Jeff Plush on the NWSL: women's league plays long ball

By Paul Kennedy

It might not sound like much but the National Women's Soccer League, which begins its third season on Friday, is looking to the future.

That's more than you could say about the two women's pro leagues that came before it and both folded after three seasons. By Year 3, WUSA had long since burned through the $40 million that was supposed to last five years and it abruptly shut down on the eve of the 2003 Women's World Cup played in the United States. By Year 3, WPS was in survival mode.

Jeff Plush, who was named commissioner of the NWSL in January, admits that a lot attention in the league's third season will be on whether it will survive.

"We don't operate that way," he said. "We operate with a lot of confidence."

That confidence is based on the fact that the eight NWSL teams that began in 2013 are still around in 2015, and Houston was added in 2014. It is also based on long-term strategies being put in place.

EXPANSION. The NWSL board meets for its spring meeting on Friday in Houston before the Dash's season opener, and Plush says the board will likely set a timetable for expansion announcements, likely during the summer. He says the league is in talks with six serious groups, three of them related to MLS clubs. Plush says the door is about to shut on expansion for 2016, but it will come.

Plush won't set any expansion goals or timetables like MLS commissioner Don Garber did in 2013 when he said MLS would expand to 24 teams by 2020. The first order of business for the NWSL will be to add a 10th team to eliminate the bye weeks that plague NWSL teams. After that, Plush would like to see teams added in pairs, so a 12-team league in 2017 would not be unimaginable. "The overall expansion story is extremely positive," he said.

TELEVISION. The NWSL operated with modest one-year national television deals with Fox in 2013 and ESPN in 2014. Plush says the league is in active discussions about a multi-year agreement. "I have every confidence that we'll get over the finish line and have an announcement soon," he said. A multi-year agreement will be important for the NWSL to show the commitment of its television partners and be able to plan for the future. "That level of continuity," he said, "is exactly what the league needs at this point."

SPONSORS. The NWSL, which is operated by U.S. Soccer, has a sponsorship agreement with Nike. Plush sees that as a huge advantage as NWSL clubs try to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the Women's World Cup this summer. "The benefit that we have that MLS doesn't have," he said, "is that our kit manufacturer is the same of the federation's manufacturer."

For the near term, the NWSL will be a league whose fan base is largely young family-oriented instead of like MLS, whose recent growth has been fueled to by the explosion of interest from among millennials. "We still have a quality demographic," Plush said. He says that makes Nike's emphasis on reaching out to young female players a connection the NWSL can learn from.

The NWSL has announced sponsorship agreements with Coppertone and the National Mango Board. "They are two partners that want to activate in the retail channel," Plush said. He says that's important as it allows the NWSL to get its brand out to young players and families in ways it might not otherwise be able to.

No doubt about it, though, the NWSL remains a tough sell. If you throw out the two MLS-owned teams -- Portland and Houston -- no club averaged 4,000 or more fans in 2014. But where others might see challenges Plush sees opportunities ...

NWSL clubs are for the most part small operations.

The NWSL has been able to survive into Year 3 because clubs have learned from the example of WUSA and WPS, whose clubs spent far beyond their means. NWSL clubs operate with small staffs and player budgets.

"The most exciting thing is we have hard-working, passionate staffs who really care about the sport," says Plush, who has spent the first three months on the job getting to know the insides and outs of the NWSL's nine clubs. "That's a great starting point. Clearly, they are young so one of the areas of opportunities for us is the need to build our systems of best practices, to share successes and share some of the mistakes made in an effort to get better across the board and learn how to drive more fan-generation connections, drive revenue, drive ticket sales and drive sponsorship sales in the local markets."

The NWSL will be overshadowed by big events the next two seasons.

"It is the nuance of our league," Plush said before adding that the league will learn to develop what he termed "the proper cadence" to take into account that two out of four seasons will be interrupted by the Women's World Cup or Olympics. "Those events mean," he said, "that the sports world is watching women's soccer, which is quite positive."

NWSL clubs are too reliant on big-name stars who'll be often unavailable.

Plush's soccer background is in MLS, where he views the success of its clubs in making the game on the field relevant in their markets as what NWSL clubs must do. "It's exactly the same charge for us," he said. "It's more about the match than just the players."

Plush says players come and go -- in this case players will be unavailable for much of the first half of the season -- so clubs must do a better job of educating fans about and promoting the players who will be in league all season. He mentioned a few young players to look for: Sky Blue FC's Sarah Killion and Chicago's Danielle Colaprico, both first-round picks in the 2015 college draft, and Kealia Ohai, Houston's top pick in the 2014 draft.

Abby Wambach says she might not play in 2015.

Plush praises Wambach, the world's all-time leading scorer, for what she has done for women's soccer in the United States and around the world. "She's earned the right to make a decision," he said, "and we support her 100 percent."

He says the movement of players from team to team or into retirement -- the breakup of loyalties fans have developed with players -- is part of sports. "We're a real league," he said, "and player movement happens." The NWSL might not be there yet with full-time youth programs or reserve teams, like MLS, but clubs must begin thinking about them.

And this is Plush's long-ball game again: "That's our job, to create more players, create more stars."
14 comments about "Jeff Plush on the NWSL: women's league plays long ball".
  1. R2 Dad, April 7, 2015 at 1:46 a.m.

    It may seem like an oxymoron to MLS folks but people don't watch the game because of the "stars". They watch the game because of the quality of play on the field. Yes, Abby is the greatest goalscorer in american soccer history, but she's nearing the end. I laud her accomplishments, but I don't really want to watch her for 90 minutes anymore.

  2. Nate Nelson, April 7, 2015 at 9:49 a.m.

    Hey, Paul you didn't mention that the USSF pays the "star" players to play in the league, not the clubs. Or has that changed? The model doesn't work and is not profitable, owners lose money even with the help of the USSF paying..why did you not get a comment from the USSF as they spend the money, but where do they get it?

  3. Thomas Hosier, April 7, 2015 at 10:32 a.m.

    Personally I would rather watch the Ladies play than watch most MLS games on TV.

    Looking forward to the Women's World Cup. Hopefully our WUSNT will do much to promote the NWSL in US. I also enjoy watching our WUSNT more than our MUSNT.

    See you at the pitch!

  4. Raymond Weigand, April 7, 2015 at 1:41 p.m.

    Mia and Nomar are invested in an MLS expansion ... Chivas Part Deux ... perhaps Mia is also dreaming about creating a professional women's soccer team in So Cal ... working project title: Mia More or Legends of the Blue Surf

  5. Ric Fonseca, April 7, 2015 at 2:17 p.m.

    to RW: I don't know where you got the "Chivas Part Deux...(sic)" but it is highly possible you don't live in the area, or better yet, you're some sort of soccer soothsayer, but.... your comment is sorta funny, though I wouldn't down play what Mia Hamm is or isn't planning, and 'sides, what's so bad about having a women's team in the LOS ANGELES area? Tell ya one thing, pilgrim, she's very likely looked at the various and previous teams but failed programs from Los Angeles to Orange County and into San Diego. Also, the number of young ladies playing the sport in our beautiful SoCal area is beyong amazing! So, go for it Mia and Omar, and Magic, and you other guys!!!

  6. Dick King, April 8, 2015 at 1:14 a.m.

    When are soccer leaders like Plush going to stop using the word "kit" and call a uniform a uniform? Please! Pitch, kit, touch line, goes on and on and I'm tired of it. We're playing soccer in the United States so let's use USA terms not imports from England or someplace else.

  7. Raymond Weigand, April 8, 2015 at 12:49 p.m.

    DK: I don't get pitch ... reminds me of tar. It would be quite clever if the USA Business Executives were bilingual and kept their USA audience in mind when the subject is sales.

  8. steve sesio, April 10, 2015 at 11:07 a.m.

    One thing the NWSL has that others before have not is the backing and funding of USSF and CSA. Funding star players salaries from both National teams. Mexican Federation has also pitched in at a smaller level, for now, but every little bit of financial backing will help with salaries.

  9. steve sesio, April 10, 2015 at 11:20 a.m.

    Second MLS clubs and the league in general are much stronger now. The model of MLS clubs owning or managing their SSS cuts down on rental fees.Marketing and managing departments are already in place and need not start from scratch.
    As well as having a stronger fan base now to promote the teams together.
    Gives MLS clubs a cost effecient second full time tenant.

  10. steve sesio, April 10, 2015 at 11:30 a.m.

    Portland has obviously set the standard and model for MLS owned teams to follow.
    Portland standard is extremely high. So if other MLS clubs shoot for that Highest of standard and fall short, which they likely will do. It still leaves clubs with a very high standard.
    Houston is a great first example. While they are not going to meet the extremely high standard in Portland. They have set a situation with a scaled down Capacity at their venue, which is still very successful

  11. steve sesio, April 10, 2015 at 11:49 a.m.

    Looking to expansion of a 10th team, 3 MLS and 3 non MLS, RSL has been the most vocal.
    RSL to are bringing somethin new and very unique to the MLS owned team model. In 2016 they will have in place a smaller but still pro capacity venue for its USL Minor league side within the Salt Lake City Metro region. Having their USL side and NWSL side both as full time tenants at a pro SSS.
    With options of using Rio Tinto for a highly promoted match or double header. With any combination of RSL, Monarchs, and NWSL side.

  12. steve sesio, April 10, 2015 at 12:01 p.m.

    Third are the S&E groups with a big time franchise at the top that may or may not have a pro soccer team.
    In LA it is the Dodgers that are heading the growth of other leagues.
    WNBA Sparks with a top Dodger Partner and Magic Johnson are leading that successful charge, not the Lakers. And they play at Staples Center along with NBA Lakers and Clippers, and NHL Kings.
    Now it Magic, Mia, and Nomar being backed by Dodgers for LA 2.0 MLS.
    Once that is up running and secure a NWSL club will not be far behind

  13. steve sesio, April 10, 2015 at 12:11 p.m.

    "NWSL Clubs are too reliant on stars that are often unavailable"
    At first these stars are needed.
    This is a different time however. With the advent of ESPN coverage of all college sports, including Womens NCAA soccer. Conferences with their own Networks. These players coming into the draft are already well known names these days. It is the same premis that ensured that the WNBA would have well known players coming from a more publized college ranks. Famiiar name top young soccer stars who will be playing NWSL FT as they wait there turn for National Team

  14. steve sesio, April 10, 2015 at 12:30 p.m.

    It has been 15 years since the US put on the biggest WWC every seen in 1999. In 2003 having to get it together very quickly in the wake of China having to back out. It was kind of a let down.
    Now 15 years later it is back in North America, this time in Canada, with the biggest most hyped field of teams ever.
    The Hype comes in the wake US/Canada rival. US has been the top 1 or 2 ranked team for years. Now Canada is easily engraved in the top ten at worst.
    The best New and newly renovated modern stadiums in Canada will be in full use.
    Coverage of the entire event will be on the top sports networks in both the US and Canada.
    This is the time where the importance of a WC year will hold true for the future of the NWSL

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