Congratulations and welcome to a historic fourth season with the National Women’s Soccer League, a feat unheard of for its two predecessors, Women’s Professional Soccer and Women’s United Soccer Association. Now what?
Year four…NWSL growth and the start of 2016
NWSL started as an eight-team league in 2013 and has since grown to 10 teams for the 2016 season. Originally, only one team was affiliated with a Major League Soccer club, the Portland Thorns. Today three clubs are backed by an MLS side: Portland, the Houston Dash, and the Orlando Pride.
The other seven clubs remain independent, with varying degrees of success. For most, average attendances over the years have tended to trend upwards, but the Western New York Flash have regressed. The 2016 figures below are current through the third week of NWSL play.
Most teams saw a bump in 2015 from the World Cup, but not WNY, perhaps due to the absence of former team member Abby Wambach, who had previously been a huge draw for the team but “took off” 2015 in order to prepare for the World Cup.
Predictably, Portland sits at the top of average attendance (except for Orlando, who have precisely one home game in 2016 as a data point) for a number of reasons, including the city’s already well-established soccer fanbase and relative lack of competition from other major sports. But fellow MLS-backed club the Houston Dash also put up great numbers in 2015 as they continued to build on their audience base.
It’s counter-productive to compare these MLS sides to non-MLS clubs; the resources that come with an established MLS team cannot be underestimated, as seen in the rollout of the league’s latest expansion team, the Orlando Pride. Orlando put the team front and center alongside their men’s team, plastering Pride advertisements and merchandise all over the city, setting the playbook for future expansion club launches. Their monster home opener has already given the league a high point early in the season, and if Orlando manages to retain even half their initial audience throughout the season, they’ll still be dragging up the league average by a fair amount.
On the other side, you have small time teams like Sky Blue FC, who are growing their audience, but slowly, and on a scale that is a literal order of magnitude less than what the biggest team, Portland, is putting up at the moment. Sky Blue has spent 2016 announcing sponsorships with seemingly with anyone who will have them, which is not necessarily a bad way to go about building your grassroots-based team. Without MLS money available to them, they’ve decided their path is to get the local youth market locked in, while making deals with small or local businesses, including returning sponsors Meridian Health and Saker ShopRites and new corporate partners Quaker Steak & Lube and Pine Belt Auto Group of Lakewood.
Much has been made of the tendency in women’s soccer to target a younger demographic, and often for very good reason. Kids don’t have disposable income. They often view games as a fun way to spend time with their friends and family, as opposed to attending with the intention of forming a long-term attachment to the team. But youth academies are a significant source of income for many clubs, as well as a place for players to work in the off-season in administration or coaching roles, so at some level youth marketing is here to stay.
Then you have teams like the Seattle Reign, who are demonstrating many of the ways the non-MLS clubs in the league can combine good marketing, social media presence, and on-field performance to create a high-level product. It helps that team owner Bill Predmore heads his own digital marketing agency, which helped the team create a strong brand from the get-go. The “Let it Reign” trailer provides just a glimpse of the high level of production value they’ve created. In 2016, they upped their game again by grabbing Microsoft as a kit sponsor.
In the middle are teams like the Boston Breakers and Chicago Red Stars, who both have strong local men’s sports cultures to contend with. When it comes to marketing and social channels, these teams fall in the middle: they tend to stay on message, sometimes have a little fun with their tweets, and put out media but on a slightly irregular schedule. Ticket sales are solid but not stellar; they’re not going to reach Portland’s numbers but they’re steadily growing. Both teams have moved to better stadiums, and both are increasing the amount of merchandise available. Creative engagement with the community, like Boston’s all-access series on New England Sports Network, also helps teams continue to embed themselves in the community.
Season five…and beyond. What comes next?
There are certain growth factors the league needs to hit now that it’s passed its first milestone, the three-year curse (or rather, made it through its first World Cup and Olympic cycle). In order to successfully last in the low-publicity years between World Cup/Olympic cycles, those average attendances will, at the very least, need to plateau, while the players will need to steadily earn more money.
Where will the money come from? Increased ticket sales for one, which ties into fan growth. Then there’s merchandise – some clubs excel at it, some clubs are struggling, and there’s different levels of overlap between what clubs sell and what gets put up on NWSL’s official online shop. The league needs to set standards to ensure everything is as widely available and easy to purchase as possible.
League sponsorships also need to start rolling in. NWSL has to do a better job of leveraging the appeal of having the eminently bankable stars of the USWNT playing for them. Admittedly, it may be difficult to convince sponsors to make a league-level commitment when they might just want a single player’s name; recent sponsorship deals between players like Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Julie Johnston with Heineken, Budweiser, and Kellogg’s respectively may not translate that easily to big-name sponsorship for NWSL itself, and not outside of an Olympic year. Still, as the league’s continuing partnership with Coppertone Sport shows, there are brands who want to associate themselves with the image of healthy, physically fit women. So where is the Dove sponsorship?
And then there’s television deals, which have slowly improved over the years but haven’t actually reached a state of being good. NWSL growth requires more consistent television coverage, or barring that, more experiments like Alex Morgan’s Facebook page livestreaming games in order to grab more viewers on more social media platforms. Even if Facebook counts a few seconds of watching as a “view,” the Morgan experiment was promising, and the 554,000 total unique views on her livestream could be the start of something the league can shop around to advertisers.
Growth can also be seen in the increase in supporter groups; while their growth isn’t immediately reflected in attendance numbers, increased SG numbers can reveal the depth of fan engagement, and can create proselytizers who essentially provide free marketing for the team. Every single NWSL team has a dedicated supporter group now, though they vary in size, and many of them are heavily female and queer-friendly – a different path from older groups like American Outlaws, but a path entirely their own, with room to dictate what kind of SG they want to be while still benefiting from the experience of more established groups.
When considering how to grow smaller clubs like Western New York, it’s not helpful to examine what MLS clubs have done, because short of partnering with an MLS side themselves (see: Sky Blue’s failed deal with the New York Red Bulls), they’ll always have a smaller resource pool. It’s better to view WNY or Sky Blue side by side with a club like Seattle or Chicago to see where the differences lie. Stadium location, social media, local marketing, and season ticket holders can all be indicators of why and how fans engage with the club.
After season four or five, NWSL would probably benefit from a case study of their more successful independent clubs to help establish best practices guidelines. Why is Seattle perceived as having a certain style? Why was Chicago able to jump their incredibly low 2013 average attendance 146% in 2015, while Sky Blue only increased their comparable 2013 average 31%? Why did WNY’s average go DOWN in a World Cup year when every other club’s average went up?
Comparisons between the MLS-backed clubs should also be part of this conversation. Figuring out the elements that went into the Orlando Pride’s amazing 23k+ home opener will help when the league begins discussing its next round of expansion, which league commissioner Jeff Plush has said he would prefer comes in twos in order to avoid scheduling problems inherent in having an odd number of teams. That expansion may or may not include MLS clubs in the future, but Plush was cagey with the details in a conference call held during preseason.
The attendance and viewership numbers in 2017 will reveal even more, as there’s no big women’s soccer tournament that year to elevate the league’s profile. Will NWSL increase the salary cap? Will they expand roster limits or international spots? Will they allow for the payment of amateur players?
But in the midst of all these questions, perhaps the most telling thing of all is that we are taking a fifth season as a given.
Season four has gotten off to a strong start, and there’s no reason to think that it will falter when it has a marquee event like the Olympics to piggyback off, interruption in the league’s schedule notwithstanding. There’s now time to ask the deeper questions, instead of panicking and searching for money wherever the league can find it. NWSL’s growth shouldn’t be discounted; it’s just time to take the next step.