FOX Soccer Exclusive
NSWL needs more than mere goodwill
Nowhere is it written that when it comes to attempting to get a professional sports league off the ground, the third time is the charm.
But on Saturday, the National Women’s Soccer League, yet another stab at bringing women’s pro soccer to the United States, will kick off all the same.
This startup venture, which hopes to succeed where the WUSA and WPS failed in 2003 and 2011 respectively, faces difficult odds. Monetizing women’s soccer, and leveraging the enduring popularity of the women’s national team into a financially sound domestic league, has proved problematic time and again, no matter the size of the investment.
The WUSA burned through almost $100 million with splashy advertising and big salaries. The WPS scaled its ambition and operations down considerably, but folded after three seasons as well. This time around, the stadiums are smaller, the budgets puny, and there are the subsidies from the US, Canadian and Mexican federations, who will pay their national team players full-time salaries to play in the NWSL – taking the most expensive players off the teams’ books.
Whereas most are skeptical, the league’s leadership gleans optimism from this new construct, even when the wreckage of the two previous leagues is still well within sight through the rearview mirror. “The economic model here is very different,” says US president Sunil Gulati. “The cost model is different. Hopefully between those things and a slow buildup plan we can make this a sustainable league.”
“It’s been developed on a more realistic financial cost basis, so that each owner doesn’t incur too many losses in the first few years,” says US and Western New York Flash star striker Abby Wambach. “You get more confidence in the way the business is being run because that’s in large part why the previous leagues failed.”
Eight teams will compete in the inaugural season. Five of them – Boston, Chicago, Western New York, New Jersey and Washington – are holdovers from the WPS, or even the WUSA. Three new teams will play in Seattle, Portland and Kansas City, towns where Major League Soccer teams have made tremendous inroads and become part of the local sporting fabric on the men’s side, something the NWSL hopes to capitalize on.
NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey argues that adopting teams from the failed leagues has its merits and will facilitate their market-integration. “One can’t deny each team has set the stage for the next league,” she says. “If you look at the five teams we already had, they were already entrenched in their markets and when they started selling season tickets didn’t have to start from scratch, they had a fan base.”
There have been some good indicators. Some pre-season games drew as many as 2,500 fans, in spite of bad weather. And Portland – the only team which shares its ownership with the local MLS franchise – has already shifted 6,500 season tickets. But then other teams are still laboring to get past the “high hundreds,” according to Bailey.
“I think we do have a niche market out there, I think we have a growing market,” says Bailey. “I think with the social media out there we’re able to expose women’s soccer to a lot more people out there than we might have in the past.”
But she, too, concedes that the battle not yet won is for the US women’s national team fans, even if all of its players will eventually play in the NWSL, just as soon as their obligations abroad come to an end. “While our women’s national team has had unbelievable success and a following, we’re still vying for that audience,” she says. This is really the crux of it.
As such, a healthy pragmatism pervades the new league, born of the sobering track record of professional women’s soccer in the US “We don’t think it’s going to be 30,000 people coming to a game,” says Wambach. “We have a more realistic expectation. We want to start from a realistic place and grow it year by year.”
“The owners are realistic about what’s possible in the short term,” says Gulati. “We’ve learned from various experiences, you have to have a model that meets expectations because if the investments required are much greater than people planned, they are going to get frustrated very quickly.”
But there seems to be a disconnect of sorts between that realism and the ambition. “We want to be the best league in the world,” says Wambach. “That’s why the women’s national team is committed to playing in it.”
But her fellow US star Megan Rapinoe, who is expected to join the Seattle Reign when her contract with Olympique Lyon in France runs out in May, doesn’t necessarily agree. “Do I think we need a league? Yes,” she recently told the New York Times. “Do I think it needs to be the best, greatest league since sliced bread? No. And I think that’s where we’ve gone wrong in the past. I think it’s important to have one. But it’s not going to be the [Premier League]; let’s stop shooting for that.”
What isn’t controversial is the importance of having a healthy league. There are the trite declarations on the need for role models and careers for young girls to aspire to. But it also serves the national team’s continued dominance. “It’s important for the feeder system of the player pool into the national team,” says Wambach. “And the weeks that we aren’t with the national team it gives us a place to play and improve our skills, which you don’t always get a chance to hone in a national team environment.”
But are the women entitled to a league even if it never breaks even? Or should the losses be written off as the cost of competing for Women’s World Cups?
The entire exercise remains questionable.
There’s no doubting the goodwill for it. Or the desire of those involved to make it work.
“To leave the game better than we found it, this is the gift that we can give to future generations,” says Wambach. That the NWSL would doubtless be – a gift to the women’s game.
But it needs more than goodwill to survive. It needs fans. And income. And a formula that’s sustainable.
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