The NWSL: For Dummies and Super Fans

 

To understand the current situation and depth  of women’s soccer in this country, it is very important that you understand the past of the professional leagues in the United States.To get through this post, you will need to know approximately 9,000 acronyms, so here is the low down for you.


USWNT- United States Women’s National Team

WOSO- Women’s Soccer

99ers- The group of women who won the 1999 Women’s World Cup

FC: Football club

WUSA: Women’s United Soccer Association

WPS: Women’s Professional Soccer

NWSL: National Women’s Soccer League

MLS: Major League Soccer (the men’s league)

FCKC: FC Kansas City

PTFC: Portland Thorns FC

SBFC: Sky Blue FC

WNYF: Western New York Flash

USSF: U.S. Soccer Federation- the people who own and make the rules for the USWNT


Many moons ago in 1999, a group of women, who are now warmly referred to as the 99ers, conquered the Women’s World Cup giving us our first real image of female success on the world soccer stage. If you knew someone who lived  near a television in 1999,  you surely heard about Brandi Chastain and her victorious penalty kick resulting in a sports bra clad celebration. According to the documentary Dare to Dream, which surrounds the 99ers and their rise to fame (it’s available on YouTube in all it’s parts, I laughed, I cried, I became a super fan), after this win the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) felt good. They saw how successful women’s soccer could be on their own turf and saw the support that they had garnered. With this, the idea of the first women’s professional league in the United States was created.

474px-Women's_United_Soccer_Association_logo.svgThe Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was the brainchild that came to be it’s own grownup soccer league. All of the big names in soccer from the last Women’s World Cup were featured and paced evenly around the teams. The league hoped to capitalize on the national hype that was women’s soccer after the last world cup and the Super Bowl esque excitement surrounding the final. The idea was: get some great players, put them in some great cities, and have them play the great sport as God intended.

That’s not quite how it worked out, the idea was in the right place. The league was 8 teams that were all sponsored by the big name cable companies (Cox, TimeWarner, Comcast etc) who somehow decided to give their money without requiring an 8 hour phone call through their customer service line.  A college draft was created. A few local tv channels picked up a game here or there and the league was off. In the right eyes this was the perfect equation for success, but the hype was not as long lasting as the USWNT and USSF had hoped. People were not spending money to come out to the games, and the games that were televised were not reaching the audience that had been targeted.  The league lasted 3 seasons, with each season bringing less excitement and revenue than the season before. The further the team was away from the ’99 WWC, the less the country appeared to care about the sport or the success of the team. With interest at a low, players making close to nothing, and sponsorships running dry the league suspended after the third seasons. This left many a player without a place to play outside of college or the national team.

The same old song and dance happened again after the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics. Once again, interest in women’s soccer was at an all time high in the States. As always the American mindset was to find a way to capitalize off of the renewed interest, okay and maybe also for the love of the game. And like magic, league number two was created.

Women's_Professional_Soccer_logoWomen’s Professional Soccer (WPS) opened it’s fields in the spring of 2009 with the promise of a new and successful professional league, with people coming to games and turning and profit and everything. That didn’t quite happen. There was a pretty impressive draft with the up and coming recently graduated college players including many now well known national team players. And like before, the current national team players were divided up between the teams. But the league fell prone to a case of expansionitis. Expansionitis is a made up word, defined by  me, as: a league that grew too much too quickly and didn’t have funds to support it. The teams soon buckled under the financial instability. There were several legal battles over who owned what and the league fell in its third season in 2012. This is a strong hint that the third season for a league is considered the breaking point.

Soon after the WPS closed its doors in 2012, many of the supporters of the game, including players and coaches , realized that the interest for the game was still there. The problem with the WPS was not the lack of fan support in theory, but more the the lack of fan support creating revenue. This lead to an immediate discussion with all important parties, the USSF, league administrators and coaches about the creation of another league soon after the 2012 Olympics.

205px-NWSL_logo.svgThis league was going to be different from any of the other leagues up to this point. With clenched smiles and open wallets the United States Soccer Federation, The Canadian Soccer Association, and Mexican Football Federation all banned together and came to an agreement. This means, all of the organizations that are in charge of the national teams for their country, somehow all came to an agreement as monumental as North America Free Trade Agreement (check your 10th grade history text books to fact check). Players from the U.S, Canadian, and Mexican national teams would be allocated equally among the teams in the league, giving preference to home town and college team, and their salaries would be paid by none other than their national federation. This was monumental at the time, because the federations were fully in the game now and many teams could afford to pay more players possibly more money because the salaries of the national team players was already taken care of. Eight teams were created throughout the United States. Players from around North America packed their bags and moved to their new temporary location and a college draft was held and the first season of the National Women’s Soccer Leage (NWSL) was soon on it’s way.

First we have the OT’s (The original teams) who were the first to steak their claim in the game. (I would put this in order of my favorite to least favorite, but apparently that’s not the kind of opinion free blogging that the world is looking for so instead you get listed alphabetically.)

  • Boston Breakers*- housed in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Chicago Red Stars*- from Chicago, Illinois
  • FC Kansas City- from Kansas City, Missouri
  • Portland Thorns+ – making their way in Portland, Oregon
  • Seattle Reign FC- reigning from Seattle, Washington (haha)
  • Sky Blue FC*- from Piscataway, New Jersey
  • Washington Spirit- Boyds, Maryland (basically Washington D.C. though lets be real)
  • Western New York Flash*- in Rochester, New York

All teams marked with an (*)  were an established team before the creation of the NWSL  and competed in the WPS. The Portland Thorns, the only team that is indicated with an (+), was the only team that was financially and emotionally supported by their male counterpart in the Major League Soccer (MLS or the men’s professional league in North America). Okay, I’m kidding about the emotional support. With the support of the men’s team there was now a built in fan base that many of the teams didn’t have. Other teams relied on support from national team, college  or regional fans.

Accessibility of the league to fans was clearly an important component to all the interested parties, and was made a major priority. For the first time all of the games would be live streamed on various media services, giving anyone with an internet device the ability to watch a professional women’s soccer game live. It was established that the teams would stream all of their games live on YouTube, with the exception of the Boston Breakers, who went by way of a media company and charged for the online streaming of the games.  In the seasons after, every team was on the same page and all games have been streamed on YouTube with the championship games and a few regular season games shown on major sports networks. This was huge to soccer fans new and seasoned alike, and this isn’t just coming from the girl who was happy she now had the ability to watch live soccer on her phone for hours at a time. This showed that accessibility was important and gave the teams a chance to establish a fan base outside of the direct region, which had never fully be established in the leagues before.

On April 13, 2013 the world (or at least everyone important in my world) gathered around their internet devices and watched the inaugural game of the NWSL between FC Kansas City and the Portland Thorns. The game ended in a 1-1 draw and had all of the exciting factors of a new league, a first goal, a first yellow card and a first ever draw in this shiny new league. This was only the start to what would come to be a very exciting season filled with ups and downs for each team. Unless you were a Spirit or a Reign fan during this season, where many records of “greatest defeats” were broken by the two teams and their season was mostly just filled with downs (it’s fine, they got better later).  Each season, by the end of the regular season, the teams with the highest points based off of, winning, loosing, tie and goal differential would compete for the championship. Like I said, this clearly wasn’t the Spirit or the Reign this season. The championship winners that year were the Portland Thorns, while the regular season winners with the most points were Western New York Flash.

Though the season was a hit with soccer fans and regional fans alike, many issues were noted with the first season. Though the YouTube streaming was better than no streaming, there were many connection issues and missed streams. The Boston Breakers had several issues with their paid service where their paying fans were unable to view the game even after paying the fee. (I know one fan, in particular, who might still holding a grudge). Many of the teams were playing on either turf fields or less than desirable fields, including high school stadiums. On top of it all, many teams did not have a stellar fan turn out, though not due to a lack of trying. Portland topped all games with their fan base, but other teams struggled to top the excitement that was the 2012 Olympics and pull fans into their stands.

The next year, in 2014, a new expansion team was established. Any team who had known about the WPS and their explosion with expansion teams, instantly felt a chill in their veins at the concept of an expansion team so soon in the creation of this league and had nightmares of expansionists. The Houston Dash out of Houston, Texas was announced on December 12, 2013 with plans to be the 9th team in the league. The Dash had a secret weapon that 7 of the other teams in the NWSL did not: the support of their men’s adjacent team. The Houston Dynamo had given the Dash their field to use during games and many of the supporters for the men’s team were happy to extend over to the women’s team. Much like Portland this built in fan base would be seen as useful for selling tickets and peaking excitement.

The second season was not rocked with the addition of a new expansion team like many had feared would be a symptom of expansionitis. Similar issues from the season before persisted, spotty streaming, low ticket sales (with the exception of a few games in a few cities), and low player wages. FCKC won the championship this year while Seattle Reign held the title of regular season championships. Though Houston was excited at the prospect of bringing in new fans into this new area, they too struggled with ticket sales and establishing a solid back line, leading them to place very low fat the end of the season.

If you remember from above, the third season proves to be crucial in all of the previous leagues, showing a true “make it or break it” point. The third season mirrored the one before. Same issues, different year. But something magical happened: the Women’s World Cup made soccer more than relevant again to the rest of America that didn’t already know about this league. Now, people all over the country cared about the players, welcomed their names in as popular references, and wanted to support the local teams that were in their area. The players during the WWC were given a face and a name and a region to associate with, leaving many a layperson to give their support to the girls going for gold, be that the U.S or any of the other countries with players vetted in the NWSL. This did nothing but drive the NWSL support. Gone were the days of high school fields, now every team had an established fan base, support group and a home. Weirdly enough, even with the new hype and mixed up teams with players away for the WWC, the results were exactly the same as the year before, FCKC with the championship and Seattle Reign with the regular season win.

Before the 2015 season, there were more and more rumors surrounding expansion teams. Cities with MLS teams were hearing the rumors and invited to participate in interest surveys. The hype surrounded Twitter, Tumblr, FaceBook and the like, while everyone was awaiting the possible announcement of a new team. Everyone knew it was Orlando before it was officially announced from player and internet whispers. Yet still, the whole soccer world held their breath on October 20, 2015 when the Orlando Pride was welcomed into the league with open arms and baited breath. Again, Orlando was backed by their male counterpart which held the hope to bring in major viewership and support for the next season.

tumblr_nwurteuhhz1ty49f8o1_1280As of last weekend, the NWSL is currently in their 4th season, breaking what had been known as the “three season curse”.  But why should people care about this? Isn’t this just another season for another sport with some teams and some balls and some kicking? No. This season is historic, and that’s not just the word from one overexcited fan, it’s a fact.

No other league has made it this far without spontaneously combusting: bringing hundreds of players, coaches, and support staff down with them. Now there is no longer a question about turning a profit.But now there is a question of how profitable the NWSL is actually going to be. Now there are college players all over the country who have hope for a career after graduation without the constant fear of a being drafted and their future plans collapsing from under them with the folding of a league. This season is already promising to be historic for more than just existing. Ticket sales for the Orlando Pride are above anything that has ever been seen rumoring 30,000 tickets are sold for their home opener. Team rivalries are firmly established. Each team has a loyal support group.

Many factors for the future of the NWSL have yet to be decided. But like I said in my first post, big things are coming for WOSO in many shapes in forms. The word is out, there is a buzz afloat and over 11,000 people were tuned in to watch the game between the Orlando Pride and Portland Thorns where the stadium was already packed. People care. The game is growing, and I know I’m a bit biased, but everyone should get involved now.

Next post will be my review of week 1 play, and how the season is already shaping up. There will be laughter, tears, and rodents of unusual size.

-SJ

 

 

 

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One thought on “The NWSL: For Dummies and Super Fans

  1. Thanks for the historical knowledge! I knew this season was going to be really exciting when SBFC beat Reign. (I’m going to SBFC v Spirit tonight, actually.) Even though I don’t think it topped at 30k, can you believe the attendance to the Orlando opener?! Good job so far with this – I’m excited to see what else you dish out.

    Like

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