BY CAITLIN DERUITER
This weekend, nine women’s professional soccer teams, including the Seattle Reign FC, will take to the pitch to compete in the second season of the recently established National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Eight teams participated in the inaugural 2013 season, with the Houston Dash joining as an expansion team in 2014. The average attendance of 4,238 fans per game was respectable for a new league, fanning hopes that a successful second season would make it sustainable.
Such optimism, however, is tempered by recent history. The NWSL is the third attempt – after two high-profile, high-cost false starts – to establish a successful women’s professional soccer league in the United States.
At stake is much more than the outcome of games and healthy balance sheets. Also riding on the success of this league are the hopes and dreams of roughly 1.5 million young female soccer players in the nation. I’m one of those players, an 18-year-old high-school soccer goalie who plans to play college soccer next year at Aurora University, a NCAA Division III program in Aurora, Ill.
The United States Women’s National Team has dominated the world of soccer, medaling in every Olympics and World Cup since 1991. Yet countries like Japan, Canada and Germany are right on the heels of the U.S., and a successful league in which Americans can continue developing their skills is imperative for the U.S. to stay on top.
Watching great soccer players perform inspires the next generation of soccer superstars and role models. Given these high stakes, can the NWSL navigate through the challenges that doomed previous efforts? Will another failure spell the end of women’s professional soccer in the U.S.
For the past year, as part of Liggett’s Academic Research Program, I conducted an independent research project on the NWSL and its prospects for success, based on the lessons learned from the previous failed leagues and other women’s leagues here and abroad. I learned what the NWSL must do to survive or risk joining its two predecessors on the junk heap of U.S. women’s pro soccer.
The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) started play in 2000 after Brandi Chastain victoriously ripped off her shirt while celebrating her winning penalty kick to capture the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The moment Chastain exposed her sports bra to the world was the moment women’s professional soccer became viable in America.
The WUSA rode this wave of popularity, largely driven by media coverage of Chastain’s celebration, to establish a league, backed by a $200 million war chest. However, after the World Cup ended and the titillating controversy about female celebrations faded, interest waned. The WUSA folded three years later. The message seemed clear: profits didn’t exist for professional women’s soccer in this country.
Six years after WUSA folded, the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league attempted a revival. However, the WPS made poor financial decisions concerning player salaries and the venues for games. The league budgeted and spent like the more established Major League Soccer (MLS), a men’s professional league that includes the Seattle Sounders FC, while the WPS’ attendance was decidedly lower. Large stadiums sat empty and tickets went unsold, while player salaries remained high. On top of these financial struggles, protracted and bitter legal battles with the owner of Florida’s MagicJack franchise ended this second effort.
The current NWSL seems to have learned from these errors and made some positive changes. Each team has a fixed budget of $200,000 for player salaries, which prevents the overspending that doomed the WPS. In addition to this fixed salary line, the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association, and the Mexican Football Federation pay for players on their respective national teams to play in the NWSL. Because the Federations pay these salaries, the fledgling league gains both a financial boost and world-class talent. In addition to paying for the national team players, the U.S. Soccer Federation is fully funding the front office, legal matters, websites, referees and more. And, with the exception of the Portland Thorns and the Houston Dash, which have partnerships with MLS’ Timber and Dynamo, respectively, NWSL teams are playing in smaller, rented venues to reduce operating costs.
The NWSL is clearly starting small and spending money frugally until its popularity grows. That’s a good start.
Beyond learning from and correcting the mistakes of previous leagues, the NWSL could take several more steps to ensure lasting success. These lessons come from the sporting world at large, and, in particular, from the premier women’s professional sports league, the WNBA, which is approaching 20 years of successful operation in basketball. A survey of the playing field at large offers the following lessons:
1) Establish a loyal fan base. WNBA founder Val Ackerman told me in an interview that these dedicated fans drive ticket sales, which drive television deals, which drive advertising revenue and sponsorships. Finding the right market segment – for the WNBA, it was seniors and women – and tailoring marketing to this niche is the first step. Whether it is soccer moms or single twenty-somethings, the NWSL needs to know who will most likely buy tickets.
2) Don’t move too fast. Fans need time to multiply before teams spend money prematurely on players and venues. Ackerman notes that the men – largely as TV viewers – followed women and seniors as the WNBA market expanded. The NWSL needs to similarly grow its audience before investing huge dollars.
3) Find an inexpensive way to market the league. Jefferson Badger, marketing director of the Chicago Red Stars, notes that most of the current marketing efforts are grassroots and revolve around inexpensive, if not free, forums of social media.
4) Consider partnerships with MLS teams. The Portland Thorns’ attendance at games is significantly higher than the league average. This has been the WNBA’s model from the start. In partnering, NWSL teams can “borrow” brand loyalty and fan base from their more established partner clubs.
5) Seek alternative sources of revenue. The Swedish Damallsvenskan league makes more money from sponsors than from ticket sales. Finding a handful of appropriate sponsors can help pay for uniforms, arenas and staff. Sponsors of course, pay a premium for exposure to the right audience, which augments the importance of defining the NWSL market.
Soccer is made up of little moments: a soft first touch, a great ball behind the defense, a well-timed run to avoid the offsides trap. Too often the focus is on the thrilling goal, instead of all the little moments that made it possible. While those moments will not go down in history, that goal will.
The NWSL can be that shot. The league has a good business plan, based on little moments, that, if followed carefully, can create a permanent place for women’s professional soccer in America.
Caitlin deRuiter is a high-school senior and soccer player at the University Liggett School, in Grosse Pointe, Mich. She conducted a yearlong independent research project on the NWSL and its prospects for success.
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