After World Cup, NWSL Poised for Breakthrough


Two numbers to note from last week’s attendance stats: 7,482 and 17,388. That’s the attendance of the two crowds attracted by MLS’s Chicago Fire and NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars to SeatGeek Stadium.

For the Chicago Fire, that paltry total represented the smallest crowd of the season, coming not soon after the team finalized a buyout to its SeatGeek Stadium lease. For the Chicago Red Stars, it represented the largest crowd in team history, a sellout coming right after a high-profile United States triumph in World Cup competition.

To say there was a lot riding on the World Cup for the future of American soccer is an understatement. Check out the NWSL attendance from this past week, the first full week of competition after the World Cup; strong crowds across the board, from Washington to Orlando to Salt Lake City. For the NWSL, the big crowds represent the future of the sport. The league has always been positioned as being anchored by the Portland Thorns, but these crowds indicate a new and broader interest in the sport. We run regular updates on MLS expansion, but we may need to begin running regular updates on NWSL expansion as well. Adding an NWSL team makes perfect business sense for an MLS or even a USL outfit—there’s already talk of an Indianapolis addition, a Minnesota NWSL team is a logical addition, and surely Atlanta, Toronto and Los Angeles could support NWSL teams. And there’s no doubt new-stadium efforts in New York City and Boston would be boosted by an NWSL team.

The challenge for NWSL owners will be extending this momentum. But the league is perfectly positioned to appeal to the younger, more diverse audiences marketers are craving. Currently MLS is attracting most of the attention of these marketers, but there’s no doubt NWSL can grab some of that attention. Ad Week pointed out the obvious:

According to Gallup, soccer is the second-most-watched sport (tied with the NBA) among 18- to 34-year-olds. Per a Magna study, the average age of the MLS viewer is 40, two years younger than the NBA and a whopping 10 years below the NFL average. In a Simmons report, MLS had 39% of the coveted 18-34 demo, seven points ahead of the NBA and 12% more than the NFL.

For MLS commissioner Don Garber, one of the most exciting things is developing MLS as a “league for a new America,” with Hispanics accounting for 33% of its audience, the highest among all pro leagues, according to the league, and driven in part by its many players from Central and South America. Portland, for example, has 14 players from the region, which accounts for half its active roster….

Dave Rosenberg, chief strategy officer of sports marketing consultancy GMR in San Francisco, said brands need to look at the long-term value of the sport and their association with it because it’s growing across the board, from the community level to the pros. “That’s where the value is to sponsors,” he said, “aligning yourself with a sport that not only has a good base today but has the most optimistic base for tomorrow.”

To date MLS has dominated the next-generation marketing talk. Expect NWSL to become part of those conversations very shortly.

Photo courtesy Chicago Red Stars.

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August Publications