NWSL has chance to bloom
The National Women's Soccer League is about to kick off its second season, and as with the flowers starting to bloom on the East Coast, there is a palpable hesitation about how much sunshine to let in. The hesitation is understandable for both the league and its fans, given just how important this second season historically has been to the women's pro soccer world (and the deep chill Year 3 has left for those who played, followed and/or cheered the past two iterations of women's leagues). And, well, for the flowers, they are just darn cold, unsure if the sunshine is for real this time.
I most definitely fall into that flower category (although I've never been mistaken for a daisy). I can't help but wonder if the sunshine is for real. Perhaps it is the scars and the memories of how hard Year 2 is in the women's pro soccer world. Or maybe it is the fact that outside of Portland, this new league seems an awful lot like the leagues of years past.
As I wrote on opening day a year ago, there is in fact one major difference this time: The sunshine comes in the form of the U.S. Soccer Federation. I know, I know. If you have followed the battles (some public, a lot private) of our U.S. women's national team with the U.S. Soccer Federation over the past two decades, you are choking on your coffee right now. But this U.S. Soccer Federation is definitely not the federation of old; this federation should be commended because it is the reason this third iteration of a women's pro league is alive and kicking. And although U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati won't tell anyone as much, he and the federation will not let this league fail. Call that what you will, but I call it sunshine -- that soft, warm glow the past two leagues did not have. And most important, it promises stability. Not permanence, but stability. So before I play the role of Realistic Rhonda and go into the palpable hesitation part, let's look at the positives from the inaugural season as we head into Year 2:
• For the first time in women's pro soccer history, all eight teams are back with all the same owners/operators.
• The NWSL added a team, the Houston Dash -- owned by the ownership group of the MLS Houston Dynamo -- even though, according to Gulati, "Frankly, we hadn't been looking to expand, but they wanted in and pushed the issue."
• One team (Portland) turned a profit, which is incredible in any pro league in the first year.
• The league is attracting better domestic and foreign players. Some U.S. players who were already playing abroad and chose not to return during last season have had a change of heart, and many are coming home for Year 2 (some not until they conclude their European season, but they are coming back). Most notable are Megan Rapinoe (left Lyon to spend the entire season in Seattle), Christen Press (Chicago), Meghan Klingenberg (Houston), Whitney Engen (Houston) and Yael Averbuch (Washington), just to name a few.
• The big signings from the international side are: FIFA World Player of the Year and German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer (Portland); Spanish star Veronica Bóquete (Portland; yes, now Portland has an entire team of all-world players, so good luck to the rest of humanity); and Japanese midfield star Nahomi Kawasumi (Seattle), from INAC Kobe Leonessa, champions of the Japanese league the past three years. Kawasumi was also an integral part of Japan's World Cup-winning 2011 team.
All great things to report. But even with that positive news, the hesitation creeps in. Here is why: the attendance numbers from the first season. According to Equalizer Soccer, the average attendance in the NWSL was 4,271. OK, pretty good. But take away Portland, and it was 2,978.
To survive, this league has to be more than just one team being wildly successful. As Gulati told me by phone last week, "A very important goal for the league is movement in a positive direction on P&Ls [profit and loss] for all teams. If we're not seeing a path to break-even in smaller teams, then there is an issue."
No small task, as we have seen with prior leagues, but a necessary (and attainable) goal, no doubt. And Cheryl Bailey, executive director of the NWSL, reiterated the importance of the first season providing benchmarks when we spoke a few days ago by phone.
"Now we have something to measure and watch," she said. "So expectation is for growth in ticket sales, sponsorship sales, attendance, quality of teams in terms of play, wins and losses, competition. Last year, we had the excuse of having only a short time to throw it together. We are not expecting all teams to have a huge jump, but they need to be showing forward progress."
Stability. Progress. Potential. Those will be the key factors for NWSL teams not named Portland in this second season. There has to be growth across the board. History has shown what happens when there is not. And if the NWSL can show stability and progress, the potential of this league starts to reveal itself.
Speaking of potential ...
Equally important this season, other interested investors now have another, more realistic MLS-owned franchise to watch in the Houston Dash. It's no secret that many see Portland as a soccer utopia, an aberration, a what-happens-in-Portland-cannot-be-extrapolated-to-the-masses franchise. As Gulati pointed out, "One team does not make a trend." No, but if Houston can make it work, those potential investors will see a model that more closely resembles themselves.
So how is Houston shaping up so far in terms of fan interest? Chris Canetti, president of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash, told me via email: "We are not quite to my goal for season tickets yet, but are doing well. We have nearly 3,000 season tickets in only four months of existence. To put that in perspective, it is more than the Dynamo had in its inaugural season in 2006. That number has grown to nearly 12,000 today."
If Houston can find success, suddenly other deep-pocketed owners may see the potential. And when other high-net-worth investors see the potential, more like-minded owners come to the table. And through osmosis (at least it sounds good in theory), there is growth, investment, sponsor support and fan engagement. The warm glow isn't just U.S. Soccer making sure the NWSL does not fail, but a thriving league starting to stand on its own two feet.
That world can exist. I will always believe that. Maybe that world is still years away, but it is possible, especially given the popularity of this current U.S. team. U.S. star forward and New York Flash player Abby Wambach said to me recently, "I have never seen such consistent, sustained popularity for our U.S. national team games in these 'off' years." ("Off" years are when there is no Women's World Cup or Olympic competition to drive fan interest.)
And when that world does exist, the flowers will realize this sunshine is indeed legit. The hesitation disappears and in its place is acceptance, gratitude and fields of beautiful, blossoming flowers.
And a daisy eating a donut, of course.