CARY, N.C. — If there’s one word to describe the 2019 season for the National Women’s Soccer League, it might be “transition.”
During an interview with a dozen or so reporters Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park – the site of the league’s seventh championship, which will be played Sunday – NWSL President Amanda Duffy used that word six times. It’s appropriate considering what the league has been through.
When the season started in April, the NWSL was coming off an unexpected breakup with the A&E Network. The league was without a home on linear television, it didn’t have a communications director and it found itself scrambling so it could make the most out of a World Cup year, an opportunity to capture more women’s soccer fans.
As the season went on, the NWSL was able to accomplish that. It struck a television deal with ESPN, it landed a major sponsorship with beer giant Budweiser and the league saw a 22 percent increase in attendance, according to Soccer Stadium Digest. The league announced earlier this week that a 10th team in Louisville, Kentucky will join as an expansion side in 2021, and more cities have been rumored to join as early as 2020.
Indeed, while it was a transition year for the NWSL, it could also be considered as a success and Duffy is optimistic about where the league is heading.
“It’s been a year of a lot of transition for NWSL,” Duffy said. “Our entrance into the relationship with ESPN was an important agreement and an important relationship for us and one that we hope will continue into the future. Our relationship with Budweiser, that was a real significant turning point for the league… It certainly allowed us to accelerate some of the things we’re thinking about and some of the transition we’ve been working on for the years ahead.
“We’re very well positioned. Our owners are excited about what’s in store for this league going forward.”
Duffy is familiar with the Louisville team that will enter the league in 2021. The NWSL club will be owned by Soccer Holdings LLC, the same group that operates Louisville City FC, a side that competes in the USL Championship, a second-division men’s league. Duffy was the president of that club from Nov. 2015 to Dec. 2016.
“We’re tremendously excited about the market of Louisville, the fan support that is in Louisville and how the fans, community and metro government have supported the USL team that’s in the market with the investment that’s going into the stadium,” Duffy said. “It’s the first expansion announcement of what we hope is a few.”
It is likely that the NWSL will make more expansion announcements in the near future. Duffy admitted Saturday that the league is in “several ongoing conversations for expansions” with markets who could join between 2020 and 2022.
Less than two weeks ago, Equalizer Soccer reported that Sacramento was “close to finalizing an agreement” to join NWSL for the 2020 season. In April, Duffy told Pro Soccer USA that Atlanta “could be a good opportunity for NWSL expansion.” The president of MLS side FC Cincinnati has also expressed an interest in the NWSL recently.
“We understand that the timing for 2020 is imminent, given the things that need to happen in preparation for the 2020 season,” Duffy said. “We recognize from a calendar standpoint, as soon as possible is what we need to do, but we’re engaged in the ongoing process and hope for more news soon.”
Duffy also indicated that the league isn’t targeting specific areas of the country for expansion, but simply looking for the right fit, the right owners and the right communities that would best fit with the NWSL.
“Our expansion committee has done a lot of work over the last 12-plus months to establish a pipeline, to establish our standards, our expectations and what we’re looking for with any expansion candidate,” Duffy said. “Right now, it’s not so specific to geography – where we need to populate West Coast vs. East Coast – it’s about the ownership, the quality of the ownership, the quality of the facilities and resources that are being put toward operating this team.”
As far as current teams and ownership groups in the league go, there doesn’t seem to be any movement on the horizon as Duffy said she anticipates all of the current nine teams to be participating in the 2020 season.
“We have very committed owners that are making big investments in the future,” Duffy said.
Still, there is a question as to where New Jersey-based club Sky Blue FC will play next season. The club played a pair of home games at Red Bull Arena this past season and hasn’t announced where it will play in 2020.
“As far as with Sky Blue specifically and the venue, we’ve had several conversations with the ownership and the organization about what we’re looking for from a venue for our players and for our teams going forward past this season,” Duffy said. “With that in mind, the ownership there and the organization are doing a lot of work to consider and understand all of the options in the New York and New Jersey marketplace for next season.”
The next step of transition or evolution for the league will be increasing the salaries it can offer its players. With leagues and clubs around the world increasing their investment in the women’s game, the NWSL could face competition to keep the best players in the world – like Sam Kerr and Megan Rapinoe – in its league.
Duffy said that the league formed a committee a few months ago to come up with a new model for compensation.
“There’s been ongoing conversations for a couple months about a new compensation model. We recognize where we are in player compensation, and it’s an important area for the league and all of the owners to continue to improve with the compensation levels,” Duffy said. “So, I think from an imminent standpoint, we expect to have more information on the specifics of that very soon. I think it’s important for the league and the owners to have vetted where we are from a global perspective with compensation and where we want to be to continue to be a leader.”