Why we love the NWSL, and why they have a lot of work to do

First and foremost, congratulations to the National Women’s Soccer League, the teams and the players. Congratulations also to the Western New York Flash, champions of the 2016 season, who won in a thrilling penalty kick shootout on Sunday evening. Most soccer pundits picked Western New York to finish close to last in the league, and they were the lowest seed in the playoffs. A thrilling end to a great season.

Women’s professional and international soccer competition has never seen this level of excitement among soccer fans worldwide. Much of the excitement is due to major television coverage of back-to-back world soccer tournaments; the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, but there is no question that women's soccer audiences are growing. The NWSL now has its moment to shine, and women’s soccer fans across the nation have legitimate questions on how it should be capitalizing on this opportunity.

Living in the thick of Portland Thorns territory, fans have very high expectations of the league, the teams and their fellow supporters. We expect the players to be treated equally, just like their Major League Soccer counterparts. The expectation is also that the league’s front office will take every opportunity to improve the league every season. Improvements must be made in marketing, boosting attendance league-wide, and continuing to increase awareness of the teams in their home markets.

All of these issues, if addressed appropriately, should boost the league’s standing as a professional sport, draw more attention from national media, and increase the viability of the league by providing more financial success.

Increase game attendance

In Portland this season, average attendance was four times greater than the average attendance of the rest of the league. Portland drew and average of 16,925 fans per game this year. Only the Orlando Pride’s home opening game drew more attendance, 23,403, than Portland did in every regular season home match all season. Orlando was second in the league with average home attendance of 8,933.

The attendance disparity couldn’t be made more clear in the championship match in Houston Sunday night. Attendance was a mild 8,255 fans. In a fairly well-educated and well-rounded sports town, a stadium that is about 1/3 full is unacceptable. One could argue that if this game was played in Portland, Orlando or several other cities, attendance would be more than double.

It is the league’s job to market the championship game in a neutral field and this year’s championship game was disappointing, at best. Last year’s championship, played in Portland, drew 13,264 fans without the home team even making the playoffs.

Pay the players fairly

One can argue that the key to success for this iteration of the women’s league has been the salary cap, which is $278,000 per team for the 2016 season.

Two previous attempts at women’s professional soccer leagues in the United States — the WUSA and WPS — failed after just three seasons due to overspending and infrastructure problems. (Oregonian, Jamie Goldberg, April 2, 2016)

Many players, however, can barely afford to survive during the season and often take second jobs. We have spoken to several players who have jobs both in the regular season and the off-season. One can imagine how difficult it is to play a professional season and work at the same time, let alone trying to work in the off-season where it would be difficult to work around a rigorous training schedule. Practice squad players, called “unpaid amateurs” by the league, are not paid a salary but are required to commit to the same responsibilities of paid players. They also filled in significant minutes in the 2016 season when many players were fulfilling national team duties at the Olympics.

Some players also commit to playing during the NWSL off-season in other international women’s professional leagues, which begin within weeks of the completion of the NWSL seasons. This is bad for the NWSL because it increases wear on the player’s bodies and does little to raise awareness of the US league and its players.

By comparison, in Major League Soccer, zero players make below the common definition of a “living wage” in the United States, which is roughly $40,000 per year. In fact, the median salary in the MLS is $117,000 per year. MLS players also have fringe benefits that are far better than their NWSL counterparts, including better health care, far better training facilities and training staff, more endorsement opportunities and paid housing.

For reference, this is the latest salary data release by the MLS player’s union:

https://www.mlsplayers.org/salary_info.html

In an era where gender pay equality is a significant social and political issue, and rightfully so, this does not sit well with NWSL fans. A deeper dive into the severity of pay inequality will likely bring up other equality issues regarding the professional treatment of the league’s primary asset, the players. Fans will not approve and will demand action.

Acquire a legitimate television contract

In order to solve the glaring compensation issue, the NWSL needs to negotiate a legitimate contract with a major network provider. For the past two seasons, NWSL has signed a multi-game deal with Fox Sports to cover several games during the season, including the two semi-final playoff matches and the championship.

Since 2014, the league’s regular season games were broadcast live on YouTube. The production quality of the broadcasts has improved only slightly from year to year. Several of the teams have poor broadcast viewership, amateur commentators and low quality video feeds. This really does little to improve the reputation and quality of the NWSL.

The league could also benefit from increased corporate sponsorships, as many corporate sponsors are looking for opportunities to reach their audience through television advertising. Financial details of the broadcast contracts with Fox Sports and YouTube are undisclosed, but one has to speculate that due to the lack of ability of the league to generate consistent advertising revenue, a new, full season broadcast deal is needed.

Develop off-season programs to attract and keep the world’s best players

In the off-season, several soccer cities around the league should be epicenters of women’s soccer. The league should have established training programs in Portland, Houston, Orlando, Los Angeles and potentially a few other cities. This program should have several great benefits to the league:

1. Players will have more opportunity to interact with the community.

2. Goodwill developed with the local community could result in positive relationships with corporate sponsors.

3. International players could be more likely to stay in their club’s home town.

4. Players will have access to better training facilities and be in better shape for the regular season.

The league is facing harsh criticism from its most dedicated fans, and Commissioner Jeff Plush and his team have a tough road to continue to increase the professionalism of the league, and attract new and dedicated fans across the nation. Attention to these issues may wain in the public eye over the coming weeks, but the negative effects of ignoring the problems will compound. Many fans will demand that these, and other issues, should be addressed by the NWSL front office.

The completion of the fourth season and the strides made to elevate the NWSL in the public eye are accomplishments worthy of celebration. However, there is much work to be done.

Sources:

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