The NWSL's newest expansion side, Orlando Pride, is a sign of success for the 4-year-old league that women's soccer, like the sport in general, is finally taking root for mainstream American sports enthusiasts.
The huge surge of popularity for MLS over the recent years is setting an optimistic tone for professional women's soccer, which has seen several failures to launch, but now appears to be riding in on the coattails of U.S. Soccer's rising popularity in America, as increasing recognition of the sport spreads.
The male side of the sport will likely continue to dominate through MLS but there are multiple opportunities for NWSL to leverage the popularity and introduce new fans to women's soccer as a viable, complementary league to follow. So what does NWSL need to do in 2016 to bring the new fans of soccer over to the women's side of the game?
The 2016 MLS season is a huge milestone for the sport and the league with, finally, all 20 teams obtaining a jersey sponsor. Sponsorship in MLS has steadily increased in recent years, with huge names such as Heineken, Coca Cola, and Audi. The NWSL has not been as successful, or as aggressive in recruiting sponsors with the four official corporate partners being Coppertone Sport, Mango.org, Nike, and U.S. Soccer Foundation.
Nike has traditionally been a backer of women's soccer and the company's support is clearly a tremendous boost for the league. But seeing other big, household name brands getting behind women's soccer and NWSL will certainly lend the league some credibility which fans have come to associate with success and legitimacy.
U.S. Soccer recently announced that it will be launching a girls' development academy program, starting in the fall of 2017. Currently, almost every NWSL team has created some sort of youth league affiliation, either with a local youth soccer club partnership, such as the Washington Spirit and Vienna Youth Soccer, or teams like the Boston Breakers or Chicago Red Stars, who have their own academies.
The goal with the announcement from U.S. Soccer is to bring the level of quality for the girls' academies up to par with the boys, and give league teams the same opportunity to create funnels from their academies directly into the U-level teams that U.S. Soccer will be producing. In the meantime, the NWSL needs to look towards this new partnership opportunity by developing strategic planning programs to target inner city and under-represented minority youths and pull them into these training academies. The long-term success of the NWSL remains with growing not only the size, but the demographic of the fan base.
We all know that part of the USWNT's success this year and their increasing popularity has been by the amount of air time they have received on the national sports networks. Within the past few years, MLS has managed to increase its airtime with national market partnerships through major networks, which has created lucrative licensing deals but has also increased the sport's visibility. So, when the NWSL announced in June of 2015 that FOX Sports would carry six of the league's games and the final, there was cause for optimism. But ratings for the games was lackluster and so concerns over whether or not FOX Sports will step up to the plate for the 2016 season are genuinely at issue, since nothing has been announced and there is no current, formal deal in place.
The NWSL needs to double down and get a deal in place and at the local level, teams like the Orlando Pride need to leverage their local market television relationships into regional and national coverage for away games.
Engage the Fan Base
If you are trying to compare apples to apples, there is no way to compare MLSSoccer.com to NWSLSoccer.com. The site is not user-friendly, it's not sleek and modern feeling, and as a WoSo enthusiast and writer, finding stats is cause for me to pull my hair out. The social media presence is there, but it's taken for granted that fans will read the new daily content and move on.
There needs to be more. MLS has done a fantastic job with slick videos and quick little bio clips and snapshots of life off the pitch. Every girl's favorite soccer girl, Rachel Bonnetta, could be replicated in the NWSL, with segments highlighting the clubs and creating rivalries by providing a spirit and a personality to each team and their fans.
At the club level, the Pride have not yet given any indication of what they are going to be doing to get fans to show up. MLS pushed hard to help Orlando City get off the ground but I haven't felt the same groundswell of love and attention coming from the NWSL. Given, there's a disparity in budgets and resources, but the launch of a new team for the league needs to hook fans early and keep them coming back for more.
Create International Partnerships
Because the NWSL season is so short, from April to September, and October for playoffs, there is very little time for the players to train and play, in relationship to the other professional leagues out there. And because American soccer is played as a spring/summer sport, rather than a summer/fall sport, like England, or Australia, which plays a fall/winter schedule (although, that's really their spring/ summer), there is some overlap between the leagues, making half-season appearances possible for American players down under and vice versa.
In contrast, Germany's Bundesliga Women is a nine-month season, commencing in August and running until May, tracking closely with the men. Playing such a short season, as well as the schedule overlapping with the better-established and recognized international leagues, makes player exchanges hard. Recruiting talent from Central and South America, adding more slots for international players, and allowing for a better trading relationship between international clubs, would allow NWSL players to get exposure to other leagues while allowing NWSL fans to get a broader world view of the sport. It would also be another great opportunity to bring some more diverse talent into the league and strengthen the base.
So, NWSL, are you up for the challenge? These are a few things that I'd like to see put on the list for advancing this league in 2016. And as for the Orlando Pride, now is the time to capitalize on everything that Orlando City has built. Seize the opportunities presented by MLS and piggyback on that success. The most important thing to remember is that women's soccer will grow more slowly than the men's, but there is no reason that with the few suggestions above that the growth cannot keep pace.