As Simon Sinek argues in his book, Start with Why, “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief — WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?”
People don’t buy WHAT you do or HOW you do it, they buy WHY you do it.
So WHY does the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) exist? I don’t think anyone in the front office, U.S. Soccer, club coaching staffs, players, or fans would be able to give you a consistent answer. Perhaps that’s why the NWSL continues to inch along despite the overall growth of global women’s sports.
I care deeply about the NWSL. Maybe I’m crazy, but I believe I will see the day when this league is selling out stadiums, and people of all genders, races, economic backgrounds, not just soccer moms, are putting their names on waitlists to buy season tickets. I truly believe this is possible if the NWSL has the right vision and the ability to communicate it to a much wider audience than they are right now.
When it comes to WHAT and HOW, I believe the league is doing a lot of things right, but they are missing the WHY that will unite and inspire players, coaches, and a broader fanbase to make this league successful. So, on that note, I’m going to walk through the WHY I believe the NWSL is missing.
START WITH WHY: The National Women’s Soccer League is the champion for everyone.
In 2019, being a traditional professional sports fan has a high cost. This creates a truly unique opportunity for the NWSL to market themselves to not only existing sports enthusiasts, but also to people who have never played or watched a sport before in their lives.
Here’s how my marketing pitch would go:
If you’re the kind of person who likes to support the underdog and cares about equality, we have a product for you!
It’s competitive and exciting like other sports.
Skip the long commercials
Family-friendly and inexpensive.
Understands your busy schedule and no prior sports knowledge required.
Now let’s compare what the NWSL offers versus traditional professional sports.
Between buying game-day or season tickets, in-stadium food and beverage, cable television subscriptions, purchasing expensive jerseys, or spending an inordinate amount of time listening to guys in fancy suits talk about complicated stats, professional sports like the NFL, NBA, and MLB have a high barrier to entry.
The NWSL is the champion for everyone by being cheap. Individual tickets cost around $14 and you can get season tickets for as low as $150. You can stream the games for FREE on the NWSL website. Compare that to buying an expensive cable package or purchasing tickets to the NFL, NBA, MLB or securing $2,000+ tickets on the secondary market for Duke v. UNC. The NWSL is the Southwest Airlines of sports.
If you’re an average joe, it’s difficult to feel like you’re truly part of the sports community unless you fully understand the the rules of the game or have the playing experience to back it up. Between drafts, trades, guaranteed money, convoluted stats, never-ending rules, and games being played multiple times per week, it’s difficult to keep up. To put it simply, professional sports are complicated.
The NWSL is the champion for everyone by being simple and fun. The league is accessible to everyone — games are played on the weekends. You can take your whole family to a game without high ticket prices or expensive parking. Fans can stick around after games to get their favorite players to sign autographs. You can follow your favorite players and teams on Twitter or Instagram, and if you send them a DM, honestly, you’ll probably get a response.
As a professional athlete or coach in the United States, you often become a status symbol once you cash your first big paycheck. Many have humble upbringings, but it’s easy to forget that once they start posting about their multi-million dollar homes, lavish vacations, and expensive tastes in fashion. Athletes at this level are aspirational, but not very relatable to the common person.
Sexism, racism, pay discrimination, etc. are just a few examples of the inequities that still exist in 2019. The NWSL is the champion for everyone, and supporting this league means raising up the marginalized. If you care about issues like gender equality, LGBTQ, pay discrimination, etc., I know you’ll find the NWSL inspiring, their games entertaining, and their fanbase welcoming.
Advice for Inside the League
Great organizations understand that beyond structure and systems, a company is nothing more than a collection of people. The NWSL’s WHY needs to permeate much more than its marketing — it needs to influence the front office, club owners, coaches, players, and support staff too.
If the NWSL is going to be the champion for everyone, they need the people inside the organization to be champions for everyone too. We need leaders who hold themselves to the highest standard of excellence. We need leaders who respect women and LGBTQ athletes and fans. We need leaders who want to leave the league better than how they found it, and don’t care if anyone gives them the credit.
In order to execute the NWSL’s WHY, the league needs to build trust. Trust is not a checklist. Fulfilling your responsibilities does not create trust. Trust is a feeling, not a rational experience.
News broke yesterday that the Washington Spirit’s Head Coach, Richie Burke, has been accused of having an abusive past. I don’t want him to be tried in the court of public opinion, but if the accusations are true, the National Women’s Soccer League needs to take action. This isn’t the first time the NWSL has struggled with hiring — just look at the number of female to male coaches in a league that is dedicated to growing women’s sports. For a league that is supposed to be the champion for everyone, it’s getting harder for fans and players to trust that the league really cares about its mission.
With trust comes a sense of value — real value, not just value equated with money. And that is what will propel this league forward. Many fans on the outside can’t get over how little the players are paid. I’ve written my own qualms about that after spending a week with F.C. Kansas City a few years ago, but what you’ll find is that while pay is a problem in the player’s minds, they care a lot more about being treated with respect. Their trust with the front office and individual clubs has often been broken over things that are much simpler to solve than bigger paychecks.
But let’s focus on solutions. With a few simple changes in communication and accountability, the NWSL truly can be the champion for everyone. The market is ready.
How to Support the NWSL:
I’ll end with a quote from one of my best friends, professional player, and founding member of the NWSL Players Union, Yael Averbuch: