As the first professional team sport to return play in the US, American women’s soccer is using its head start to expand its commercial appeal, and continue growing in this new pandemic-era.
Since its opening match on June 27th, its growth has been exponential. As the best example, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced a landmark, multi-year media rights agreements, in which CBS Sports and Twitch have acquired the rights to exclusively present all NWSL matches for the next three years, beginning with the upcoming 2020 season.
CBS Sports will deliver a total of 87 NWSL matches in 2020 across CBS, CBS Sports Network, and CBS All Access, CBS’s subscription video on demand and live streaming service. That milestone, along with the addition of three new League sponsors (Procter & Gamble and its Secret brand, Google, and Verizon), are being taken as encouraging signs by NWSL leadership, which is still working to increase the popularity and potential of the women’s game in the USA.
However, even with this beneficial grown interest, it’s important to remember that for many decades of excellence by the USA women’s national team, including their World Cup win last year, professional women’s football remains primarily a niche interest.
“What we want to do is build it out in a way so that Americans, both avid and casual [football] fans, are looking forward to the season, that they know the players and the rules”, said Lisa Baird, commissioner of the NWSL, “We still have a ways to go to educate the casual fan.”
Clearly, the NWSL has seen this as the perfect opportunity to promote women’s soccer while other competitions, whether are men’s or women’s, are still on a pandemic break. And currently in its eighth year of play, the NWSL is the third iteration of a professional women’s league in the US; its predecessors folded after three seasons apiece. So, it seems things are going pretty well for them.
Furthermore, one of the NWSL’s strongest assets is its unrivalled competitiveness.
Eight of the NWSL’s nine teams rank among the top 20 women’s teams around the world, according to football consultancy 21st Club. That gives the NWSL the greatest balance among its teams when compared with global peers, including the Women’s Super League in the UK, France’s Division 1 Féminine, or even La Liga Iberdrola in Spain.
That was part of the motivation for France’s Olympique Lyonnais Groupe to pay $3.15m to acquire NWSL’s Seattle-based team late last year, something very similar to what Real Madrid did with CD Tacón.
“If people assume the women’s game is not worth much, people don’t invest in it, creating financial figures that are low,” AJ Swoboda, Americas managing director at the 21st Club, “Then people look at those figures and conclude it’s not worth much.”
On the other side, Ms Baird, the longtime chief marketing executive of the US Olympic Team, took over as NWSL commissioner in March and was forced to shut down the League on her second day in office because of coronavirus.
And now, NWSL’s owners are applauding her for bringing in three new sponsors for the Challenge Cup, partially mitigating the fact that ticket sales, by far the most significant part of the League’s income, are at zero. Following the Women’s World Cup last summer, a report by consultancy Brand Finance estimated $1.2BN in untapped sponsorship opportunity for women’s leagues and clubs globally.
Yet, even with all these great improvements, there’s still one important area that all sides hope to make: Equal payment for players. Megan Rapinoe and Ms Morgan are among the most outspoken members of the US national team advocating for equal pay from the national federation, US Soccer. In May, a judge in California tossed out the central argument of their lawsuit against the federation, but the players said they plan to appeal once the legal system rebounds from the pandemic.
While that dispute is separate from NWSL matters, Ms Baird said she hopes the League can be financially sustainable enough to offer better salaries to its players.
“I want the best players to come to the US,” she said.
Of course, the NWSL’s near-term priority right now is completing the Challenge Cup, which, as public health permits, is scheduled to culminate in a championship at the end of July, enabling play in what will otherwise be a “catastrophic” year financially, according to Portland Thorns owner, Merritt Paulson.
The Thorns’ average attendance was 19,000 last season, the highest attendance of any women’s professional sport in the world. The club has been profitable each year of its existence, until 2020.
Mr Paulson also owns the Portland MLS team, the Timbers, but he said his success with the Thorns has earned him more renown.
“I get more requests to talk about the Thorns, than I do on the men’s side, globally”, he said.
There is only 30 per cent overlap between season ticket holders of both clubs which is evidence, he said, that Portland has developed two distinct fan bases for its football outfits. In accordance with public health guidance, fans are not permitted to attend the Challenge Cup, meaning clubs will be severely hurt by the loss of ticket revenue, but his hope is that the tournament could help owners break even.
All things considered, the Challenge Cup “has been a complete success to date”, Mr Paulson said, stressing the last two words. So, for now, it seems the NWSL still on a good track to become an important referent on the women’s game, and maybe, just maybe, create an amazing legacy on its own.