Nearly two decades after Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm rose to national fame, a new generation of U.S. women’s national soccer team stars have captured the American imagination. Fresh off a win in Sunday’s World Cup Final against Japan, players like midfielder Carli Lloyd and forward Alex Morgan have emerged as national champions capable of inspiring a new generation of soccer fans.
But despite their newfound fame, many American players will soon return to their teams in the National Women's Soccer League, the fledgling association still struggling to achieve national relevancy amid lukewarm attendance figures and spotty media coverage. Like the doomed Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer before it, experts said it will be difficult for the league to turn the U.S. Women’s National Team’s big moment into tangible growth, especially in terms of television deals and corporate sponsorships.
“When it comes to playing in international tournaments, we love to support women’s soccer and women’s sports in general,” said Rachel Allison, an assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State University who once served as a consultant for Women’s Professional Soccer franchises. “That attention tends to die out when we’re not playing for national pride. We don’t have those same stakes.”
The U.S. women’s national team didn’t just win the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup – it dominated the event. With four goals in the match’s first 15 minutes, it reduced the tournament’s second-best team to tatters. Lloyd recorded the women’s World Cup’s fastest-ever hat trick. Team USA became the first country to win three women’s World Cups, and it surpassed Germany as the highest-scoring team in Women’s World Cup history. A record 20.35 million viewers watched Fox’s broadcast of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, a number that no doubt caused National Women’s Soccer League officials to salivate at the league’s future prospects.
The National Women’s Soccer League has already taken steps to capitalize on its players’ worldwide exposure. The league signed its first-ever national television deal in June, through which Fox Sports will broadcast 10 of its games, including its entire 2015 playoffs later this fall. The television deal could help to both expand revenue and increase national relevancy, which would help the league to expand.
“I have no doubt that we’ll have continued dialogue that’ll lead to expansion agreements in the near term,” said Jeff Plush, the National Women’s Soccer League’s Commissioner. “That makes us a more attractive proposition, both for continued media partnerships as well as national sponsorships.”
Lloyd, Solo, former Sydney Leroux and midfielder Megan Rapinoe – all bona-fide household names with massive social media followings – all play in the National Women’s Soccer League, which is in the middle of its third season. And yet, despite how dominant women’s American soccer has been on the global stage, the National Women’s Soccer League has struggled to gain a domestic foothold.
Of the league’s nine franchises, just one, the Portland Thorns, has achieved moderate success in terms of attendance figures. Thorns games draw an average crowd of about 14,000. The rest of the league’s teams average about 3,000 fans per contest, Fox Sports reported. With so many empty seats, it can be difficult to attract sponsors and boost revenue.
The failure of America’s professional soccer leagues after World Cup success has been a recurring theme over the last 15 years. The Women’s United Soccer Association was founded in 2001, just two years after a 90,000 fans watched Team USA defeat China in an overtime shoot-out. Even with the popularity of women’s soccer at an all-time high, the WUSA folded in just three years when its revenue couldn’t match its expenses. Women’s Professional Soccer met a similar fate in 2012 amid lackluster revenues and internal legal battles.
The Women's Professional Soccer league’s teams did experience a beneficial “World Cup effect” after the 2011 event, when Team USA fell in the finals against Japan. One of Allison’s clients experienced it’s first-ever sellout crowd, she said. But the league was unable to turn national attention for star players like Abby Wambach into new support for lesser-known players and teams stateside.
To survive, the National Women’s Soccer League must find a way to get fans interested in the league’s rivalries and up-and-coming talent before the window shuts, experts said.
“I think that is their challenge, to take this spike and make it last, to use to build familiarity,” Allison said. “Not just to capitalize on people’s knowledge of the celebrity players.”
Differences in the National Women’s Soccer League’s financial model could grant a bit of leeway. Unlike the failed leagues of years past, U.S. Soccer subsidizes the salaries of national team players who participate in the National Women’s Soccer League. Canadian and Mexican soccer officials chip in as well, so that each of the National Women’s Soccer League’s nine teams receives an equal amount of national team players, and thus, subsidies.
The U.S. Women National Team’s success at the 2015 World Cup – and the attention that it generated – will likely convince U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati to continue or even expand the investment, said Victor Matheson, a sports economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts. That will keep National Women’s Soccer League franchises financially afloat in the short term, but it won’t necessarily solve the attendance problem.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit of six months go by and people forget about [the World Cup win],” said Victor Matheston, a sports economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts. “Us Americans, we love our big patriotic events, but we’re much worse at supporting the grassroots stuff.”
The continued disparity in pay and media attention that men’s and women’s soccer receive has also made it difficult for the women’s game to gain a foothold. The U.S. Women’s National Team will receive just $2 million for its victorious effort at this year’s World Cup, while men’s teams were awarded $8 million for a first-round exit at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, ThinkProgress reported. That money could have made a big difference in efforts to grow the women’s game in the United States.
Concerns about gender equality have persisted in international soccer for years, with top executives routinely accused of having apathetic -- if not outright sexist -- views toward women's sports. Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter infamously declared in 2004 that "tighter shorts" would help women's soccer gain global popularity. More recently, the English national team drew widespread criticism after it posted a tweet suggesting its women's soccer players would "go back to being mothers, partners and daughters" after the World Cup.
These disparities have increasingly come to light in recent months, due in large part to unprecedented scrutiny of the practices of FIFA and other regional soccer governing bodies. Recent scandals, such as the arrests of several current and former FIFA officials on corruption charges in May and a lawsuit against FIFA over its decision to play the entire Women’s World Cup on dangerous artificial turf, have made it clear the public has grown less tolerant of unfair treatment. Some efforts at reform have already yielded results – FIFA has vowed that the 2019 Women’s World Cup will be played entirely on grass,
There’s hope that the increased attention will make it easier for the National Women’s Soccer League and other fledgling associations of its kind to gain ground. But few insiders expect growth to come easily, even after Team USA’s World Cup victory.
“There’s no easy or quick path to success,” Plush said. “This is a wonderful accelerant to our business, but the only way we’re going to benefit is by doing the hard work every day.”