulla kept the books. Daughter Jeannette both worked the counter and sales floor. Sons Brian, Andy and Walt first broke into the business through silk-screening shirts and recording inventory.
As a start-up, there was little money for advertising. The first location, lacked visibility. When Sporthaus moved around the corner to Lake City Way in early 1976, the soccer community soon began beating a path to the front door.
At that time Washington youth soccer was just beginning its explosive growth. From 1975-80, participation grew by 96 percent. There was another spurt of 27 percent during the Eighties and 57 percent, to 124,000, by 2000.
During the first boom, most kids and their parents knew very little about the game. Walter, with his thick German accent, was knowledgeable and friendly. He was unreserved in stating his recommendations to customers.
“Our slogan when advertising was, ‘We Know Soccer,’” he says. “The three boys played soccer. I played soccer. So, we know soccer.”
Across town at Denzil’s most of the fare was British. With West Germany the world champion and Soccer Made In Germany beamed into living rooms, Schmetzer’s was a logical place to begin a search for gear from the Fatherland.
The Möbus shoe, with its kangaroo leather, sold well, but it was no match for the Adidas Copa Mundial. Find vintage soccer photos from 1976-96 and chances are multiple players will be kicking in Copas. Among the other bestsellers were the sleek Adidas training pants and the blue Adilette sandals.
Sporthaus kept their selection fairly basic. If it was what a true player needed, they had it. “That was our focus,” says Walt Jr.
Ulla was bullish on keeping bestsellers in stock, and her sons would monitor inventory on a daily basis. As soccer became more mainstream, “if there was a knock against us back then, it’s that we didn’t have enough apparel,” Walt concedes.
A seasonal favorite for Christmastime was the colorful Kicker calendars featuring spectacular photos from the Bundesliga. During the early Eighties, an Adidas jacket, the Burdett, became a fashionable must-have for many teens and young adults. Sporthaus and other retailers could barely keep them in stock. Then one night, burglars broke into the shop and made off with every single Burdett. Ulla refused to reorder, fearing more break-ins.
The Brothers Schmetzer
Walt Schmetzer recalls the Eighties as high-flying days. The shop was more commonly known then as Schmetzer’s, due to Walter Sr.’s camps and youth coaching success – and also as a result of the boys’ visibility as professionals. Brian broke-in with the Sounders in 1980; Andy and Walt joined FC Seattle and the indoor ranks in 1985. That next summer their father staged a promotional event featuring all three at the store.
“Honestly, I was a little embarrassed,” admits Walt. “It was a unique experience and fun being in the store. But you saw a lot of people you already knew and knew well, and they would say, ‘Why would I want your autograph?’”
That was a rare break from a no-frills, businesslike atmosphere. When the boys brought their friends into the shop and started kicking balls about, Walter and Ulla quickly put a stop to it. Walter enjoyed swapping stories with coaches, yet Ulla kept chit-chat to a minimum. “She definitely didn’t want to sit around all day and talk soccer,” explains Walt. “That’s not who she was; she had work to do.”
In his teens Walt would work a half-day at his father’s popular summer camps. “I’d get to the store at 1 and do nothing but fitting shoes the whole time, little kids coming in non-stop. I didn’t even have a chance to eat,” he details.
“Those were fun times because you’re dealing with families new into soccer and I was old enough and knew enough so I could help them and create a rapport with families.”
New Age Dawning
In the Nineties, Schmetzer’s expanded their presence by opening stores near the Everett and Tacoma malls. Still, they face increased competition from newly established Soccer West stores. Meanwhile, Nike’s entry into the sport marked a major change for the supply side. Then, just as Eurosport was becoming a force in catalog and online sales, there was a change in Sporthaus ownership. Walt purchased the Lake City flagship and Everett shop from his parents.
“A couple years before that, I started doing all the buying. My mom would still come in from time to time; she helped with the bookkeeping,” notes Walt. “I was the one on the floor.”
It was a market facing significantly more pressure and from multiple sides. It became essential to not only build relationships with individual customers but big clubs as well. For a small family-owned shop, a club contract can make all the difference. It was a balancing act, maintaining availability for affordable equipment yet bringing in a full selection of the newest, most marketed studs of Nike and Adidas. Walt was determined to continue providing both.
Year after year it was a scramble to remain relevant in a world increasingly dominated by Soccer.com and chain stores. Walt reversed the shop’s name from Sporthaus Schmetzer to Schmetzer’s Sporthaus, and in 2012 he moved the business out of Lake City after 37 years. It was an emotional break but necessary as the local business district was deteriorating.
Schmetzer’s relocated to just north of Green Lake, not far from the historic playfields of Woodland Park. Vibrant wall graphics and a turfed area invited customers not only to try on shoes but test them and kick a ball off the wall. Painted primarily in Sounders colors, it screamed Seattle soccer. Coupled with customer care, this expansive new store promised a memorable experience. Only Sporthaus was swimming against the tide.
Against the Tide
It’s been a tough go the likes of Sporthaus nationwide. Earlier in 2017, a once-popular specialty shop closed outside of Chicago. One was shuttered in upstate New York after 30 years and another in Jacksonville went out of business after 35 years. Owners cited online shopping and competition from sporting goods super stores such as DICK’s. It was no different in Seattle.
On Nov. 1, Walt shared the news: He was liquidating the remaining stock. Ten years after Denzil abruptly closed Sports Specialties, Schmetzer’s, too, would become part of the community’s storied past, much like Cintrex fields and ethnic clubs dominating the old state league.
Despite being involved in another MLS Cup run with the Sounders, the news weighed on Brian Schmetzer. It was no real surprise, but the finality of it all was evident in his reaction.
“It was a sad day, for sure. Lots of memories,” says Brian Schmetzer, who remembers hot summer days working in the store’s back room, drying silk-screened t-shirts. “(It’s) just unfortunate retail is so hard these days.
“(But) the lessons I took from watching my parents live their dream inspired me to be an entrepreneur with my construction company and develop life skills I use today. I’m so happy (the store was) part of fabric of the soccer scene.”
In the final weeks, while deal-seekers combed through the remaining stock, past Sporthaus customers posted their sentiments on the store’s Facebook page. Others returned to pay their respects and share stories of bygone days, when everyone from rec-level to future national teamers came to get fitted for Copas, pick-up Sounders tickets or simply see what new gear just landed.
“The genuine appreciation of what the store meant to people is what stands out to me,” says Walt. “A few coaches came in just to say thank you. I hadn’t seen them in a few years. There’s always parents who come in, who say they remember my mother telling them what shoes I should buy, not which ones I wanted to buy. There was a level of appreciation for what they did and what I hoped continued to the grassroots of soccer.”
As darkness fell on Dec. 3, the last stragglers filed out into the night. Walt Schmetzer switched off the lights one last time. It really was one exceptional run, all inspired by the sight of soccer-crazed boys going nuts in a faraway land. For over four decades Schmetzer’s enabled our greater soccer community to share that experience, to play the role of that adventurous kid again and again. But we are reminded that times change and eventually everything must go.