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The NWSL Has Not Caught World Cup Fever

It appears the NWSL is failing to capitalize on the tournament’s popularity.

USA v Chile: Group F - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is now officially 10 days old and two rounds deep. The sport’s showpiece event, it only comes around once every four years and is considered a vital time in the industry. The NWSL has already come into criticism for not having a television deal for the league in such a golden window, failing to capitalize on what will likely be the peak level of interest in this four-year cycle.

This year’s tournament has already seemed bigger than ever. In France, the host nation’s opener drew a TV audience of 10.65 million, an audience share of 48% and more than the 10.2 million average the men’s team drew during the 2018 group stage. England’s Auld Enemies clash with Scotland peaked at six million viewers on BBC, a new national record for women’s soccer that worked out at a 46% audience share.

Meanwhile, in America, the United States Women’s National Team’s dismantling of Thailand drew 2.26 million viewers on FOX. It was the most watched English language soccer broadcast since last year’s men’s World Cup final, albeit an 18% drop from the U.S.’s 2015 opener, a game staged in Canada with a much friendlier time difference. More staggering is the reported 525% increase from FOX in digital views.

It’s perhaps unsurprising when you consider the impact social media had at the 2018 World Cup. The most active in history, the official FIFA app topped the download charts in 128 countries last year and the 2018 World Cup in Russia garnered over 115 billion twitter impressions with a Statista survey claiming 51% of people admitted to using social media during games. It’s clearly big business, so what is the NWSL, a league that is both currently in-progress but also has 58 players currently in France (10.5% of the entire tournament with nine of those playing their club soccer in Orlando), doing to capture such a captive audience?

Here’s a cursory glance at the most basic indicator of new audience interest: Twitter followers across all nine team accounts as well as the league’s own. The NWSL account leads the way with 134,579 followers at the time of this writing. The most-followed team is the Orlando Pride at 98,588, followed by Portland at 87,828. At the other end of the scale is the Chicago Red Stars, who only made a Twitter account in March 2018 and have amassed 8,329 followers in that time. Second fewest is Utah Royals FC, the newest expansion side, which has grown its followers to 17,019, just a thousand or so shy of reigning NWSL champions North Carolina Courage. The combined total is 594,901 and does not account for any crossover.

Of that total, 1.42% of users have followed in the last 30 days with the World Cup underway. Individually, the NWSL has seen a 2.1% rise in followers in the last month while Orlando, despite seeing the biggest raw figures for any club with 1,222 new followers, has only seen a 1.24% rise, well short of Chicago’s leading 6.8%. Unsurprisingly, the Pride’s peak day was June 12, the day following Alex Morgan’s globally discussed five-goal performance. It brought 140 new followers to the @ORLPride account.

Across all of 2019 so far, the 10 accounts have collectively seen 30,701 new followers, roughly a 5.16% increase in this World Cup year. Chicago’s followers have been boosted the most, seeing a 42.6% increase since the end of 2018, with Utah Royals FC and the Courage hitting a double figure growth rate, adding 15% and 10.7% to their totals, respectively. Reign FC sits at the bottom of the pile, having only increased followers by 1.9% in 2019. The Pride have brought in 3,918 new followers, roughly a 4% increase, the fourth most of any team.

And while these numbers might sound healthy, they fail to stand up in comparison to exactly the same time frame in 2018 (January 1 to June 16). On the whole, league-wide Twitter growth has slowed down by 20%. Excluding the Red Stars account which, as mentioned before, didn’t have an account for half of that period, only two teams have managed to sustain or increase their growth rate. The North Carolina Courage are up 3.3% from 2018, while the Washington Spirit are gaining followers 26% faster than this time last year. The biggest drop off has been with Reign FC, which is down 70.2%, while the Pride are third on the list, gaining 44.5% fewer followers in a rough 2019 season. Overall, the NWSL account has slowed by 7.2%.

Obviously Twitter followers are a fairly reductive measure and affected by a multitude of other factors. But having set out to find these numbers more out of curiosity than any real hypothesis, I was surprised to see the World Cup hype hasn’t even organically translated into an increase in even general curiosity. Teams and the league should be harnessing the sport’s current popularity and translating it into a more tangible and engaged fan base.