The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) championship match between the North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars capped a 2019 season -- the 7th in the league's brief history -- of increasing buzz, steady expansion news and greater overall attention.
The spring in its step this year was in no small part helped by the U.S. women’s national team winning back-to-back FIFA Women’s World Cups. After knocking off Japan in 2015, they beat the Netherlands this past July to become the tournament’s first repeat champions.
“That week-in and week-out competition for the US national team players and other internationals has helped us move forward,” said Houston Dash player Amber Brooks, who has played for three different clubs NWSL since 2014. “It's not a coincidence.”
That momentum is only building.
Louisville was announced as the NWSL's 10th club earlier this week and speculation has since surrounded potential NWSL clubs for Cincinnati and Sacramento, which was named as an MLS expansion on October 21.
And there are still other MLS clubs engaged in fact-finding about the prospect of joining NWSL, according to interviews with the four MLS clubs currently fielding teams in the women's pro soccer league.
MLS ties to women's soccer
The Houston Dash (Houston Dynamo), Orlando Pride (Orlando City), Portland Thorns (Portland Timbers) and Utah Royals FC (Real Salt Lake) are all under the purview of ownership groups that are also fully cemented in MLS.
They form four of the NWSL’s nine sides, with four others – Chicago, Reign FC, Sky Blue FC and the Washington Spirit – sharing metropolitan areas with MLS clubs under separate ownership groups. But they still work together: This season Sky Blue have played at Red Bull Arena, home of the New York Red Bulls, and Washington have played at Audi Field, opened last year by D.C. United. Chicago, meanwhile, have shared SeatGeek Stadium with Chicago Fire, who will be moving back to Soldier Field beginning next year.
MLS clubs are also involved in youth development of boys and girls. An additional five MLS clubs operate teams or have affiliates in the girls’ division of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (DA) which is in its third year of operation: FC Dallas, LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes, FC Cincinnati and Sporting Kansas City. Houston, Portland and Utah are also in the DA, while Orlando competes in the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL founded in 2009), a league New York City FC recently joined after a prior stint in the DA.
Merritt Paulson, chief executive officer at Portland, said those numbers are only going to grow, with the recent World Cup success acting as a catalyst. In an interview with MLSsoccer.com this past July, Paulson said he expected three more clubs will launch NWSL teams by 2022. And he noted that the Timbers have hosted two different MLS clubs at Thorns games this season, as they ponder starting their own NWSL teams.
“We open up everything for them,” Paulson said of hosting the prospective clubs. “We show them the good, the bad and the ugly. We show them our books, our numbers. We're uniquely successful, but we paint a realistic picture about the opportunities and challenges that other teams have faced, so we don't want there to be any surprises. Our goal isn't to get people in, it's to have them be successful when they're in.”
That’s not hyperbole from Paulson, who asserted the Thorns are “the most successful professional women’s sports team in the world.” That’s partially because Portland, led by the Rose City Riveters supporters’ group, recently set an NWSL record for attendance (25,218) in an Aug. 11 match against North Carolina, the defending league champions. But it’s also because of the infrastructure on hand.
The Thorns play at Providence Park, just like the Timbers, and there’s access to the same front-office staff for each club. Even Thorns head coach Mark Parsons has struck up quite the relationship with Timbers' manager Giovanni Savarese.
“I'm at the training facility and giving someone a tour a couple months ago, showing them around,” Parsons started. “[The Timbers] were in a staff meeting and I said to my guest 'They look like they're in a meeting, let's make sure they don't catch our eye. Gio will welcome us in and tell us what they're doing for the weekend and tell us how they're doing it.' I know they don't have that time."
That was a common theme as MLSsoccer.com connected with the four groups that operate both MLS and NWSL clubs, and it's one that Orlando’s Erik Ustruck echoed. He’s director of soccer operations for Orlando City, plus general manager for the Pride.
The clubs’ respective coaches are regularly in touch, Ustruck said, with Pride coach Mark Skinner forming a strong relationship with his counterpart at Orlando City, James O’Connor, before the latter's dismissal in early October. Both teams use Exploria Stadium, just like those in Houston share BBVA Stadium and the pair in Salt Lake City share Rio Tinto Stadium.
“They're able to bounce ideas off each other and ask what works for both,” Ustruck said of the collaboration between Orlando Pride and Orlando City head coaches. “The men's and women's games can be completely different, but I think there are also some similarities. That relationship was a pretty easy one to establish and maintain.”
The business of women's pro soccer
As aligned as the front-office and technical staffs often are, another theme that emerged was that the fanbases are largely distinct.
Andy Carroll, chief business officer in the front office that oversees Real Salt Lake (MLS), Utah Royals (NWSL) and Real Monarchs (USL), said only about 30 percent of Utah Royals season-ticket holders are also RSL season-ticket holders.
There’s some overlap, but they’ve found the clubs have entirely different groups to which they market.
“It's been interesting because we have bifurcated our fanbase and last year we grew soccer consumption in this market 28 percent,” said Carroll, who helped build the Utah Royals on short notice in 2018 following the folding of FC Kansas City. “We gave ourselves a very short runway with it and did something that most organizations wouldn't do, which is launching a brand new team in four months.
“It's been additive to sponsorship, gives us more games in the stadium, gives us an entire narrative of being a constant soccer conversation in Salt Lake and throughout Utah. That will drive the overall business.”
Portland and Houston echoed similar figures for fan overlap, though they all agreed that more growth is needed as the NWSL enters a pivotal stage. The 2019 World Cup bump is alive and well, with Budweiser signing a multi-year sponsorship deal with the NWSL and the league reaching a short-term deal with ESPN to air games domestically and internationally through season’s end.
But Paulson said a post-World Cup “lift" is needed, not just a “bounce.” That means a longer TV deal, more sponsorships, more media attention, increased attendance and more investment. The whole nine yards.
“Any time you have success at the national team level, people can fall back and think it's going to be a different trajectory, and that's not always the case,” Paulson said. “People need to make sure that they're continuing to build and positioning themselves for growth, not just in the several games or the remainder of the season, but the next season and the season after that.”
What the future holds
Everyone agreed there's no silver bullet, though Brooks argues that more can be done with marketing players of all backgrounds.
“You have the best player in the world in Sam Kerr playing in Chicago and she's not a U.S. national team player, but she's known and she's a great player,” Brooks said. “If clubs, if the league in general think of us more as assets with great individual stories and different selling points, that's something that could push us forward more.”
From Carroll’s perspective, it comes down to serious investment across the board.
“There has to be a commitment from the overall soccer community that this is the right thing to do,” Carroll said. “It's very similar to where MLS was when RSL came on board when you hear commissioner [Don] Garber talk about where the league was. So the owners, like Dell Loy [Hansen] did with launching a team all-in across four months -- you need that commitment.”
Now, as the NWSL seeks to capitalize on the USWNT’s latest World Cup victory, it’s clear that MLS-backed clubs will continue to play an important role. Houston Dash and Dynamo president of business operations John Walker noted that expansion interest has never been higher.
“There are direct conversations with some franchises who might be far down the line in the thought process,” Walker said. “Probably every MLS team has had an inkling or notion to jump in, but some are more ready than others.”
Walker confirmed that “a couple” have gone in-depth with Houston on evaluating the idea, while Carroll said Utah has “kicked the tires” with two other clubs.
“There are extreme synergies and efficiencies whether you're an MLS team or a USL team in operating an NWSL team that an independent operator doesn't have,” Paulson said. “It does make it easier, there's no question about it.”