Around the world, women’s club soccer has had trouble over the years attracting an audience. While the issue in many countries is a lack of investment in the women’s game, even the United States, the foremost advocate of women’s soccer, has struggled to keep professional women’s leagues afloat. It looked as though the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was finally going to break that barrier but a new, unforeseen problem has arisen.
In 2000, the U.S. Soccer Federation launched a fully professional women’s soccer league called the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). Featuring eight teams located on the east and west coasts of the country, the league lasted nearly three seasons. However, low attendance figures and television ratings forced the league to suspend play near the end of the 2003 season.
The gap left by the absence of a professional women’s soccer league in the United States was filled by Women’s Professional Soccer. This time with seven teams and reaching the central part of the country in Missouri and Illinois, the hope was to create a sustainable league. With the success in popularity of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the subsequent increase in attendance, it appeared as though this would be the league that would launch women’s professional soccer in America. But internal struggles damaged all the progress and the league folded in 2012 after just three seasons.
Shortly after WPS folded, a new league was started, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
Learning from the mistakes of the past, the NWSL became the first women’s professional soccer league to reach its fourth season. Aiding in this goal was ownership of some of the teams by MLS clubs. This would allow the women’s teams much greater resources than previously available.
The first three MLS teams to field women’s teams in the NWSL were the Portland Timbers (Portland Thorns), the Houston Dynamo (Houston Dash), and Orlando City (Orlando Pride). The ownership plan appears to work, with all three teams leading the league in attendance in 2016 and currently sitting in three of the top four spots in attendance this season. But while many of the league’s decisions have been successful, one deal has gone horribly wrong.
Fans want to be able to support their team during every game. No matter when or where they play, they want to be able to watch the games on television or online if they are not able to attend, building a connection with the team. With this in mind, the league made a deal with YouTube to air its games for the 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons. They even had a deal with FOX to air games nationally on television.
For the league’s fifth season, the NWSL looked to expand further on its success. Having already lasted longer than its two predecessors, the league struck a three-year deal with Lifetime to air a game each week. Furthermore, the league came to an agreement with the Verizon go90 app to stream all non-televised league games online. NWSL fans would now be able to watch all of the league’s games.
If that sounded too good to be true, that’s because it was. While people are used to streaming live events on YouTube, including USL games, most people had never used go90. If somebody was already on the fence about watching women’s soccer, this may have turned them off. To make matters worse, the app has had nothing but problems and caused several complaints, even from current and former players and coaches.
Any chance of this GO90 app wanting to work?? Jesus.....— Kaylyn Kyle (@KaylynKyle) May 14, 2017
These issues are likely to have a serious negative effect on the NWSL as a whole, including the Orlando Pride. Since Orlando City’s introduction in 2011 and ascension into MLS in 2015, Central Florida has become crazy about professional soccer. The Lions are one of the best supported teams in the league and the Pride, launching for the 2016 season, have followed suit.
The Pride got their share of the go90 streaming problems yesterday when the app and website continued to display a message that the game would begin soon, despite kickoff having already occurred. It then told viewers that they were experiencing technical difficulties. By the time the NWSL lifted its geo-block — allowing domestic fans to see the game on the league website, which is how overseas viewers access the games — the first half was over. Initial problems with any new venture are to be expected, but this is not something that should be occurring in the week’s fifth season.
The Pride, and the NWSL in general, are still working hard to draw a following among the general public. While the Pride have seen strong attendance figures, they still have a long way to go to come anywhere close to what the MLS team draws. If there were any potential fans of Orlando City’s women’s team tuning in yesterday, they may have been lost assuming the game they tuned in to watch was not worth the effort of searching for. Beyond Orlando, many wanted to tune in to see the current league-leading North Carolina Courage, but were frustrated in their efforts.
With the popularity of the Lions, the future for the Pride appears to be sky high but that is only if fans have access to games. Most of the 18,000 Orlando City season ticket holders are unlikely to purchase Pride season tickets as well as it would take a tremendous time and financial commitment, but a good percentage are likely to attend some games each year. However, if they are unable to watch the remainder of the games in any way, they are unlikely to care about the team.
The obvious remedy to this problem is to find a way to nix the go90 deal and return to the dependable YouTube which fans are used to using and many already are for Orlando City B games. Otherwise, go90 must solve these issues so fans can easily watch NWSL games. Failure to fix these streaming problems as we reach the summer months will result in not just struggles for even the most popular teams, but likely the failure of yet another women’s professional soccer league in the United States.