NWSL looks to capitalize, grow
U.S. women’s national soccer team star Alex Morgan was named Best Female Athlete at the ESPYs last week, and she used her time at the podium to shout out the National Women’s Soccer League.
“When the World Cup is behind us,” she said, “it is the professional league that we need to continually lift up and grow.”
Nearly 60 players from the NWSL went to the Women’s World Cup with their respective national teams, including all 23 members of the American side. Those U.S. players only just returned to their NWSL clubs this week, but the league’s efforts to seize upon the team’s World Cup win are already in motion.
Not every NWSL team has a Morgan or Megan Rapinoe, the Reign FC star who was named the World Cup’s best player and finished as its top scorer, but eight of the nine clubs have at least two players from Team USA. In its seventh year, the NWSL is more prepared to capitalize on this World Cup buzz than it was four years ago, according to Mike Golub, president of business for the Portland Thorns.
“We’re on the road to what we all hope for, and that is a successful and viable professional league that has a bright future,” Golub said. “We think this moment in time is going to turbocharge those efforts. All of the clubs, and the league as a whole, are trying to optimize this opportunity.”
Portland successfully launched an exclusive merchandise line during the Women’s World Cup, a nod to its nine players who made various national team rosters. Thorns media relations director Katie Simons said the new gear — two scarves and one T-shirt style — is now the organization’s best-selling merchandise by unit year to date, even topping its Portland Timbers MLS merchandise.
Portland has long led the NWSL in attendance and averaged more than 18,000 fans per game through the first half of the season, according to Soccer Stadium Digest. The Thorns’ two home games during the WWC still drew more than 19,000 fans each, Golub pointed out, despite the absence of the large contingent playing in France. Post-World Cup, Golub hopes to challenge the league’s single-game attendance record of 23,403, set by Orlando in 2016.
The NWSL’s 2019 average attendance is 6,069, down slightly from the 2018 average of 6,100, according to Soccer Stadium Digest. Portland (18,053) and Utah (10,790) have seen increases, but the other seven teams are down from 2018 so far this season.
Gretchen Hamm, Washington Spirit chief marketing officer, said her club wants to use momentum from the World Cup and next year’s Tokyo Olympics to triple season-ticket sales, sponsorship and attendance. In the coming weeks, Washington plans to partner with neighboring NFL, WNBA and MLS teams to get its World Cup stars — Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh — more visibility. Hamm said the club is creating co-branded graphics with various partners, including Adventist and Fairfax Oral Surgery, and then placing them on the partners’ social media accounts with ticket sales links in an effort to get in front of new audiences.
Most NWSL teams will recognize their WWC players at specially marketed home games in the coming weeks. Chicago has dubbed its July 21 match against the North Carolina Courage as the “World Cup Welcome Home” game and reduced ticket prices for the game.
Justyne Freud, the Chicago Red Stars’ director of communications and marketing, said the team opened up the second side of SeatGeek Stadium for its game against Sky Blue FC on July 6 because it sold out the main grandstand, even though the team’s World Cup stars hadn’t yet returned. Freud couldn’t remember the last time the team needed the other side of the stadium.
“We’re just really pushing hard to make sure that the U.S. women’s national team players on our team feel that what they did mattered, and what they continue to do matters,” Freud said.
Reign FC owner Bill Predmore could not have guessed that Rapinoe would have as outsized an impact on the World Cup as she did, but he’s looking forward to the ripple effect.
“The media exposure she’s going to have for the foreseeable future is going to be something that money just couldn’t buy,” said Predmore, who expects to double ticket sales following the tournament. “We’re going to have the opportunity to benefit directly from that.”