Backed by World Cup momentum, can NWSL take the right steps forward to ensure a thriving women's professional league?
Summer 2015 was a historic one for women’s soccer in the United States. For a generation raised on the memories of 1999, it was a kind of homecoming. As the team paraded through New York with the World Cup trophy, heralded as American heroes, there was a sense that perhaps, at last, the long struggles for attention and support that have defined women’s soccer in this country were bearing fruit.
The thing is, we’ve been here before. After the 1999 Women’s World Cup, women’s soccer looked ready to take off in the United States. There seemed to be a major, untapped market for a women’s professional league, and investors scrambled to take advantage of the opportunity.
Sixteen years later, two women’s leagues have come and gone and the third, the NWSL, faces an uphill struggle to find its place in the landscape of American sports.
Why has it been so difficult to create a sustainable women’s league in the U.S.?
The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was founded in 2000, chaired by John Hendricks of the Discovery Channel and backed by Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Major networks broadcast games, and the players in the world, like Mia Hamm to Kelly Smith, joined WUSA sides.
But the league made it only three years before collapsing under the weight of $100 million in losses. A beleaguered Hendricks explained, "I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in 1999 with the corporate sponsorship. I mistakenly assumed it would overflow onto the league."
The WUSA Reorganization Committee was formed in September 2003 and soon founded the nonprofit Women’s Soccer Initiative. But it took them until 2008 to create the Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS). Prominent players like the Brazilian veteran Formiga and Homare Sawa from Japan came to the U.S. to play. But the league was dogged by mismanagement and financial difficulties and folded in 2012, despite the increased attention to women’s soccer during the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
After the U.S. took home the gold at the 2012 Olympics, the team’s players had to scatter to play for clubs in England’s FA WSL, the German Bundesliga, France’s Division 1 Feminine, and Sweden’s Damallsvenskan.
Women’s leagues in Europe have many advantages over those in the United States. For one thing, they are older and much better established: Sweden’s league has been in continuous operation since 1988, and Germany’s since 1990. They attract some of the best players in the world, like Brazilian icon Marta, who has spent much of her career in Sweden. This contributes to the strength of the national teams of Germany, Sweden and France, something which is also the case for Japan.
The U.S. has succeeded internationally despite the lack of a strong professional league largely thanks to the strength of its college programs, which as a result of Title IX legislation have been sustaining women’s soccer development for decades. But now that the level of global competition has risen substantially, a professional league seems more vital than ever.
That understanding is behind the structure of the third and current league, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) which kicked off in 2013 and is run by the United States Soccer Federation. The league began in 2013 with eight teams, including the Portland Thorns FC, a side backed by the MLS’ Portland Timbers.
In 2014, the NWSL added the Houston Dash, another MLS-backed side. The USSF, the Mexican Football Federation and the Canadian Soccer Association subsidize the salaries of the their national team players who play in NWSL. Though there are tensions about what amounts to a two-tiered salary system, this has assured that the best-known North American and Mexican players are present in the league.
This configuration contributed to the success of the U.S. at the Women’s World Cup. In turn, the team’s victory offered the NWSL a tremendous opportunity: never since 1999 has there been so much interest around women’s soccer in this country. That makes this a pivotal moment. But will this league survive, unlike its predecessors?
Fox Sports holds the broadcasting rights for both the men’s and women’s World Cups through 2026 and has positioned itself as the major soccer channel in this country.
The choices the network makes around broadcasting and promoting of women’s soccer may determine the future of the league.
So far, the signs are promising. Fox’s presentation of the Women’s World Cup gave a level of prominence and added spotlight to the tournament. Fox rolled out a series of pre-tournament advertisements, one of which depicted the U.S. women’s team as avengers and redeemers for the defeated men’s team. They invested in extensive studio coverage, bringing in a range of new voices onto the network, offering a quality of informed commentary and analysis that was new for the mainstream sports media.
And it paid off. The sold-out 2015 Women’s World Cup final garnered an average 25.4 million viewers on Fox–the most of any soccer game ever televised in the United States. The lead-up to the final also featured millions of viewers per match, with a positively electric atmosphere following the USWNT every step of the way. Fox Sports reaped the benefits of the event’s popularity, with nearly $40 million ad sales.
The event attracted many viewers who do not regularly watch women’s soccer, and at least some subset of those viewers could become new followers of women’s professional soccer. There has clearly been an impact on attendance at NWSL matches, as many teams have seen record crowds at games this summer, with fans excited to see the stars of the national team on the pitch.
But this summer has also brought attention to the profound inequalities that still surround and undermine the game. The controversy over the use of artificial turf offered a sharply visible talking point about this, as did the news about the fact that the U.S. women’s team got far less for winning the World Cup than the men’s team had for its less successful run in 2014. The salaries in the NWSL for non-national team players remain extremely low: the minimum is $6,842 and the maximum is $37,800. These problems anger players and fans, but there is a lot of disagreement of precisely how to fix it.
Both the USSF and FIFA are heavily male-dominated institutions, as is the sports media as a whole, and part of the solution is clearly to diversify leadership within these institutions. It is all too easy for women’s soccer to be marginalized. This was illustrated clearly at the victory parade for the U.S. team in New York this summer. NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush didn’t speak, even though he was at the podium. He wasn’t even introduced. Instead, MLS Commissioner Don Garber spoke on behalf of the NWSL.
One of the more important developments this summer was the news that Fox Sports would start to air NWSL, previously transmitted for free over YouTube, on its stations. The Fox broadcasts make the NWSL games look and feel on television like other highly-produced sports events, with the better camera work and commentary by better known anchors, and their presence on these channels can potentially attract new viewers.
Select broadcasts have garnered greater viewership than some top Bundesliga matches on Fox broadcasts. A match between Seattle Reign FC and the Houston Dash with major playoff implications drew 136,000 viewers. The upcoming semifinals and finals, all of which will be broadcast on Fox, will represent an important test case: strong viewership will hopefully encourage Fox (and advertisers) to expand this coverage next year.
Just having the games on television, of course, is not enough: the WUSA, which also garnered prime-time television slots, demonstrated that. But the context today is different, both in terms of the general popularity and prominence of soccer and the interest in the women’s game in particular.
Although women’s soccer still only gets minimal regular and consistent coverage in the U.S., coverage here is better than in European countries, where women’s players struggle for media attention. With the right kind of television coverage leading to better finances for the league, the NWSL could probably begin to compete with European leagues for the world’s best players. In fact the U.S. could, under the right conditions, become the global center for women’s professional soccer.
The NWSL stands poised to open another season in 2016. That in itself is a victory: starting next year, it will be the longest-running women’s professional league in U.S. history. What condition will the NWSL be in during its fourth year? And will it have a fifth? That will depend on whether the leadership at the NWSL and the USSF, along with the sports media, make the right moves and ensure the momentum is not squandered.
Laurent Dubois is the author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (2010), and edits the Soccer Politics blog. His writings on soccer have appeared SI.com as part of the 2014 Roads and Kingdoms series “The Far Post” and throughout the 2015 Women's World Cup. He teaches at Duke University and can be followed on Twitter @Soccerpolitics.
Marie-Claire (MC) Bousquette covers the U.S. women's national team and Sky Blue FC as a staff writer for Empire of Soccer. Prior to joining the world of sports journalism, MC served as Music Editor for the Duke Chronicle. She lives in New York City and can be followed on Twitter @MC_Bousquette.