Maybe the National Women’s Soccer League needed a gut check.
The league and its supporters certainly got one on Friday in the form of a piece by Juliet Macur inThe New York Times, originally titled “Desperate League Looks to Connect in Order to Survive.” The content shouldn’t have been a surprise to many; the facts certainly couldn’t be disputed. But that title. That title stuck with a lot of people.
“The New York Times piece, that is the current state of the league,” Executive Director of the NWSL Cheryl Bailey said in an interview conducted Friday.
What’s lacking is context.
It’s still too early to gauge what direction year two of the NWSL will take, in terms of audiences in the stadiums and on the streams. There’s one large piece of information that is a glaring omission, amongst the facts that the U.S. hasn’t won a World Cup since 1999 and Tom Sermanni’s recent dismissal: that NWSL’s 2014 begins with every existing ownership group and an expansion team.
A desperate league on the edge of survival certainly doesn’t expand.
The article prompts some major questions of the state of the National Women’s Soccer League, ones that don’t necessarily have immediate answers.
How accurate was that original click-bait title? Is the NWSL so desperate to survive that this is what it looks like to mainstream media who might only check in on the league once or twice a year?
Will American women’s soccer ever move past the image of professional women’s soccer existing solely for an audience of young girls, especially those that play youth soccer?
Is the NWSL equipped to evolve out of that image, which was also shared by WUSA and WPS, into something that can market to, attract, and capture an adult fan base that will drive ticket sales?
For Cheryl Bailey, there’s one main goal to achieving recognition and acceptance of the league’s viability by the general public.
“The NWSL has to make it past year three. That’s the test. In year one, we created benchmarks that we would expect to see progress from in year two. MLS took time to grow; so did attendance for the U.S. women’s national team. The NWSL will need time to grow.”
It’s been a common refrain from the league front office through the first year and into the second: patience, patience, patience. Things will come.
“I think in America, that’s not something we do especially well—give something the time it needs to grow. We have high expectations of everything being fully formed at the time it’s launched.”
Becky Sauerbrunn of FC Kansas City expanded on this point. “You also look at it as a league like MLS, early on it had major struggles. At one point it was down to ten teams or so, and it took a billionaire and a deal with Adidas to keep it afloat for a while. These leagues, they take time to stabilize.”
Usually, most of the NWSL players avoid comparing their league to Major League Soccer, but the lessons that can be learned from the long, slow evolution of MLS 1.0 to MLS 2.0 are suddenly far more relevant to women’s pro soccer.
It’s too early to tell how attendance will shake out in year two of the NWSL, but some teams like the Boston Breakers have moved into larger stadiums.
Sauerbrunn, like most involved in the NWSL, is a realist. “We’re not getting the attendance that I’m sure we would like, but that also has to do with marketing. If we don’t have a lot of money to throw into marketing, then yes, we’re going to have to start doing grassroots stuff, clinics, and things like that. But if you ask MLS players early on, what they had to go through, they had to do the same thing.”
For Keelin Winters, the New York Times article was a struggle to read for many reasons, but one thing really struck her: the assertion that women prefer to watch and support men’s sports.
“Women’s sports in general are different from men’s sports. And because they’re different, people want to say they’re better or worse. And there was this sense that no one wants to go out to women’s sports, because men’s sports are better.”
No one should be shocked that the players involved in the NWSL (whether they be allocated or on the league minimum salary) bristled at the suggestion that the NWSL is struggling. Sydney Leroux tweeted her reaction, calling the article “disheartening and disrespectful.”
The NWSL article written in the NY Times is disheartening and disrespectful. Interesting take on something we do for the love of the game.
— Sydney Leroux (@sydneyleroux) April 18, 2014
Sauerbrunn wasn’t surprised that Leroux had spoken out. “I think it is the responsibility of every player and everyone who is invested in the NWSL to change people’s perceptions of it. I think the players especially, someone like Sydney Leroux who has that profile right now and status, for her to stand up for the league, that makes a big statement.”
Winters didn’t use the word “disheartening” when discussing the article, but it certainly applies. To her, the article felt like the old two steps forward, one step back routine of WPS.
“With the WPS, it felt like every year every player was questioning, ‘Is there going to be a league next year? What’s happening?’ But if you look back in our offseason and at the teams’ activities, at the trades, the deals, the allocations, that’s what everybody was talking about. The movement, Houston, all the trades that Seattle did. For once, it was this really positive offseason where everybody knew there was going to be a league the next year, and we were even adding a team.”
While outside perceptions of the league might still be stuck in 1999, there are positive signs that this could be the start of the shift to finding and keeping adult fans for women’s professional soccer in America.
There are nine teams in the NWSL, and there are now nine supporter’s groups: the Riveters, the Royal Guard, the Blue Crew, Chicago Local 134, the Boston Armada, Cloud 9, the Flash Mob, the Spirit Squadron, and the Orange Brigade. The work of these supporters groups certainly hasn’t escaped the notice of the players either.
“I can’t talk enough about the Blue Crew; they’ve been great,” said Sauerbrunn. “The loyalty and the networking that they’ve done, like on Facebook and Twitter. As a marketing tool, they’re so helpful for us because they help spread the word as much as we do. The tailgate that they organized before our first game, things like that, people are attracted to that.”
Not just people, adult fans who expect adult activities such as tailgating or beer gardens inside the stadium that allow for adult social interactions in a sports environment.
For Winters, having something like a beer garden makes the stadium experience one that aligns with the likes of the NFL and the NBA. “Think about any other professional sports arena. Beer is sold, period.”
Beer isn’t a magical solution to the league’s problems, but it is a part of overcoming the stereotypical image of the stands being filled with screaming ten-year-old girls. Beer, tailgates, events with supporter groups, they’re all a part of the slow balancing act the league needs to manage.
Winters is also making headway of her own out in Seattle by running soccer clinics that are targeted for adult women who play recreationally, but who miss the benefits of regular practice and training. “The feedback has been amazing. These women, some of them have kids but some of them don’t, are coming out to these clinics because they’re so passionate about the game. And we can turn them into Seattle Reign fans and women’s soccer fans.”
It’s an untapped market, and certainly a successful one at that. Winters said most of the clinics have fully sold out, and she’s gotten requests to run clinics for adult men as well.
“That’s where this league is starting to be different,” said Winters. “We are starting to pull in adult fans.”
On the marketing end from the NWSL itself, there are still some easy misses being made for the start of a second year. Kits are still mostly bland affairs, with the exception of the Chicago Red Stars and Seattle Reign FC making strides into custom looks. Kit launches were an uneven team-by-team event over the span of a month, and thanks to stock issues, they currently aren’t even available for purchase on the official league site.
Scheduling of matches still involves competing start times, making it impossible for fans of the league to watch every match in real time. Following the NWSL on the go is still largely out of reach, with no iOS app and the official league site’s mobile version containing only press releases and final scores/schedule.
The lack of a real league brand, never mind a strong league brand, needs to be addressed. There is a sense of what Major League Soccer is, as an American professional sports league and on an international soccer scale. The NWSL has yet to truly define itself in the scope of professional women’s sports or in comparison to the leagues scattered across Europe.
But again: context.
Year two has barely started, and there are huge signs of growth. Expansion in Houston and more MLS backing. The trickle in of international players that are willing to take pay cuts to play in the NWSL, the likes of reigning FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Nadine Angerer, Vero Boquete, and Kim Little. An aligned streaming platform. The dynamic moves from Laura Harvey in the off-season translating to immediate chemistry in week one, and the Spirit rebounding in week two to show the parity of the league has taken major strides.
The clubs of the NWSL are still defining the look and the brand of the National Women’s Soccer League. That might not always be the case, according to Bailey: “At some point in the future, there may be a shift to a league-centric presence. We do have the website, but right now we lean on the teams for content for it and for social media.”
Maybe the Times article was a good thing. Maybe it’s exactly what the league needed, an article that looked right but felt wrong, that’s going to force change at all levels of the league, from the front office in Chicago to redoubled efforts of supporter’s groups.
“You want to be family-friendly,” said Winters. “At the same time, you want it to be a place where parents and the adults without kids want to come. There needs to be a balance within this league.”
Women’s professional soccer will always be a field of dreams for young fans. As long as it exists, they will come. Youth clinics, autograph alleys, school appearances: these are all proven methods of attracting and keeping young fans through player interaction that should be continued. The nine teams of the NWSL have that market cornered.
Gut check taken, message received. What’s next? Two things women’s professional soccer has never done before in America: make it past year three with a sustainable and vibrant adult fan base.
I've been trying to recommend what I have read or watched during this Women's World Cup on Twitter, but I also figured it couldn't hurt to have a rolling post where I can add the content I have enjoyed throughout the course of the tournament. As always, this doesn't necessarily mean I agree/endorse the article. These also aren't in order at the moment, but may be at some point in the future. This list is also by no means complete at this time, and I will be adding to it every day.
First: stuff I have written. This list may or may not stay at one article. It's an adventure.
Things by other people!
I whipped up a very basic poster to bring to the Revs STH event for player autographs. I had a few comments, so in case anyone would like to print their own copy I have uploaded it! (I also made a couple of backgrounds at 16:9 in case that's more your commitment level.)
Poster download (right-click, you know the drill).
NETID background on wood
NETID background on plain grey
Found out about the USA women's hockey team taking on a local school team about 2.5 hours before puck drop. Didn't think I would get a vantage point to shoot from, and the plastic netting certainly didn't help when I did find a spot. Dealt with kids trying to get their juice boxes in frame. Saw some great hockey. Yeah, soccer, I'm definitely cheating on you just a little. You all should too.
ETA: I did another quick round of edits. In addition to the fun shots of Duggan waiting out a penalty above, have a couple of Hilary Knight too. Full post... someplace tomorrow.
I had great intentions to write an intelligent post about the Coach of the Year award, and then this weekend happened. Between two BC Women's Soccer games and the two semifinal matches, plus all the other work I had to do, this post just wasn't going to happen.
So here are some quick hits. I've got a lot coming up this week before I drive up to Rochester on Thursday night for the NWSL Championship. Some more podcast recording, another rountable, plenty of editing and writing, laundry, you know, the usual.
And finally, Coach of the Year.
Who will win: Vlatko Andonovski
Who should win: Aaran Lines
Who I voted for: Laura Harvey
I'm still not convinced the Flash are overall a better team than FC Kansas City, but it's the playoffs and anything can happen, and FC Kansas City lost, so here we are. I'm glad the voting happened when it did, because I'm of the opinion that the team that wins the championship isn't always the best team, which is something that happens in all of sports anyway.
Regardless of the Andonovski vs Lines debate, which I'm already ridiculously sick of thanks to Twitter, my first place vote wasn't for either of them. It went to Laura Harvey, who might have gotten the best reward out of all of them: a contract extension until 2017. I had some panicked reactions when I brought up her name for the England gig, but I meant it. Every Reign player I talked to this season did not hesitate when I brought up her name and what she was doing for the team as they worked through their 0-9-2 start to the season.
Maybe I'm just sentimental, maybe I just like the story line of Seattle's season, even if they did peter out a bit at the end. Harvey's got a decent task ahead of her in this off-season: Pinoe's heading back to Lyon and will miss the start of the season, she's got to make the best of a draft with the consequences of the Keelin Winters trade finally hitting home. (By the way: this still isn't a trade I fault Seattle for; back in March we weren't even sure the NWSL was coming back for Year 2.)
It's going to be fun to watch what Seattle does. It's going to take some creative thinking, some smart draft picks, maybe another block-buster trade. But I can't wait to watch.
I'll have links this week to everything I'm working on, but expect a lot of coverage from The Equalizer this week as we count down to the Championship and we all trek up to Rochester this weekend.
Evans! [insert Harry Potter reference]
I submitted my ballot for the NWSL awards last night, a little early because I’m heading to New York City this weekend. (And, if you are in the city, I asked The Australian bar on 34th between 5th and 6th to air the WNY Flash vs Boston Breakers game, and they have said they can make it happen. So come and watch an NWSL game in a soccer bar, and since it’s an Australian joint, we will talk a lot about Kyah Simon and Sam Kerr.)
Most of my votes will probably fall in line with the end result: Lauren Holiday for MVP, Becky Sauerbrunn for Defender of the Year, Erika Tymrak for Rookie of the Year, Karina LeBlanc for Goalkeeper of the Year. I’m guessing that’s what we’ll see announced starting next week, although it is up for grabs with the weighting of the votes being a little unexpected. Jeff tweeted that information out, which sees owners/GMs/coaches at 25%, the media with 25%, and the players getting a whopping 50% of the final weight of the results.
I think the players will generally be fine voting – many of the players I know or follow on Twitter talked a lot about watching other games in the league, not to mention watching video as part of their official prep work for each game. They (and the owners/GMs/coaches) are not allowed to vote for themselves or people from their own team, from what I understand.
I did want to touch briefly on someone I didn’t put in my Top 3 for Rookie of the Year, but I’m still excited about as a player. When you cover a team, week in and week out, and manage to get to a couple of practices, you develop a different way of interpreting the team’s performance than one you might just see on livestreams and in person once or twice a year. I think way too much about the way the Breakers are playing and what works and what doesn’t compared to Seattle Reign FC, and it’s simply a case of knowing the team more.
Maddy Evans was the 4th round (29th) pick for the Breakers, and not a surprising one, considering the summer before she had trained with the team and played for Aztec MA in the WPSL. She ended up making the roster after the departure of Lisa-Marie Woods, and has ten appearances/two starts with 362 minutes logged, with the last week of the regular season still left to play. Evans ended up tied in with Lisa Cole’s Rhian Wilkinson roaming-midfielder experiment, which hasn’t been perfect, but was a mid-season adjustment that did make a difference for the Breakers.
Evans has that rookie drive and engine that is just fun to watch. There are still elements of her game that she’ll need to work on in the off-season, and she’s going to need to improve the fitness and conditioning levels in order to keep up with NWSL expectations, but when I think about rookies right out of college this year, that I just loved watching as they adapted and upped their game? Erika Tymrak, Mana Shim, Maddy Evans. It was nice to have one of those at home.
The Best XI was a little tougher, and instead of having an endless mental argument with myself, I just started writing down names that felt right after the season we’ve seen so far. Is it a perfect assessment of the top eleven players in this league right now? Probably not. There are definitely names that could go on here instead, and would deserve the vote. But I’d also defend every name I have listed on here as well. It’s a nice problem to have too much talent in the league, right?
Here’s my Best XI:
Goalkeeper: Karina LeBlanc
Defenders: Becky Sauerbrunn, Christie Rampone, Leigh Ann Robinson, Brittany Taylor(*)
Midfielders/Forwards: Lauren Holiday, Diana Matheson, Abby Wambach, Lori Chalupny, Lianne Sanderson, Jess Fishlock
Tomorrow or tonight I’ll get into my pick for Coach of the Year. It’s not who you’re going to expect. (Unless I’ve previously talked to you about it, and then, well, yes, it’s that coach.)
(* Correction, I had incorrectly typed Lindsay in the first draft. Thanks to @arusulato30 for bringing it up.)
Alex Morgan, actual human being!
On Monday, Jonanna Widner and I took almost two hours to talk about one thing: Alex Morgan. And even though this went on for almost two hours, I still feel like we barely scratched the surface about all the things we could have talked about.
You can read the post here at Stumptown Footy.
The entire idea for the dialogue and the post came after I sent her a fairly grumpy direct message on Twitter after I saw some of the reaction to Alex's tweet concerning the Western New York Flash stream. You know the one. Personally, I'm a big fan of swearing, I'm a big fan of players expressing themselves on Twitter or on the internet or in person (which can backfire, sure, but as someone who's had to make their feed a little more professional, a little less curse-filled, it sucks), and I enjoyed the tweet 1000% on those two levels.
So that's what prompted the discussion, but there's a lot more to talk about with Alex Morgan this season. When I went out to Portland for the PTFC vs FC Kansas City match at the start of August, I was lucky to be able to hang out with people who think about soccer A LOT, and we had plenty of discussions about Thorns FC, and plenty more about Alex Morgan specifically. One night, out at Goose Hollow Inn drinking a Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen (which, sidenote: if you tell me where I can find that in Massachusetts I will owe you a major favor), I compared Morgan to Alex Ovechkin, considering this whole talk about the season being a disappointment, a young star being tasked with being the face of a league (with the admission that Ovechkin at the height of his stardom was still splitting the duties evenly with Sidney Crosby), and playing in a system and with a coach that wasn't a perfect fit.
The only thing is: Alex Morgan has the added bonus of being a female athlete in America, in a sport that most mainstream sports fans ignore, look down upon, or simply don't even know exists. Sure, the U.S. women's national team gets plenty of attention during major tournaments, and sure, Alex Morgan gets plenty of attention from dudebros who are convinced that they will end up marrying her, but these generally aren't the eyeballs that the NWSL is attracting to the game. But Alex Morgan transcends the NWSL, in a way that Brittney Griner transcends the WNBA.
That's the discussion Jonanna and I ran out of time for, and that's the discussion that we, as fans of a sport played by women, still need to take part in. The one comment theme that has stuck in my head for days is, after Morgan tweeted "Can you figure out your shit," there was an immediate comparison to Hope Solo. And that was a BAD thing, to the people who said this, a very bad thing indeed. Because Hope Solo is the example of what not to do, because we judge Hope Solo for having opinions (both ones we agree with and ones we don't), apparently.
The way we look at Alex Morgan is a symptom of a greater disease in America: they way we've been trained to judge female athletes for their looks and behavior, rather than their performance. This isn't to say that we should ignore behavior entirely—but at the end of the day, female athletes are judged on it a lot more harshly than the average male sports star.
Maybe it's just me. As I was writing this, all I could think of was a specific Kristen Stewart quote that you can find in the gif below. I hope if you do have some thoughts, you leave a comment here or on the post at Stumptown Footy. So far, it's been a pretty encouraging response, especially for the first of a collaborative effort between myself and Jonanna, but I like being able to have a good, thoughtful (if informal) talk and share it with everyone.