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.