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.
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.
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
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."