NWSL’s 11th season brings increased interest and investment
The NWSL used to be its own worst enemy.
Petrified of going the way of two previous professional women’s soccer leagues, the NWSL was wary of growth and bold action. Buying into the old trope of there being a limited market for women’s sports, it took what it was given rather than pushing for what it deserved.
Thank God those days are over.
“We know this season is going to demonstrate women’s soccer and the NWSL really can be a major player in the landscape of entertainment that’s available here and globally,” commissioner Jessica Berman said earlier this week.
As the NWSL begins its 11th season Saturday, the league is poised for an explosion in growth. Ticket sales, both for season packages and opening weekend, are up, and this summer’s World Cup should bring another bump in attendance at the end of the season.
Sponsors are clamoring to be part of the action. Ratings increases are allowing the NWSL to bargain from a position of strength on a new media rights deal, one that could set the benchmark for women’s sports going forward.
Team values are skyrocketing, with the Wall Street Journal reporting expansion franchises in San Francisco and Boston will go for $50 million each — three years after rights for San Diego and Angel City FC went for $2 million-$5 million. (The new Utah Royals franchise went for a price similar to San Diego and Angel City as part of a deal when the previous owner was ousted.)
Current owners are putting money back into the league and their own teams, including increased investment in facilities, technology and personnel. The NWSL will use video-assisted review for the first time, requiring a significant upgrade in broadcast production quality.
Perhaps most importantly, the NWSL has concluded an investigation into rampant abuse by coaches and is in the process of implementing reforms, allowing the focus to be solely on players and the game rather than on the league’s wrongdoings and inaction.
“We recognize media and other external stakeholders will still want to and need to ask these questions, and we expect to be held accountable to the commitments that we’ve made,” Berman said. “But from a player’s perspective, I think they deserve and want the focus and attention to be on the game and the sport itself.”
With good reason. Women’s sports overall are seeing unprecedented growth in interest and investment, and the NWSL is benefitting from that. But the mindset in and around the league has changed, too.
In the past, the league made deals haphazardly and seemingly from a point of desperation. Remember Lifetime?
If there was a business strategy, or a long-term vision, it wasn’t clear. As one former commissioner said at one point, “I don’t think we have a brand. … We’re doing a lot of the internal analysis to better understand who we think we are and who we actually are.”
Under Berman, a longtime NHL executive, there is no guesswork. Everything is put through the same evaluation process, ensuring deals will benefit the NWSL in both the short and long term. That also helps to filter out partners who might not align with the NWSL’s goals and values so there are no mixed messages about the league’s priorities.
Look at its current roster of sponsors, and you’ll see major brands with a history of supporting soccer, women’s sports and female athletes: Ally, UKG, Budweiser, MasterCard. You’re not going to see a Hobby Lobby or a company that’s just looking to make a quick buck.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned in the last 11 months, it’s the market will tell us our value so long as we give it appropriate opportunity to produce that value,” Berman said.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” she added. “We talk a lot about being long-term greedy. We’re not looking for the quick wins. We’re looking for the right wins and we’re looking to build sustainable growth and go from a mentality of surviving to thriving. I think all of that requires a change in mentality, culture and expectations.”
Same with team owners.
While past owners might have looked at owning an NWSL team as a do-good effort or side project, the newer ones recognize it’s also an opportunity to make money. A lot of it. They’re putting money into their franchises, knowing they will reap the benefits multiple times over
Take the Kansas City Current. Owners Angie and Chris Long are building a stadium that, when it opens next year, will be the first specifically for a women’s team.
The Longs, along with minority owners Brittany and Patrick Mahomes, are funding most of the $117 million project themselves — they did ask for $6 million in state tax credits when construction costs ballooned – which means the team will get all the revenue the stadium generates. Naming rights. Concessions. Parking. Ticket sales.
“Obviously (building a stadium) is a massive upfront investment. However, you then control so many more revenue drivers that most women’s clubs globally don’t control,” Chris Long told USA TODAY Sports last year. “That wasn’t lost on us that, if done right, would be a key aspect to the club’s profitability. And we’re well on our way there.”
The NWSL will break for about five weeks for the World Cup, which begins July 20 in Australia and New Zealand. While going dark for that long in the middle of the series could be seen as an obstacle, Berman is choosing to spin it as a positive.
The league and some individual teams will have a presence at the tournament to feature the connection between the NWSL and the players in the World Cup, including the majority of the USWNT. They also are hoping to establish a foothold in foreign markets.
And provided the U.S. women make a deep run, the NWSL expects to see a bump in interest after the World Cup, when players come back to their club teams, as it did in 2019.
“We know that we have one of, if not the most, competitive leagues in the world,” Berman said. “We have some of the best players in the world.”
The NWSL hasn’t just arrived in its 11th season. It’s poised to take off.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.