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NWSL looking to translate Women’s World Cup aura into long-term gains 

  • Momentum gained from 2015 event did not last and was followed by period of instability  
  • League has refined expansion process after demise of three independently-run clubs  
  • New broadcast deal is imminent after premature ending to A&E Networks partnership  

The National Women’s Soccer League will make a concerted effort to ride the wave of this summer’s Women’s World Cup, with interest in the league and its players expected to spike during and after the tournament.

USA’s victory at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada was watched by a record 25.4 million viewers on Fox, making it the most-viewed soccer game in the United States – men’s or women’s – by a large margin.

At league level, the exposure of the women’s game translated into significant attendance growth in the second half of the 2015 NWSL season, with a number of teams enjoying record crowds in the immediate aftermath of the tournament. This uptick in interest carried over into 2016 as average crowds rose to 5,558, up from 4,139 in 2014.

There were other commercial gains, too. In September 2015, the league extended its equipment and apparel deal with Nike for four further years through 2019. In the same autumn of 2015, it was announced that the Orlando Pride would join the league in 2016.

But the World Cup boost did not last long. A period of deep instability began in January 2017 with the Western New York Flash relocating to become the North Carolina Courage, NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush unexpectedly resigning a month later, and two teams – FC Kansas City and the Boston Breakers – folding within a year.

There were also numerous reports in late 2018 about sub-par living, training and playing conditions at the New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC, which in large part led to two 2019 Draft picks choosing to play overseas rather than for the club.

Meanwhile, a supposedly “transformational partnership” signed in 2017 with A&E Networks – which took a 25-per-cent equity stake in the league, while Lifetime became the official broadcast partner and shirt-sleeve sponsor – ended in February a year ahead of schedule. This meant that the NWSL began the 2019 season without a linear TV contract – its games are being streamed on Yahoo Sports platforms – although a new deal is imminent, according to NWSL president Amanda Duffy.

Instability in professional women’s soccer in the US is not new: the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer both folded within three years. However, there are reasons for optimism about the long-term future of the NWSL, now in its seventh season.

The Portland Thorns and expansion team Utah Royals continue to gain impressive attendances – helping average crowds rise above the 6,000 mark for the first time last year – while the commercial partnership with Nike has reportedly been extended until 2022. LaLiga giant FC Barcelona, meanwhile, is looking to put a team in the league to help expand its brand in the US.

And with women’s soccer enjoying a transformational year – with record club attendances in Europe as well as a dramatic rise in media attention and commercial interest – the NWSL is hoping that this summer’s Women’s World Cup, with the US women favored to repeat as champions despite an ongoing wage battle, will again kickstart growth efforts.

“Given the overall increase in women’s sports – and specifically with interest to women’s soccer – we anticipate local revenue opportunities to increase and we also expect a larger impact from a national level as well during this year’s tournament and the months afterwards,” Duffy tells SportBusiness.

“I think there are a lot of exposure opportunities that will arise out of this tournament and that interest is going to…continue for many months. The data from 2015 showed an increase in local opportunities in connection with ticket sales and some sponsorships. What we really need to make sure of is, through our efforts, that we prolong that wave of interest and engagement.

“I anticipate there is going to be record numbers of engagement, interest, support and viewership during this Women’s World Cup and for women’s soccer on a global scale. I also anticipate there will be a lot of attention and discussion around NWSL so…we have to work every day to take advantage of opportunities of interest that we’ll have,” she said.

USA’s victory at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada led to an immediate attendance spike in the NWSL (Credit: Getty Images)

‘Staying active’ to attract casual fans

The NWSL will have 58 players from 12 countries at the Women’s World Cup – up from 53 in 2015 – including USA stars Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, and international players Marta (Brazil) and Sam Kerr (Australia).

According to Duffy – who officially took over from Plush in January, albeit with a different title – the league will use its social-media and digital platforms “to share stories and information and voice the message of the league and its players” during the World Cup. Some NWSL clubs, like the Portland Thorns and Sky Blue, will also be holding and supporting watch parties at pubs and bars in their local markets during the tournament.

With so many of its players competing in France – and so much attention on the tournament – the NWSL has taken a break from June 3-14 for the group-stage action, something that the league did not do in 2015. The NWSL resumes on June 15, meaning there will be a clash with the Women’s World Cup for three weeks up until the July 7 final.

Duffy says only time will tell if this strategy will help or hinder the league but she believes that staying active during the World Cup may help draw non- or casual fans to domestic women’s soccer matches.

“In the thinking into this year’s schedule, it makes sense to celebrate the kick-off of the Women’s World Cup with the rest of the world and have the focus on the start of the tournament,” says Duffy. “But there is a benefit in staying active, if you would, through the tournament as we do anticipate that novice fans or those who have not supported NWSL or women’s soccer at all will be introduced to the sport during the next month.

“So having an active schedule with games that are ongoing during the tournament will be a benefit at a local level so that when fans are watching the Women’s World Cup they’ll be able to relate to and connect with a team at a local level at the same time.”

NWSL president Amanda Duffy (Credit: NWSL)

Taking control of media and sponsorship rights

The league and its players will gain further exposure with a new linear TV deal for the second half of the 2019 season, which Duffy says will be announced “very soon”.

The NWSL was forced to find a new TV partner following the premature end of its A&E Networks partnership. It remains unclear which party ended the relationship and why.

Lifetime was the first channel to broadcast a full NWSL season – previous partners Fox and ESPN only televised some matches towards the end of campaigns – but the women-focused network was not a particularly good fit for the league as it did not air any other sports content. This was reflected in low ratings and the NWSL’s decision last June to put six games that were due to air on Lifetime on ESPNews instead.

A new broadcast deal is being eagerly awaited by the clubs. Sky Blue interim general manager Alyse LaHue tells us: “Having our games, on an accessible platform for our fans to reach is an important continuation of the World Cup…for us to capitalize on it.”

Despite bringing short-term problems, the ending of the A+E partnership potentially offers improved long-term gains for the NWSL. The league has now assumed full control of NWSL Media – the commercial, marketing sponsorship arm that was previously a 50-50 joint venture between the NWSL and A+E.

“There were areas of the agreement that on reflection that it made more sense for the league owners to have more control of more parts of the business,” Duffy said. “We knew at that point that A+E/Lifestyle was not going to continue as the broadcast partner beyond the 2019 season so it was already anticipated that we would be looking for a broadcast partner beyond this season.

“I think for the league, as we look at where it is and what the opportunities are ahead…and as we look ahead and the ability to have more control over the outcome and more control over our commercial initiatives, it makes a lot of sense to be in this position. We feel stronger now and better positioned now to really affect what the future of this league looks like.”

The Western New York Flash won the NWSL title in 2016 but were relocated to North Carolina the following year (Credit: Getty Images)

Refining the expansion process

When the then eight-team league launched in 2013, all but one of the clubs were independently-owned; the exception being the Portland Thorns who are run by Merritt Paulson, owner of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers.

Following the downfall of three of these original independent teams (Western New York Flash, FC Kansas City, and Boston Breakers), and significant problems at a fourth (Sky Blue FC), it appears that the NWSL is focusing on ownership groups who have a wider support structure to draw from.

Notably, all the league’s expansion teams since its inception have MLS or United Soccer League affiliations. The Houston Dash (who joined in 2014) share an ownership group with neighboring team the Houston Dynamo. Orlando Pride (2016) do the same with MLS team Orlando City SC, North Carolina Courage (2017) with USL team North Carolina FC, and Utah Royals (2018) with MLS team Real Salt Lake.

There are unofficial partnerships, too. In an attempt to expand their fanbases, the independently-owned Washington Spirit and Chicago Red Stars have held games at the venues of local MLS teams, DC United and Chicago Fire, while Sky Blue are looking to do so at Red Bull Arena, the home of the New York Red Bulls.

Meanwhile, in January online retailer Zulily became the shirt sponsor of both the NWSL Reign FC and the MLS Seattle Sounders.

While these affiliations are no guarantees of success – Dash and Pride attendances have stumbled in recent years – they still offer a greater chance of long-term stability and financial support.

The NWSL, meanwhile, is in conversations with a number of prospective ownership groups, who are looking to join the league between 2020 and 2023. The league is considering both independent and affiliated teams. “There is not a one-size-fits-all in terms of owning and operating an NWSL team and we try to make that clear in our expansion process,” Duffy says.

But she adds: “A model that has a larger support structure where there is shared ownership has proven to give a group a better opportunity to achieve success. The net ownership, the market, the facilities, certainly have some experience in operating a professional sports team [are traits] that we look for and I think it all has to make sense in terms of how we are trying to drive this league forward.

“We’ve worked to refine our expansion process and strategy over the past 12 months and have focused on expansion candidates that will deliver at the local level on attendance and sponsorship and other local revenue sources and who are able to invest in the women’s game at a level that we feel is appropriate for the future of the sport in continuing to develop the league.”

FC Barcelona, which has a regional office in New York, is looking to add a team to the league, which would certainly benefit from the club’s stardust and extensive global reach. But discussions remain at an impasse due to Barca’s insistence that its potential NWSL team would always play in Nike-branded kits regardless of who the league partners with in this field.

The issue stems from Barcelona’s $174m-per-year kit deal with Nike, which runs until 2023. “It is an ongoing conversation,” Duffy says.

The Portland Thorns drew over 19,000 fans for their home opener at Providence Park this season (Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer)

Portland Thorns offer template for success

The Thorns represent the template for all NWSL clubs – present and future – to follow. The team drew average crowds of 13,320 in 2013, climbing to 16,959 last year, which was slightly down from the high of 17,653 in 2017. That 2018 figure is higher than what six Major League Baseball teams currently draw on average.

After being on the road for the first six games of the 2019 NWSL season, the Thorns even played in front of a crowd of 19,461 at the refurbished Providence Park earlier this month, despite missing nine leading players who were preparing for the Women’s World Cup.

By contrast, the Utah Royals, who are second best-attended team in the league, drew an average of 9,466 fans a game in 2018, with the rest of the league attracting crowds of 5,000 or under. “We’re a bit of an aberration,” admits Mike Golub, the Timbers/Thorns head of business.

The success of the Thorns lies heavily in the extensive collaboration of the Timbers – the NWSL team are treated as an equal by the ownership group and have access to the 160-strong front office, almost all of whom work for both properties.

It also helps that there is a history of support for soccer – both men’s and women’s – in the Oregon market dating back to 1975, when the Timbers joined the original North American Soccer League, while the Portland Rain played in multiple now-disbanded women’s leagues from 2000 until 2012.

“There is not one NWSL model that works, but here we have an organization of 160 people who live and breathe soccer every day and whose job it is to promote, sell, manage soccer every day,” Golub said. “We have resources to deploy – and we do deploy – against the Thorns that independent teams are not in a position to have. An independent team can’t have the breadth and depth of resources that we have: it makes a big difference.

“The other big advantage that we and other affiliated clubs have is control of facilities and venues. The dates, the fan experience, the quality of venue, training facilities and locker rooms are all under our control and I think we’re able, in a vertically-integrated way, to deliver that to the players and the fans much more efficiently than teams who don’t control their facilities,” he said.

It is little surprise that many potential NWSL ownership groups have come to the Thorns for advice and seek to learn the secrets of their success.

“We’re all in this together and we all need to be successful to some degree in order for this league to be successful. We very much are rooting for other clubs to do well,” Golub said. “We have prospective owners from other cities in town on a regular basis. We are transparent with our information and how we do things and what our results are because like any league it’s an association, we all want this league to flourish and survive and be viable for years and years to come. To have that happen it can’t just be one or two teams, it has to be the vast majority of teams to be successful. So we are very invested in doing our part to help that.”

Golub is confident that the Women’s World Cup will prove a huge short-term boost for the NWSL as a showcase for its players, but he says a lot of hard work is still needed league-wide to sustain any momentum.

“It is building the foundation of successful clubs with good venues and good training facilities and turning people on to what is a great product. It’s an every-day undertaking,” he says. “The World Cup will give those undertakings a really nice tailwind that we’re all anxiously and eagerly going to capitalize on.

“But to think that an amazing World Cup in France is going to suddenly transform the league, I don’t think anyone is thinking that. It’s going to help us continue to build and it’s about putting the foundations in day-by-day, season-by-season and with the end goal of having very solid, stable, sustainable first division women’s soccer league in our country and that is something our female players present and future deserve.”

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