NWSL analysis

After the USWNT World Cup triumph, what is next for the NWSL?

The Women's World Cup was a success for the USWNT but how much will it help the country's domestic league? Of course a bump is to be expected, but will it last? ASN's John Halloran takes a deep dive
BY John Halloran Posted
July 30, 2019
8:00 AM
WHAT'S NEXT for the National Women’s Soccer League? That is the big question right now following the success of the 2019 Women's World Cup

A midweek sellout in New Jersey. A new record for Reign FC.

15,931 in attendance last weekend in Utah.

17,388 fans last Sunday in Chicago.

22,329 on a Wednesday night in Portland.

Signs of the “World Cup bump,” a by-product of the United States women’s national team’s success in France this summer, are everywhere right now in the National Women’s Soccer League. But for those who’ve been around since the 2015 World Cup—when the U.S. women also won the championship—this time around feels a little different.

The most impressive attendance feat so far has come in Chicago, where last week the Red Stars more than tripled their previous high for a standalone match. There, the organization spent weeks preparing for their first post-World Cup home game, sending a small army of 30 staffers and interns to hand out flyers and ticket vouchers at Wrigley Field and Union Station, U.S. Soccer’s watch parties at Lincoln Park, and soccer bars like The Globe and AJ Hudson’s.

The team even did outreach to the American Outlaws chapters in both Chicago and Milwaukee, and headed out to the suburbs of Evanston and Naperville to promote the team.

However, one big question remains in the light of all this success: How does the NWSL take advantage of this unique moment in women’s soccer and push the league forward?

Maggie Dziubek, head of Chicago Local 134—the Red Stars’ supporters group—told American Soccer Now prior to the record-setting match that the key is making sure everyone has fun.

“Everyone needs to have a good time today. It’s one thing to get people in the door, but if they come and it’s miserable, or it’s boring, or if [the stadium] runs out of food, then they don’t come back.

“The stakes are so high for every person who is here today and that’s true for the team, but it’s also true for Local 134. We’re trying to put our best foot forward, to be as welcoming as we can be, and show people this is something they want to build into their lives.”

Red Stars’ and U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher agreed, telling the media after the game that the key is making sure everyone enjoys their experience.

“Everyone’s been doing great [with attendance],” she said. “Now the trick is, how can we maintain that? How can we make sure it’s not a one-off game and keep riding the buzz?

“Hopefully people had fun tonight and across every stadium this weekend and they can see the product that we’re putting on the field. If they’re having fun at the games, they’re going to keep coming back.”

Some criticized Chicago’s tactic of using vouchers to bring in first-time fans, but the Red Stars’ front-office stated that a significant percentage of those redeeming vouchers bought additional tickets. The team also argued that there is an inherent value in capturing thousands of new e-mail addresses of those already interested in women’s soccer and in increasing awareness of the team.

If even a small percentage of those in attendance last Sunday return, Chicago could potentially increase its average attendance in a significant way.

“We fail if we don’t bring them out two to three more times this year,” said Red Stars’ owner Arnim Whisler.

“We can’t sleep on this one. We’ll celebrate this in about five weeks. [Now], it’s all about the rest of the season.”

Despite having a team that has reached the playoffs each of the last four seasons and the fact that it boasts international stars Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato, as well as Americans Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian, Tierna Davidson, and Naeher, many people—even those deeply embedded in soccer circles in Chicago—remain unaware of the team’s existence.

It’s a problem prevalent across much of the NWSL, but also one that many of the biggest names in the game seem aware of and are trying to change. In recent weeks, many of the U.S.’ players have used their moment in the spotlight and their massive platform to promote the league in a louder and more frequent manner than they have in the past.

Dziubek, who has headed Chicago’s supporters group for years, thinks this bump is of a different scope than the one felt after the 2015 World Cup.

“What [Local 134] was at that point and what the NWSL was at that point—it was kind of small potatoes,” she explained. “The group of people that were going out to games—it was a very insular community of people who were very invested in the game [and] knew each other very well.”

“Looking at numbers like this, we’ve blasted outside the echo chamber,” Dziubek added. “We’ve reached people who hadn’t heard of the Red Stars before. It’s incredible to think there are people who interested in women’s soccer who haven’t heard of the Red Stars if they live in Chicago, but it’s absolutely true. There’s tons of people like that.”

Last Sunday, a number of Red Stars’ players remained out on the field an hour after the final whistle, signing autographs, taking selfies, and greeting fans. The group included Kerr—arguably the best forward in the world—as well as Brian and Naeher—who both have two World Cup titles to their name.

It’s an “ambassador” role, one that seems more prevalent in women’s sports, but also one the players willingly embrace.

“I remember being a kid and going out to games and trying to get my favorite players’ autographs,” said Naeher. “If they’re going to take the time to come all the way out here and sit through the 90-minute game and then wait around after, that’s the least that I can do.”

“That’s a testament to women’s sports in general,” she added. “That’s part of it. It’s part of what we do. It’s part of growing the league and growing the sport and growing women’s sports in general. This team embraces it and I know the national team embraces it as well.”

“That’s the biggest crowd in history,” said Brian. “For us, it’s capitalizing on that by putting a good product on the field, but also for us staying after and giving autographs and making it worth these peoples’ while.”

Despite the recent attendance bump, many—from NWSL owners to fans—have expressed frustration at the lack of promotion done at the league level during the World Cup. There seemed to be no obvious plan to promote the NWSL during the tournament to take advantage of the heightened visibility, a problem no doubt exacerbated by the virtual shuttering of the offices at NWSL Media in New York this spring.

In the league’s Chicago offices, the NWSL lost its director of communications prior to the season. That job was widely expected to be split into two, including a brand manager and a new head of public relations. The latter job has still not been filled and the new brand manager position was not filled until two weeks into the World Cup—another example of the league poorly positioning itself to create and implement a better promotional strategy.

“Watching the World Cup, you could see the missed opportunities,” said Dziubek.

“It feels like promoting women’s soccer is already an uphill battle and you have to take your chances when they come,” she added. “And every chance you don’t take is exponentially impactful on everything.

Since its inception, U.S. Soccer has provided logistical support, helping run the league’s front office and subsidizing the salaries of the top American stars playing in the NWSL. However, the management agreement between the two entities is set to expire at the end of the season and it’s unclear whether some of the league’s owners are willing or financially capable of stepping into the void to fund a fully staffed front office on their own.

“I think one thing that’s empirically true is that staffing matters,” said Dziubek. “The NWSL needs to be staffed. I would never say that the people who are working for the NWSL office aren’t working their hardest to make the league succeed. They have no incentive not to.

“But U.S. Soccer needs to think critically about their role in the NWSL and the positions that need to be filled [and] need to be filled in a World Cup year because this is our chance.”

The first half of the 2019 NWSL season was not televised after the dissolution of the previous deal between A+E Networks and the league this February. For the first 13 weeks of the season, games were available only on streams from Yahoo Sports. However, during the World Cup, the NWSL announced a television deal for the second half of the season, with matches to be broadcast on ESPN2 and ESPNEWS.

Near the end of the World Cup, the NWSL also announced a sponsorship agreement with Budweiser. Many have seen the deal with a beer company as a positive step for a league that has often targeted its marketing towards children and families, instead of towards young adults.

“When I meet people my own age who like to come [to games], they go and they have beer and they have a good time and it’s like a night out with their friends,” said North Carolina Courage and U.S. midfielder Sam Mewis.

“Women’s soccer is more than just a good example for young girls, it’s a good investment,” she added. “If you look at MLS 30 years ago and what a team was worth to what it’s worth now, we can do that same thing, we can make that same investment. It might take 30 years, but that’s where it’s going. People getting in now are smart.”

“It’s really cool to see the sponsors believe in us like we believe in ourselves,” said Ertz.

One narrative that emerges in periods like this, and one prevalent on both the men’s and women’s side of the game in America, is the assumption that any single individual moment represents a finish line for the sport. Over the years, commentators have repeatedly declared moments when soccer has finally “made it” in America.

It happened in 1994 when the U.S. men team beat Colombia, and again in 1996 when the U.S. women won the Olympics in Atlanta. It was repeated when the women won the 1999 World Cup, when the men advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002, when the MLS All-Stars beat Chelsea in 2006, and again when the women beat Brazil in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals.

Recently, it was heard when the women won the 2012 Olympics, when John Anthony Brooks scored a dramatic late-winner against Ghana in the 2014 World Cup, and again when the women won their third World Cup title in 2015.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that all of those moments played a part, but none—despite the proclamations—were a watershed moment in and of themselves. The reality of soccer in America is that progress is much slower with the sport making incremental gains in between these big moments.

Since 2013 and the NWSL’s inception, the league’s attendance has increased every single year and grown 73% since that first year. Chicago Local 134 has seen a similar, incremental growth, expanding from 34 members just after the 2015 World Cup to 104 members before last Sunday’s game.

The ability of Red Stars to take advantage of the current moment—in a way some other teams have not—and bring 17,000 fans into SeatGeek had its roots in a decision made back in 2016. That year, the team moved out of the much smaller venue it had previously occupied at Benedictine University.

Following the 2015 World Cup, the Red Stars posted back-to-back sellouts at Benedictine, but maxed out attendance at 3,560 fans. The following season, they moved, and the foresight of Chicago’s front office in making that decision gave the team room to grow.

When the league began, only one of the NWSL’s eight franchises was affiliated with a men’s side and the remaining seven were owned by “independents.” Today, four of the league’s nine teams are affiliated with MLS teams and two others with USL sides—only three remain fully independent.

Those three are Chicago, the Washington Spirit, and Sky Blue. The Spirit play at the NWSL’s smallest venue, the Maryland SoccerPlex. Although the facility has an official capacity of 4,000, the team brought in 5,500 fans for its first match after the World Cup. Sky Blue FC play at Yurcak Field with an official capacity 5,000, but are also looking to change their home stadium for the 2020 season—another sign that smaller venues, especially those with inferior amenities, no longer fit the growing league.

However, affiliations with MLS sides are also no guarantor of success. The Houston Dash—part of the Dynamo organization—have never made the NWSL playoffs and have their own struggles with attendance. The same is true for the Orlando Pride—connected with Orlando SC. The Pride have made the playoffs only once, are currently second-to-last in the league, and have struggled to post consistent attendance numbers after setting a league record in their first-ever home match back in 2016.

The NWSL has also seen growing pains as some franchises haven’t been able to keep the pace. Following the 2016 season, the Western New York Flash were sold and relocated to North Carolina. Following the 2017 season, the Boston Breakers and the FC Kansas City ceased operations—with the latter’s assets being transferred to a new club in the Utah Royals.

Major League Soccer went through similar growing pains, shuttering two franchises following the 2001 season and moving from 12 teams to 10. The NWSL started with eight teams and, now in its seventh season, has nine.

Talk of expansion is frequent, but the league hasn’t added a net franchise since 2016. The league also does not have a television deal beyond the 11 games left on this year’s broadcast schedule, although several teams do have deals on local television networks. Outside of the recent Budweiser agreement, league-wide sponsorships have also been few and far between.

For Major League Soccer, those deals are negotiated by Soccer United Marketing, which also markets the rights of both the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams. The NWSL is not part of the arrangement which, at times, leaves it in direct competition with the U.S. women’s team for sponsorships.

However, SUM did help negotiate the Budweiser deal for the NWSL, and did so without taking a fee.

The league is, no doubt, enjoying an unprecedented moment. The total attendance from the nine games following the return of the U.S. World Cup players is 97,091, representing 25% of the total attendance from the entire 2013 season.

The key now is whether the league and its teams can take advantage of that growth, continue to push attendance numbers up on a year-to-year basis, and continue to secure the media and sponsorships deals that will keep a light on the NWSL in the long period between now and the 2023 World Cup.

“I think you’re seeing a movement and seeing that women’s soccer is here to stay,” said Brian.

“It’s a movement and women are a force and we’re creating that movement. It’s something that is going to be awesome to be a part of. This league has so much potential.”

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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