The Soccer Girls. If you live in the United States, you’ve almost certainly seen them before. They frequent your local Chipotle and Panera Bread. They look as if they’ve just come from battle, but instead of armour they wear jerseys and sweatpants, and combat boots have been replaced with Adidas sandals. Aged anywhere from eight to eighteen, this breed of American adolescent has the majority of NWSL front offices wrapped around their finger. They’re too young, and often too busy, to have a job, and have little money to spend on merchandise or tickets, so why are teams continuing to pander to this small part of the American public?
Sky Blue FC, whose stadium is nearly equidistant from New York City and Philadelphia, is situated in the middle of the heartland of American youth soccer. New Jersey is famous for producing lots of talent, with U.S. national teamers Tobin Heath, Christie Rampone, and Carli Lloyd all calling the state home. Over 150,000 youth players registered in New Jersey for the 2013-2014 season. Even with the large number of players, Sky Blue had the lowest average attendance, drawing a crowd of just over 2,000 fans per game.
When asked about their target audience, Herm Sorcher, Sky Blue’s head of development, told The Guardian, “We see a 10-year-old soccer-playing girl as the ideal person for us to go after.” He continued, “If we talk to enough people attached to that 10-year-old soccer-playing girl, whether it’s a parent or a coach, we have a good chance for success.”
While that sounds good in theory, it hasn’t always worked in the past, with their dwindling 2015 attendance numbers serving as testament. Even a partnership with SoccerGrlProbs, a Twitter account dedicated to the struggles of being a girl playing soccer that is extremely popular among teenage players, didn’t raise their attendance, leaving questions regarding the effectiveness of that strategy.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Portland Thorns has achieved arguably the biggest success out of all of the teams in the league. Their stadium seats 22,000 fans, and average attendance at home games remained above 15,000 for the length of the 2015 season. However, their results were somewhat lackluster and they finished with a 6-5-9 record. Yet their fans were passionate from the first kickoff until the final whistle of their last game of the season, a 3-2 loss to Western New York.
The Thorns’ fanbase radiates out from Providence Park, attracting fans from the rest of the country. Some might put this down to Alex Morgan’s three seasons with the club, but the prosperity of this team is largely owed to their media and marketing. Their fans consist of more than just little girls, and they’ve recognized that and taken advantage of it. Not many NWSL teams can say they have their own custom drinks, but Portland went beyond just a beer garden and boasted “Two Thorns Cider” at their home opener this year. But appealing to twenty- and thirty-somethings has not deterred parents or young fans from attending the games in the slightest, and the Thorns have become an integral part of the fan-culture, making the sight of their merchandise common at USWNT games far from the Rose City.
In the same vein, the Houston Dash owes much of their recognition to their media and marketing. Finishing with a record of 6-6-8 at the end of their 2015 season, they still managed up a relatively large fanbase through their social media presence. With accounts on every social network that could be considered popular with young adults (including Snapchat), they have found a way to appeal to both the preteens who populate their Instagram followers and the twenty-somethings and older who like their tweets and Facebook statuses. Temporarily changing their Twitter name to “Houston Sass” and replying with gifs to the tweets of other teams and fans alike resonated with young people, and earned them fans across the country.
If Sky Blue followed the lead of Houston or Portland, they may find more success. There is clearly a market for soccer in New York, which houses two MLS teams, and in Philadelphia as well, where the Union play. It’s been argued that the patronage of youth players is a necessity for sustaining the teams when the league is this young, and while that is true, it does not mean that environments that are enjoyable for adult supporters won’t be for young fans too. Most MLS teams have proven that it’s possible to market to both demographics, establishing youth club partnerships and working with supporters’ groups that consist mainly of adults. Sky Blue has both, but unlike in other cities, they aren’t marketed as a fundamental part of the club, removing the feeling of community that many sports fans value.
Like Sky Blue, the USWNT sometimes caters more to the needs of young girls than any other demographic. The first edition of the #SheBelieves Cup, held in March, garnered criticism for its name online, with many claiming that although the inspirational name would appeal to little girls, it was likely to alienate large segments of the potential fanbase.
The team has already secured the support of young female players; it should instead turn its focus to those who tuned in during the World Cup, creating long-term fans before the team fades from their minds. Standing in line at the ticker tape parade in New York this past July, there were just as many young boys in Carli Lloyd jerseys as young girls, but can you imagine the average teenage boy taking a second look at a tournament entitled “#SheBelieves”?
They’ve made a few missteps, but many NWSL teams can learn from the success of the USWNT. Social media can and will play a significant role in creating connectivity among supporters both across the country and across the globe. Like the Thorns and Dash, the USWNT social media team strikes a chord with fans of all ages by populating their Instagram and Twitter feeds with graphics celebrating both game days and player birthdays, keeping their followers interested and engaged. Their Twitter account is active during games, making it easy for fans to unable to watch to keep up with the action.
The NWSL could also learn from and expand upon groups like U.S. Soccer’s American Outlaws, which has over 100 chapters nationwide that populate the supporters section at matches for both the men’s team and the women’s team. Partnering with supporters’ groups that both promote inclusivity and encourage pride in the team would almost certainly bring in new fans.
The USWNT has proven their worth to U.S. Soccer with their continued success, and with no men’s team competing in the Olympics this summer, fans will turn to the women to bring home the gold. The reigning world champions’ performances in Rio could be the key to the further expansion of the NWSL, but only if the teams can learn how to capitalize on the attention before autumn brings the return of the Premier League and potential fans return to their regularly scheduled programming.