It’s no surprise to that attendance for most National Women’s Soccer League games remains small. While some teams have done well, and one exceptionally well, most games are attended by 3,000 fans or less, contributing to low salaries and questions of stability for the league. The future of the league may rest with the teams’ connections with youth soccer clubs.
For the most part, NWSL teams have struggled to draw fans through the gates. Of the 11 cities that have hosted teams, eight have never averaged 5,000 fans per game. The only exceptions to this statistic are the Houston Dash, Orlando Pride, and the widely successful Portland Thorns. Others, such as Sky Blue FC and the now-defunct Boston Breakers, have struggled to draw crowds of even 3,000 spectators regularly.
The general public in many areas has still not yet embraced women’s sports, instead favoring the men’s game. This has been seen with the WNBA and numerous women’s soccer leagues over the years. With that understanding, the league has to recognize its target demographic — not just who will be attending games today, but who will be attending games five years from now.
The MLS-owned NWSL teams in Portland, Houston, Orlando, and Salt Lake City have the advantage of a built-in fan base that can carry over somewhat from the MLS team. But that’s not enough to create future stability in the league as not every MLS owner will want to spend the money to operate an additional professional side. For most of these teams, and for the MLS-owned teams as well, the future of their league rests with the young girls that love the game and play in local youth soccer clubs.
Young girls lucky enough to live in an area that hosts an NWSL team have the opportunity to idolize players such as Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, or Sam Kerr. These young girls can envision themselves reaching the professional level and can dream of playing for a team in their hometown. They are also the future core fans of the league.
Drawing these players from youth clubs around the area to home games, be it through free tickets or other promotions, will only further increase their interest in the league. Of the eight current NWSL teams, four play in Major League Soccer stadiums and one plays in a 10,000-seat USL stadium. Many games see less than a quarter of the seats filled.
Right now, these youth players may or may not help the paid attendance of the league’s teams. That depends on their parents. But one day they are going to be adults with money to spend. Creating loyalty today will see them wanting to purchase tickets to watch their local NWSL club, a team they had supported since their childhood.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer for today’s attendance troubles in the NWSL. Other than Portland and occasionally Orlando, crowds are usually sparse at the league’s venues, and the marketing money simply isn’t there for many of the league’s clubs. But it’s important to remember that 15 years ago MLS crowds were sparse as well. Today, those kids that watched the lowly attended MLS games in the 1990s and early 2000s have come of age and are filling seats in record numbers. By creating loyalty through making attending NWSL games affordable and easy for youth players, MLS-sized crowds could be drawn for the women’s game. And it could be sooner than you think.