In 2013, professional women’s soccer in the U.S. got its third incarnation with the launching of the National Women’s Soccer League. But there was something a little different about this league. Merritt Paulsen, owner of the MLS’ Portland Timbers, decided to throw his support behind the league by entering a team. The Portland Thorns made their debut that season, starting a trend that could result in the NWSL being the first long-lasting women’s professional soccer league in America.
While nearly all of the teams in the NWSL struggled to draw, one team rose above the rest. Of the eight teams in the league, only the Thorns averaged more than 5,000 fans per game, coming in at 13,320. Clearly there was something either about Portland or about an MLS-owned NWSL team that resonated with locals. A year later, the Houston Dynamo became the second MLS team to enter the NWSL with the Houston Dash.
Meanwhile, in Central Florida, Orlando City Founder and President Phil Rawlins had been adamant about having a professional women’s team join his men’s side. After getting the Lions launched in their inaugural MLS season in 2015, the Orlando Pride were announced and joined the NWSL for the 2016 season. The top attendance spots in the league were the Thorns, Dash, and Pride, making it obvious that having MLS clubs own NWSL teams allowed fans to connect more than ever before.
In 2017, the defending NWSL champion Western New York Flash were purchased by North Carolina FC owner Stephen Malik, moved to Cary, and renamed the North Carolina Courage. Now a USL club has a team in the women’s league. While nobody has come close to matching the incredible attendance numbers in Portland, the 2017 season saw the four teams associated with men’s teams leading the league in attendance.
The NWSL has become a league of the haves and the have-nots. While the MLS-shared owners have the finances and resources to fully support the women’s sides, the solely owned NWSL teams are struggling to survive. The 2017 season was the last for two of those teams, with FC Kansas City and the Boston Breakers ceasing operations prior to the 2018 season. The departure of the two teams displayed the struggles of the NWSL teams that lack shared ownership with an MLS team.
Two major differences between the MLS owners and NWSL-only owners is their financial capital and the resources they already own. While some NWSL teams play in small venues that are inadequate for professionals, the MLS-owned teams play in well-built and maintained stadiums. This has two impacts as the teams are able to draw more talented players to play in such venues and are likely to draw bigger crowds due to the greater perception of playing in a beautiful stadium.
Given the demand to own an MLS team, the league is able to develop stricter criteria for ownership than the NWSL. This has resulted in MLS owners trending much wealthier than their NWSL-only counterparts. The financial capital of these owners helps to stabilize the league and to draw bigger names as, eventually, they will be able to pay more money for such players.
While the owners’ wealth and facilities separate the two, another big difference is the market. MLS has grown immensely over the years and continues to do so. It’s difficult to market a women’s professional team, no matter the sport or level. You inevitably end up drawing families with young kids but the league has struggled in some areas to draw a loyal fan base. When the NWSL team is a part of an MLS club, it’s easy to market the team to that MLS club’s existing fan base, and some fans will cross over in loyalty to the MLS club they support.
The MLS-owned NWSL teams have unquestionably improved the league from both a stability and professionalism standpoint. The addition of the Utah Royals into the league will only increase that. If the Royals are successful like the Thorns and Pride, as is expected, it could result in more MLS owners looking to invest in the young league — already there are rumors of teams potentially heading to Los Angeles and Vancouver. That can only be good for the NWSL and women’s soccer in America moving forward.