Can pro game maintain interest in women’s soccer?

Portland ThornsWith the women’s World Cup final setting a TV viewership record for soccer in the United States, interest in the game is at an all-time high. Can the professional side of the sport in the form of the National Women’s Soccer League maintain the momentum?

There’s no doubt American soccer is coming into its own: MLS attendance is strong, and there are some strong franchises in the NWSL as well. Take, for example, the Portland Thorns, the NWSL team under the Portland Timbers umbrella; the team sold out Providence Park to the tune of 21,144 fans last night to see a match against archrival Seattle Reign. The Timbers regularly sell out, and while the Thorn is a good draw, a sellout is rare, as this was the biggest crowd in NWSL history and the second-largest standalone crowd ever to see a women’s game.

The issue: Whether the NWSL can keep the momentum going. We’ve seen this before: after the 1999 World Cup, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) featured players from the U.S. squad but folded after three seasons. The same fate befell Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS).

But it looks like NWSL is on stronger footing. For starters, it has solid backers, some with ties to MLS. It has a TV contract with Fox Sports, at least through the end of the season. And it operates in a different media landscape, one where teams can go directly to fans and not need to rely on an intermediary like a daily newspaper. This is one reason why MLS is so success. From AP:

“The last few weeks have been really, really nice for all of us,” NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush said. “But there’s more hard work. It continues to be a business we work very hard at every day. So it’s not going to be a panacea. You have to work hard at growth.”…

Thorns coach Paul Riley said the real benefits of the World Cup probably won’t be seen until next year — in season ticket sales.

“We’re an anomaly when it comes to that. But you know, with Boston, Chicago, these places that have a huge boost right now, can they deliver season tickets? I know all the teams are working hard to get it done,” Riley said. “Our job is to entertain. Our job is to put teams out that people want to come pay money to watch, and put them in suitable stadiums for people to watch. I think that’s the next step for everybody and hopefully they can do that, the whole league.”

It’s still a league that varies widely in terms of investments and capabilities: the Chicago Red Stars, for instance, play in a suburban Lisle facility at Benedictine University designed to also host baseball. There, a crowd of 3,560 fans set a record for attendance. Still, if television money flows in and marketing budgets increase, we’ll see expansion and some upgrades in larger markets.

Image courtesy Portland Thorns.

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