In many ways, the 2019 season ended nicely for the National Women’s Soccer League.
There was record attendance numbers across the league. Commercial partners old, like Nike, and new, like Budeweiser, showed heightened interest in the league’s product. The NWSL can claim it is home to one of the world’s greatest club teams in champions North Carolina Courage, and can boast of the overall level of competition.
Much of it came as a reaction to the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the summer, won by a United States squad exclusively comprised of NWSL players. The World Cup boost came as no surprise, considering the league saw similar patterns after the 2015 edition of the tournament.
“There was some dip shortly after that,” Sky Blue FC’s Carli Lloyd said of the attendance after the 2015 World Cup.
The attention that carried over from the United States’ World Cup triumph in Canada faded, but the league remained well-positioned to enjoy another such boon in 2019. With a new World Cup boost, though, came a new opportunity to make the attention last.
The questions of viability that perennially follow the league remain, but the ceiling for the NWSL is a seemingly high one. As another offseason begins, the more specific question is: How close can the league get to that ceiling in 2020?
World Cup boost with lasting impact
The NWSL has done well to realize its biggest strength is the on-field product.
Since its inaugural season in 2013, the league has been home the world’s best players; 56 of this year’s World Cup participants play for NWSL clubs, including all 23 members of the World Cup-winning United States team.
“[The NWSL is] still certainly a destination league for top international players,” NWSL Players Association executive director Yael Averbuch West told Pro Soccer USA in September. “Everybody knows that if you want the most competitive place to play, you got to play in the in the US at some point.”
That continued to be the case in 2019, and the victorious USWNT players emphasized that as they celebrated their title. As often as they could, they name-dropped the league to the large national audience they had acquired, noting the league’s importance to the success of women’s soccer in all facets.
“We, as the players, have done our part in the sense of winning and we try to talk about as much as we can,” Reign FC’s Allie Long said in August. “I’ve been saying that if anyone was inspired from the World Cup, if you’re a kid that wants to play on the U.S. women’s national team, the NWSL is for any player that wishes ever [to] play at that level. … We need more people to know how critical it is for the development of women’s soccer in the country. We need people to buy into that and believe in it and continue to promote it.”
For that reason and others, the spotlight passed on effectively from the World Cup to the NWSL. Like it did in 2015, attendances peaked from Portland, Ore. to Bridgeview, Ill., with Sky Blue and the Washington Spirit doing the same in larger venues.
“I think that there is a market here,” Long said of Sky Blue’s first match at Red Bull Arena. “I think that needs to be developed and I think that it certainly can be, but we need to play in the stadium for that first to happen.”
The attention from the World Cup also saw Budweiser first launch their “We Won’t Stop Watching” campaign on the day of the tournament final, which was followed by a league-wide sponsorship. Budweiser has since announced a partnership with Megan Rapinoe to find the league more sponsors.
“I think what’s unique about this time is we’re seeing some really heavy hitter sponsors coming on board like an Anheuser-Busch right now that really wants to promote the league,” Sky Blue general manager Alyse LaHue said in July. “Being able to tap into these partners that also want to rise the tide of this league and of this game is really important.”
The varying types of investment and attention the league received made the 2019 World Cup boost more successful than four years ago. It also created a foundation for the NWSL to build upon.
Areas of improvement identified
While the post-World Cup period was an obvious success, it also allowed the league to identify areas of improvement as it looks to make that growth permanent.
In October, the league announced a consulting partnership with Octagon as it attempts to boost marketing efforts and find a new television deal. Though viewership increased 7% from 2018 on ESPN, only three regular season matches aired on basic cable. The rest aired on either ESPNews or Yahoo! Sports, a free streaming service that does not feature many soccer matches otherwise.
The league has additionally identified methods to improve on-field product, adding an expansion team in Louisville for 2021 and possibly one in Sacramento for 2020. Most notably, the league changed its salary structure for players, allowing teams to compete with European counterparts financially.
“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,” president Amanda Duffy said during championship weekend. “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.”
The league will be ushering in new era as operations change. U.S. Soccer’s operational agreement with the NWSL ended in 2019, giving more financial and day-to-day control to team owners and NWSL higher-ups. Additionally, the NWSL may soon be under new leadership, with the league beginning a search for a commissioner almost three years after Jeff Plush left the role.
As a result, several specifics about league operations remain up in the air and other areas of improvement exist. The NWSL could use more staff, and individual clubs will need to pull their own weight. More than before, owners will be responsible for maintaining the league’s strong on-field quality, and many clubs still have to tackle issues of accessible venues and attendance.
Less than a week into the offseason, though, the league looks prepared for the large task ahead of it. As the process gets underway, the NWSL also updates its reputation from a league looking to survive to one fully on its way up.