The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is set to begin play for its fifth season on April 15. The ten-team league is poised for its biggest season yet.
The popularity of women’s soccer in the U.S. has been well established by attendance and viewership for the Women’s World Cup and the USWNT, but women’s professional soccer has been slow to develop, in fits and starts.
Before the NWSL, there was the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-2003), and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2012), but with each season, the NWSL is becoming more established.
Each NWSL team will play 24 games this year, up from 20 last season. In addition, the league has moved more games to the weekend – with each team only playing two midweek games. The regular season ends September 30th, with playoffs to follow.
The biggest development this year is the new partnership with A&E Networks, and the resulting television contract.
Earlier this year, the league signed a three-year deal with A&E Networks. As part of the agreement, they will have a consistent Game of the Week to be broadcast on Saturday afternoons on the Lifetime network. A&E also purchased a reported 25% equity stake in the league, and will oversee its broadcast rights, streaming and marketing efforts. The players will wear a patch with the network logo on their uniform sleeves.
Though this isn’t the first broadcast deal – the league had deals with both ESPN and Fox Sports in past seasons – game coverage in the past was spotty. Previous contracts never had more than ten games broadcast in a season, and 2016 had Fox broadcasting only three regular season and three playoff games. More televised games, and a consistent timeslot, will be significant to developing and cultivating fans.
The other big development this offseason was the move of defending league champions Western New York Flash to Cary, NC, part of the Research Triangle region. The team rights were purchased by Steve Malik, owner of North Carolina FC, and will be affiliated with the NASL club.
One issue facing the league this season is the defection of some major USWNT stars who have decided to play in Europe. Carli Lloyd joined Manchester City, Alex Morgan signed with Olympique Lyonnais, 2016 NWSL player of the year Crystal Dunn signed with Chelsea, and Heather O’Reilly signed with Arsenal. Lloyd and Morgan will reportedly return to the league after the European season ends, but the others will not.
The other major issue may be the wide variation in the size and quality of the stadiums.
The Orlando Pride, for example, will play at the newly constructed Orlando City Stadium – capacity 25,500. The facility, shared by MLS side Orlando City SC, opened this season to rave reviews, and features state-of-the art design and amenities. Orlando has supported the Pride for years – the all-time NWSL attendance record was set during a match against the Houston Dash in 2016, with more than 23,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl.
The Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars also play in their cities’ respective MLS stadiums, with capacities of 20,000 or more. The Houston Dash also play at an MLS stadium, BBVA Compass Stadium, but it is scaled down to 7,000 for Dash games.
FC Kansas City, by contrast, will play at Swope Soccer Village, with a capacity of 3,557. Similarly, Washington Spirit play at Maryland Soccerplex (capacity 4,000), and Sky Blue FC plays at Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field (5,000).
Though this seems a broad range of capacities, attendance figures for the league are wildly different depending on the team. During the 2016 season, Portland led the league with average attendance of 16,945. Orlando was second, averaging 8,785 fans per game.
On the low end, Sky Blue FC only averaged 2,162 fans per game, with a season attendance figure of 21,621. Second lowest attendance, surprisingly, was in Chicago, where the Red Stars only averaged 3,005 fans despite the capacity of Toyota Park.
Overall, the league average is much closer to the bottom than the top (5,558) – a figure that the league will undoubtedly hope to improve. Going forward, facilities would seem to be an obvious area for growth.
It is an exciting time for the NWSL. The women’s game continues to grow, especially in the United States, and the league is poised to capitalize. Tune in to Lifetime any Saturday afternoon this season, and you’ll witness the passion.
Image courtesy Portland Thorns FC.
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