SBJ/June 17-23, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

At halfway mark, NWSL still ‘work in progress’

Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch has heard plenty of skepticism during the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League. It is regularly pointed out to him that the NWSL is the third attempt at a women’s pro soccer league in North America since 2001. He’s also aware that, at this season’s midway mark, average attendance for half of the league’s eight teams is below 2,500.

Lynch, who owned the Spirit when it was in the Women’s Professional Soccer league in 2009 and 2010, believes this incarnation will be different.

Photo by: ICON SMI
“All eight of our teams have committed to returning next season,” Lynch said. “That might not seem like much, but it’s a good first step.”

NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey said the same. At a league meeting led by Bailey and U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati in Chicago in late May, the owners of all eight clubs declared they would return in 2014. They pledged to build on what, for many of them, has been a challenging first season.

A lack of time to promote is cited as the biggest reason for the poor attendance in some markets. The league was formed in November, players from the U.S., Canadian and Mexican national teams were allocated in January, and rosters were finalized two weeks before the season began in mid-April.

“We only had a few months to pull everything together,” said Bailey, who was the general manager of the U.S. women’s national team from 2007-11. “It would be wrong to say that we kicked off the season exactly the way we would have wanted. Selling tickets and selling sponsorships will come over time. We are definitely still a work in progress.”

The league’s Portland club is the NWSL’s outlier, averaging more than 12,000 fans over its first five home games. Without the Thorns, the league’s average attendance of 4,100-plus would be about 2,700.

Portland is the only NWSL franchise run by the owner of a Major League Soccer club. By marketing to the MLS Timbers’ season-ticket base of 15,000 along with its waiting list of 8,000, owner Merritt Paulson has the Thorns dominating the league’s ticket sales.

Bailey said expansion is possible for the 2014 season, including into a Canadian market; she declined to specify a target. Paulson believes some of his fellow MLS owners will buy into the NWSL, as well.

“I’ve had discussions with other MLS owners, and some are very interested,” Paulson said. “They’d have a huge advantage with a built-in fan base.”

Salaries for league players range from $6,000 to $30,000 per season. The U.S. Soccer Federation, Canadian Soccer Association and Federation of Mexican Football are subsidizing the salaries of their national team players that are on NWSL team rosters.

All league games are broadcast live on YouTube, except those involving Western New York and Boston, which have separate live-streaming agreements. Fox Soccer is slated to televise nine games, as well, including the semifinals and final in August.

In Washington, where ticket prices range from $20 to $40 per game, Lynch is optimistic about the new league.

One ownership source estimated that, as a result of the funding by the three national federations, annual costs in the NWSL are half what they were in the WPS — which were about $3 million per club.

“The target should be attracting at least 3,000 fans a game,” Lynch said. “We’ve passed that, and I know the teams below us will, too. All of the franchises have done a lot in a short time, and we have 1,500 more things to do, but I can tell you from experience in the last league, the current business model is on target. It really feels like we have it nailed down this time. We can sustain this indefinitely.”

History has shown, however, that improved attendance is not guaranteed in year two. In 2010, the second season of the WPS, average attendance dipped from 4,500 in the inaugural season of 2009 to 3,600. Its predecessor league, the WUSA, folded in 2003 after three seasons, with attendance declining each year and an estimated $100 million lost.

Gulati is encouraged that the NWSL, with the backing of the three national federations and local franchise ownership, is on a different path.

“We’re working very hard on it,” Gulati said. “We started this on a very short time frame, so it wasn’t easy, but we’re pleased with the way things stand now. I think it bodes well for the future.”

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