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NWSL owners mull USSF split to tap into women’s football growth

FC Kansas City team celebrate after winning the NWSL Championship in 2015 (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The nine franchises which make up the National Women’s Soccer League in the US are considering breaking with the United States Soccer Federation to become completely commercially autonomous.

The NWSL currently operates under a ‘management contract’ with the federation, the governing body for football in the US. The owners have long been frustrated at what they see is a lack of commitment by the federation to the league, which launched in 2013.

The franchises will vote late this year on whether to continue the existing relationship with the federation or push for full autonomy, becoming a privately-owned, self-contained commercial enterprise.

A breakaway would represent a risk for the owners. At present, the league is not sustainable through its own commercial and matchday revenues. Player salaries and other organisational aspects are funded by the federation. That subsidy would be lost if the league goes it alone.

However, local sources say the mood among the owners is bullish. They believe they could do a much better job than the federation of securing media coverage and sponsorship. It is also understood that they are prepared to put their own money into a standalone league until such time as it becomes commercially sustainable.

In 2019, the league has a deal with cable sports network ESPN for linear coverage of matches and with telco Verizon for digital rights. Both expire at the end of this year. Neither pays a rights fee but they are thought to share production costs of the matches. The league’s main sponsorship deals also expire at the end of the year.

Women’s soccer in the US is coming off the back of the national team’s victory in the Fifa Women’s World Cup this summer. Fox enjoyed big ratings and strong advertising revenues for its coverage of the tournament in the US. The final against the Netherlands on July 7 was watched by an average audience of 14.3m, reaching a peak of 19.6m.

Many of the game’s top stars – such as Australian Sam Kerr, Brazilian Marta, Canadian Christine Sinclair and Americans Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe – play in the league.
Soccer generally is expected to continue its rapid growth curve in the country, as the US, Mexico and Canada gear up to host the 2026 men’s World Cup.

The owners believe that now is the moment to cash in on that potential and are not confident that they will be able to do so by remaining part of the USSF structure.

Some local observers see the situation as part of a wider movement in the US for women to push for greater recognition and respect in the workplace, encompassing issues such as the women’s national football team’s push for equal pay, to the Me Too movement against harassment and sexual assault of women.

The existing NWSL franchises are: Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, North Carolina Courage, Orlando Pride, Portland Thorns, Reign, Sky Blue, Utah Royals and Washington Spirit.