NWSL enters investment mode

As the National Women's Soccer League embarks on its second decade with the launch of the 2023 regular season this weekend, it's important to note how far it has come.

In 2022, the NWSL set a record for the highest average attendance on its opening weekend when the six games drew an average of 10,150 fans per game, more than triple the average for the first weekend of its 2013 launch.

The 2022 record for league-wide attendance will be beaten this weekend, along with the record for a single game. (The San Diego Wave has surpassed 23,500 ticket sales for Saturday's game against Chicago at Snapdragon Stadium.)

"We're up 20 percent in season-ticket holders on a league-wide basis," NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said in her media address on Tuesday, "and we've already surpassed the number of sales for opening weekend, and we still have five days to go."

The NWSL's storylines aren't like they were in recent years. Its eight founding teams, most underfunded with no long-term plans for investment, hung on until 2017 when things started to unravel.

FC Kansas City -- which Vlatko Andonovski coached to league titles in 2014 and 2015 -- ceased operations in November 2017 and the Boston Breakers folded two months later. In 2018, Sky Blue FC, whose majority owner is New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, came under the microscope with reports of poor housing and working conditions and inadequate facilities for its players.

Even success stories had bad endings. The Utah Royals ranked second in the NWSL in attendance in 2018 and 2019 and hosted the successful back-to-play tournament in the summer of 2020, but they folded in late 2020 after owner Dell Loy Hansen announced plans to sell Utah Soccer Holdings  following reports of ongoing racist behavior by Hansen.

The Portland Thorns set a women's record for average attendance in 2019 with an average of 20,098 fans a game but three years later were put up for sale in the aftermath of the Yates Report that confirmed reports of abuse by former Thorns coach Paul Riley and the failure or ownership and senior management to fully disclose what they knew of his situation. Yates Report findings also triggered a shakeup at the Chicago Red Stars, who have made the playoffs a record seven years in a row but are also up for sale following the decision of their board to remove owner Arnim Whistler   as chairman.

The recommendations of the Yates Report are being addressed across the U.S. soccer landscape at the pro and grassroots levels, but the NWSL has started to move on from the turmoil of the last decade.

"As we seek to unlock the future potential of this league," said Berman, "we know that a lot of the history of what's held this league back and prevented us from reaching our potential is a lack of investment. And I'm just so proud of the league and our board governors and our teams in the way that we're beginning to invest in ourselves."

Investment was the theme of Berman's state-of-the-league presentation, beginning in front offices, addressing some of the issues raised by the Yates Reports.

"We've required that every team hire HR professional to be boots on the ground," said Berman. "And with the hiring of our chief people and culture officer at the league, Lauren Lopez [hired from a senior position at the New York Times], we are facilitating monthly webinars to make sure that there's an open line of communication on best practices and increasing the visibility that the league has with our teams and some of the challenges that they're facing, either with respect to players or their own staff, which we know are interrelated."

With New York-based Berman's hire, the NWSL has moved from Chicago, where it started out in tiny offices at U.S. Soccer House, to Madison Avenue in New York City and filled numerous new positions.

"These little things actually matter in terms of having people feel professional and valued," Berman said. "And also from a staffing perspective, there have been multiple teams that have doubled and tripled their investment in their staff."

Increased ticket sales don't happen out of thin air. A key focus of increased staffing is managing tickets sales — the primary driver of revenues for U.S. soccer teams

Said Berman, "We're really launching the beginnings of what we're calling team services for now, which is really about offering consulting to our teams as they think about their revenue streams, ticket sales being their primary revenue source and the league being in a position to really share best practices and offer support for our teams that are looking to increase their connectivity with their local communities through ticket sales and attendance."

Berman said one of the most concerning issues players mentioned time and again when she has talked with them over the last year, since her hire in March 2022, was the poor quality of league broadcasts, most of which are streamed.

"They really felt that it needed to be a priority for the league to invest in broadcast production," she said, "and for the game itself to be able to showcase in a way for fans to be able to appreciate their athleticism and how great the NWSL is."

Part and parcel with raising production qualities for current and future broadcasts — the NWSL is in negotiations over a new broadcast deal that will take effect in 2024 — the league needs to add more cameras for the introduction of VAR, making the NWSL the first women's league to implement Video Review.

"This is a really big deal," said Berman, "not just because we know that we have to and are committed to elevating the quality of officiating in our game. It requires significant investment and our board has authorized that investment."

That board includes aggressive owners at new teams in Kansas City, Los Angeles and San Diego and new owners in Houston, Orlando and Washington. But big picture, a totally changed environment has produced that new willingness to spend.

"Historically," added Berman, "the way the league has approached growth and business has been sort of on its back foot, perhaps because we didn't have the infrastructure or subject matter expertise or confidence to let a proper process get us to the right result. And I think, if anything, what we've learned in the last 11 months is that the market will tell us our value so long as we give it the appropriate opportunity to produce that value."

1 comment about "NWSL enters investment mode".
  1. R2 Dad, March 24, 2023 at 12:37 a.m.

    Would love to see NWSL VAR implementation surpass the MLS version. Maybe the ladies can show us how it's done properly?

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