When the U.S. won the Women’s World Cup last year, it was very good for the National Women’s Soccer League. After international players returned to their NWSL teams, some clubs set new franchise attendance records that still stand today. Some had their first sellouts of the season. Across the league, crowds got bigger and stayed bigger.
But the hopes for another big attendance bump from the Olympics seemed to disappear as soon as the U.S. women’s national team lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals. The reigning world champions had been favorites to win but ended up with their worst finish in any major tournament ever.
That was not in anyone’s plans, including Jeff Plush, the commissioner of the NWSL. The NWSL took a midseason break for the Olympics, which served many purposes, but also would’ve allowed for more games after the Olympics to capitalize on a bump, if one came.
“Did we expect (the U.S.) to go farther? Probably, but only because they’ve earned that expectation,” Plush told FOX Soccer last week. “… It probably caught people a little off guard not expecting them to go out when they did, but our decision to take a break through the Olympics was, I think, well-received. It let the spotlight be on that competition and now the focus is really on our league.”
Last week, in the NWSL’s first weekend back since the Olympics ended, there wasn’t a sudden burst of ticket sales like we saw after the Women’s World Cup. Crowd sizes stayed close to each team’s average — some were up a bit and some were bit down. Although a few players from the USWNT and other national teams still hadn’t returned yet, early indications suggest a surging post-Olympics bump may not come during the final four weeks of the regular season.
Should that matter in the long run though? Perhaps not if the four-year-old NWSL can continue to buck the trends of previous U.S. women’s leagues and keep attendance stable or growing.
“I wouldn’t anticipate the same type of bump we had last year, but we can continue to do what we’re already doing — we’re up quite a bit year-over-year and have growth across the league in every metric,” Plush said. “I think we’ll show growth over the last month of the season, but I’m pretty proud that it’ll be a reflection of our league, the quality of our product and the games that matter. The (national team) players returning are a big piece as well.”
But the jump in attendance following last year’s World Cup was the highest jump the league has seen in its four seasons. What’s more, the next major international tournament for women’s soccer is not until 2019, when the Women’s World Cup will be played in France. For previous U.S. leagues, the off years like the ones ahead could be difficult.
“This league is at such different point than (the previous league was) after the last Olympics,” Portland Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath said from training Thursday. “The NWSL is not going to be a quiet league that goes underground for a few years. We’ve proven that we’re here to stay. We’ve proven that we have a great fanbase and we’ve seen the league consistently growing in so many arenas. For the next two years, we don’t want to just stick around — we want to continue to grow this league as much as we can.”
The NWSL is constantly measured against the previous failed leagues — Women’s Professional Soccer, which folded in 2012, and the Women’s United Soccer Association, which folded in 2003 — but there’s no exact blueprint for what the NWSL is doing. No women’s league has lasted as long, expanded into as many markets or had as much financial stability as the NWSL.
What lies ahead is uncharted territory: two straight years without a major tournament or the bump of being a brand new league. But Plush said he expects the NWSL to continue to grow, despite the tougher circumstances.
“You can look at it two different ways. Yes, there’s no competition we can gain a bump from, but there’s also no competition that takes away from the focus being on our league,” he said. “It’s a challenge but it’s going to be fun for our clubs to realize that for the 2017 and 2018 calendars, our league is the most important competition domestically. That’s exciting and we should take that challenge head-on to grow in all our markets — and I think we will because our product is compelling.”
Attendance is the metric that perhaps matters most for the NWSL’s 10 clubs, but after last year’s World Cup boosted crowds, some fans and pundits felt the league missed out by not attracting more sponsors or better broadcast deals too. Plush told FOX Sports last week, however, that expanding the league into more top markets is key for the NWSL “to be considered a national property.”
The NWSL did reach a one-year broadcast agreement with FOX Sports to start showing matches just before the playoffs this season. That coverage starts Sept. 7, when FS1 will broadcast a Chicago Red Stars match as they host reigning champion FC Kansas City. And while the league grows to attract national sponsors, local deals are especially important for individual clubs.
“It’s so much more important on the local level. There’s nothing more important to any league than to have relevancy in every market,” Plush said. “Our sponsorship growth year-over-year is up 40 percent in our local markets. That’s a testament to our clubs who are doing great work.”
Of course, it all comes back to attendance — it’s the key revenue stream for NWSL clubs and better attendance will translate to better opportunities for sponsorships and broadcast deals. If the NWSL can continue to attract fans, even without the spotlight of a huge tournament, then the future for the NWSL and women’s soccer should be bright.