This year is big for women’s soccer. The World Cup kicks off in June, and the United States will fight to defend its 2015 title. The heightened focus and interest on the game during a World Cup year is something Amanda Duffy hopes to capitalize on while she continues to lead the growth of the National Women’s Soccer League.
“Looking back at 2018, and just looking at the growth of the teams on an individual basis and our continued conversations — both expansion-wise, new partnership-wise — they’re promising,” Duffy, the NWSL’s managing director, told Pro Soccer USA during an exclusive interview in November. “They certainly give us a lot of confidence … that we’ll be able to take advantage of the visibility and the engagement and the players who will be part of the Women’s World Cup to help propel us in these areas that are really important for our growth.”
The NWSL has survived longer than any other professional women’s soccer league in the United States, in part, because of how it handles that growth — slow and steady. There is a plan for expansion, but anyone who expected new teams to join the league immediately will have to wait. Duffy said the timeline for expansion is 2020.
When asked if there’s a possibility new teams join the league this year, Duffy said, “In 2019? Our efforts are really focused on 2020. We feel like the timeline for any group that’s going to launch a team, launch a new brand, even if it’s within an existing professional organization, the time that it takes to get all the pieces in place and to do it right and to build up to that inaugural season — we’re planning and preparing for expansion to be in 2020 right now.”
Sports landscapes constantly change and evolve, and Duffy said conversations are ongoing about the league’s growth. NWSL board meetings took place this week in Chicago during the United Soccer Coaches annual convention, which also includes Thursday’s NWSL draft.
But Duffy was firm about focusing on the league’s quality rather speed of growth. Ahead of the 2018 season, the league went through what Duffy called a “turbulent” period. The Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City both ceased operations, and the Utah Royals joined the league. During the year, reports of subpar conditions circulated about New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC.
Now, she said the league is focused on finding smart expansion markets with the infrastructure to support and lift the quality of the league.
“We’re really concentrating on the quality of the ownership, the quality of the market, the quality of existing facilities – both the match venue, training facilities — staff, infrastructure and the support in that market for soccer and women’s soccer, in particular,” Duffy said. “So, the past year, we’ve been really trying to refine that process and refine what it is that we’re looking for and what is the pace that we want to grow as a league? Because we’re a strong league. We were strong at 10, we’re strong at nine.
“If we all of sudden next year end up at 16 teams, how does that impact the quality of our competition and is that a pace that is sustainable and that we can still continue to operate with on a broader scale? Our efforts are very focused and specific to certain areas that we want to be strong for any team that’s does come into the league that’s going to help propel us at the top and help to elevate the league.”
A successful World Cup featuring multiple NWSL players can definitely help with that. Duffy said she’s seen increased interest in the league from various potential partners for 2019.
The league also recently passed the one-year mark of having a head of national sales, who “focused on building those relationship and putting the NWSL name brand product in front of blue-chip level partners that would come in with the league.”
“As we’ve grown those relationships, as we’ve spent the year educating and showing them the direction of the league and where we’re at currently, right now, it’s positioned a lot of those conversation in a great place,” Duffy said. “A lot of those prospects are in the soccer space already, so they understand what next year means and how that could be a benefit to their company as well.
“And 2018 was Year 2 of our NWSL media arm and having a full staff in place there now for a full calendar year trying to gain momentum and build off the partnerships we have . . . and take advantage of the opportunity and the position we’re in to gain a level of momentum going into 2019. It’s a Women’s World Cup year that has heightened visibility that women’s soccer is going to see on a global scale. And we’ve become a small piece of that, that global picture, but an important piece of it.”
To take full advantage of that visibility, the league’s competition calendar for 2019 will start and end later. Duffy said more than half of the games will be on the backside of the World Cup, which concludes July 7, and the schedule will allow for more Saturday-night games.
“There really is going to be so much attention on the women’s game,” Duffy said. “As a league that is going to be in it seventh season and continues to grow and that is really putting lot of focus and effort in the local efforts, local resources, local impact and relevance, we’re also at the same time really trying to strengthen our national partnerships and expand where we sit there.
“As players that are coming out of NWSL will be playing in the Women’s World Cup – it’s not just U.S. or Canadian players, there’s so many other countries that NWSL is represented by — we feel like we’re going to have a strong showing and there will be a lot of conversation and attention that will be put specifically on NWSL for that reason. And we’ll show that the competition in NWSL really does prepare them for that stage.”
Since accepting the role of NWSL’s managing director nearly two years ago, Duffy has fielded multiple questions about whether she will eventually be named commissioner, a role that has been vacant since Jeff Plush resigned in March 2017.
When asked again if she had any interest in being NWSL commissioner or if there was a timeline for one to be hired, Duffy said, “I think that I’m in a great leadership position right now with NWSL, and in a lot of ways fulfilling some of those responsibilities. And as the members continued to focus on the league and the growth of the league and how it makes sense with our structure with a commissioner, that conversation and the timing of hiring a commissioner will be a part –it is a part — of that conversation. But right now, I feel like I’m in a great leadership role and continue to serve in the role that I am.
“I think the league is in a good place right now and it’s a conversation amongst the members. . . . I think it’s wise to really evaluate it, and make sure whoever is working with the league in the title of commissioner has the authority and responsibility and resources to be successful in the position. And, I would say, there’s probably a little bit of a gap in that happening right now and I think that’s an area that’s being addressed to be able to have all of those in place with a commissioner as well.”
Sky Blue FC status
When asked for an update on Sky Blue FC’s status with the league following reports of unacceptable playing and operating conditions, Duffy said, “So we saw reports from the media this year, we received some reports from the players association and some other sources just providing some information, and we’ve done our due diligence as a league to really understand where the facts are in all of those reports that were floating around. But from that point, we’ve been working on very specific requests and action items that we’ve asked of the club. They’ve been cooperative and we continue to work toward ensuring that Sky Blue is operating in a strong environment.
“And we continue to do that with all of our clubs. As a league we’re really focused on elevating standard across the league. I think everyone has room for improvement, and want to make sure we’re providing the best environment for the players that allow them to be successful. So, we continue to work with Sky Blue and they’re cooperative and we expect a strong year from them next year.”
Players’ association collaboration
The NWSL officially recognized the players’ association in November, a relationship both parties described as collaborative and unconventional when thinking of traditional labor relationships.
“The players association officially formed a little over a year ago and we have been working with the players association representatives through the summer in this process. It’s been a very collaborative process and one where the players are certainly and obviously very important to our league.
“And I think as we enter into this next phase of the relationship, we really want to make sure they’re part of the growth of the league, in areas I think we all want to see, and the success of the league — and being in a much better and much more kind communication area and space with the players, and just have them a part of the dialogue as the league continues to grow. I think they understand where we are as a league, and that’s still young with a lot of growth in front of it. And we understand where they are as an association right now, new. And we want to help each other and be on a path where we both agree in terms of the growth of the league.
“What we understand in the conversation is it’s about better communication. It’s about being part of conversations as certain decisions are being made – not that they’re decision-makers, but they’re having an opportunity to have insight and input.”
Duffy expects NWSL to continue working closely with MLS and USL.
“We have a great relationship with USL, and we obviously have a team in the North Carolina Courage and North Carolina FC, where their men’s team plays in USL. I think for us, we just look at how we want to continue to operate as NWSL,” Duffy said. “In thinking about expansion or otherwise, we see that there are MLS teams, MLS markets that would be a real benefit to our geographic footprint, and there are some USL markets that would be a great addition to our geographic footprint. So, it’s not necessarily any one professional league that we’re focused on in any particular way. But, certainly, some markets where there’s some crossover there that could make some sense.”