National Women's Soccer League seeing signs of popularity surge

In an attempt to capitalize off the U.S. women's soccer team winning the Women's World Cup, an intern for the Washington Spirit started making cold calls Tuesday.

Sure enough, a person on the other end of the line who claimed to have never attended a women's pro soccer game agreed to buy 30 tickets.

It hasn't been that easy to do business, but executives with teams in the National Women's Soccer League are cautiously optimistic that the win and the exposure given to its players will result in a healthier league.

Two women's soccer leagues folded before this one, each lasting three seasons.

"It's been a very busy past couple of days," said Spirit director of ticket sales Rob Bartlett. "We usually reserve 50 field-level seats for our games and we've twice already had to release more of those seats for sale."

Not only do people want to see the game, but they want to be close to the action and to the stars. The team whose most familiar player is defender Ali Krieger plays its first home game on July 18 vs the Seattle Reign. The Reign have midfielder Megan Rapinoe and goalkeeper Hope Solo.

The Reign are seeing record sales as well, according to Cameron O'Toole, the team's director of ticket sales. O'Toole said the team, in season, usually averaged $1,000 to $2,000 in ticket sales a day, but over the last three days has sold more than $51,000 worth of tickets. The first game back (on July 11) could very well be a sellout of 6,000, which says a lot for a team that averages roughly 2,300 fans per game, and that includes complimentary tickets.

"As long as we can get people in the door to sample our product, we know they will love it," O'Toole said.

The Houston Dash might be in the best position to capitalize, considering that they field Golden Ball winner Carli Lloyd, who scored three goals in the final.

Since last Thursday, the Dash have sold more than 2,700 tickets, said Brian Ching, managing director of the team. Ching said for Sunday's game against the Chicago Red Stars, the team, which usually averages 3,500 to 4,000 fans per game, will open up the upper bowl.

"We're probably going to have 12,000 fans there," Ching said. "It will be our highest-grossing game in our one and half years in existence."

Ching said all 150 of the $30 field seats are sold out for the game against Chicago, whose roster includes Christen Press and Julie Johnston.

The sense of excitement from team executives is easy to see. A Chicago team representative was live tweeting on Tuesday how many of its field and club seats remained for two of its games.

Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, who also owns the Timbers of the MLS, said he's optimistic about the returns the league will see.

"A lot of people point to the World Cup win in 1999 and say that it didn't do much, but we have a far more sophisticated soccer audience in this country than we had back then," said Paulson, whose team fields the league's most marketable star, Alex Morgan.

Paulson, whose team is profitable and leads the league in attendance with 14,000 fans per game, also points to the fact that U.S. Soccer changed the business model when it agreed to fund the players' salaries.

"When I got into this, I had a best- and worst-case scenario, and we've already doubled our best-case scenario," Paulson said. "For the league's sake, we have to hope that we get a long-term lift instead of the short-term bump that we have seen historically."

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