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Orlando Pride’s USWNT Members Using World Cup Movement to Increase NWSL Attendance

Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, and Alex Morgan continue to work towards change.

Winner’s Portraits: Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

The Orlando Pride welcomed back its international stars last week. All nine Pride players who were part of the World Cup were honored before the game against Sky Blue FC. They were all given flowers, Marta was awarded a ball for breaking the record for most goals in World Cup history — men’s or women’s — and Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger, and Ashlyn Harris were given World Cup championship posters.

Players left for their national team camps as early as May 5, and last Saturday was the first time that they were all available although Morgan did not play as she was resting her knee. The United States players returned on July 16 after winning the World Cup. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings gave the players keys to the city as fans packed the downtown restaurant Lions Pride to welcome back the star players.

“It was great,” Morgan said after training on July 17. “I got in Monday night, so it was less than 24 hours later to put that together by Orlando. To have so many fans show up, to get the key to the city, and our own Women’s World Champions Day yesterday, as proclaimed by the county mayor, is pretty great. Just to celebrate the success with our fans was great. We’ve been waiting for that for a long time.”

The U.S. Women’s National Team won its fourth World Cup and defended its title for the first time in history. It was a tremendous moment, for sure, but the win means so much more to the players than just another world championship.

Harris said that the USWNT players are “trying to create a movement.” That was seen from players during and after the World Cup. From the fight for equal pay to Megan Rapinoe’s “we have to be better” speech, to everything in between and everything that still continues to happen, the U.S. players are creating change.

“This team is not just standing for people that look like us but also different walks of life,” Harris said. “We’re fighting for something much bigger than ourselves and much bigger than our team. That’s the legacy we’re leaving behind. Did we play in an unbelievable tournament? Yes. But the change we are creating off the field is so much bigger than a gold trophy.”

One of the big things that Harris mentioned was money. In 2019, National Women’s Soccer League teams have a salary cap of $421,500. The league minimum player salary is $16,538 with the maximum at $46,200. These numbers might seem low — and they without a doubt are — but it’s a significant increase from last season.

It is difficult to compare NWSL and MLS salaries for many reasons. MLS is better established, has a lot more stipulations, and the league as a whole has much more money invested into it. Then, add in allocation money and it gets even more confusing. However, the MLS club salary budget is $4.24 million. Players on senior contracts have a minimum salary of $70,250 and players on a reserve contract have a minimum of $56,250.

While money is one issue the NWSL faces, Krieger said that another issue is getting the right facilities. The league needs to provide more for the players, getting the athletes everything they need so their focus can be playing the game. She said the goal should be to make the players happy so that more players will want to put in the work. This will also increase the overall level of play and higher quality players are more likely to come play in the NWSL.

Both Orlando head coaches, James O’Connor and Marc Skinner, see the impact that this tournament has had already and are excited about what it means for the future of the sport. In particular, the coaches know that younger girls will be motivated and inspired.

“I think it’s fantastic, it’s incredible, that the women have been able to go and win the World Cup again,” O’Connor said before Orlando City training on July 9. “I think in regard to the U.S., I think it inspires so many young children, even my own daughter. I think she’s been sort of enthralled by the Women’s World Cup. What it does, I would say, is give a shot in the arm to all the children, that they have role models to aspire to. But then I think the responsibility falls on U.S. Soccer and the league [NWSL] to be able to develop the league and try to make sure that’s going in the direction that it needs to.”

Skinner had similar thoughts on what the victory means, highlighting the effect that it has on kids.

“There was one video on Twitter, and his young daughter he couldn’t get to play football,” said Skinner. “And, all of a sudden, he’s filming her out of a window and because of the U.S. team she’s out kicking a soccer ball. And that for me is exactly why I got into the game. Exactly why I have a young daughter who could be inspired by basically England and the U.S. And, for me, that’s the biggest context. Not just the fans coming through the door. We want you to come and see these wonderful people, but how many of that audience will come and be a part of that in the future? That’s bigger than soccer.”

It is not just the U.S. players who are feeling this way, either. After Brazil got eliminated from the tournament, Marta gave one of the most memorable speeches in the World Cup, talking to the next generation and demanding more from them to grow the women’s game.

The impact can clearly be seen throughout the NWSL. Last weekend, the Pride brought in the biggest crowd since the 2017 home opener — 9,415. That’s almost 6,000 more fans than the previous home match. The club did a lot to promote the game, but it would not have been possible without the World Cup and the return of the international players.

“It was amazing,” said Claire Emslie after her Pride debut. “Even watching from the sidelines, just seeing the atmosphere. The crowd was incredible, and the atmosphere was incredible. I think the girls, you can tell they’ve been working really hard. It was a good hustle first half and just excited to get on the pitch with the girls and excited to get a win.”

The World Cup is now over, and the focus is now all on league play. The NWSL seemed to acknowledge this and signed a few new partnerships. ESPN is broadcasting 14 games this season after Lifetime canceled its television deal before the season. Budweiser also became the league’s first-ever beer sponsorship.

This has brought in amazing crowds all over the league, and Skinner knows that he needs to capitalize on this opportunity to continue to draw in big crowds.

”You literally feel alive [in front of that crowd],” Skinner said after the win against Sky Blue. “There’s only some moments in life — like when my daughter was born — you feel alive, you break out of the norm of the monotonous day. When the energy of the crowd, it drives you on that extra bit. I don’t think we’ve given them enough throughout the season to be cheerful about and come support us. I’m hopeful now that we’ve seen an increase in the attacking part of our game, then I think we will have that ability to draw that crowd in. I want these fans to be excited.”

For now, the players remain focused on the NWSL. The players are all fully invested in Skinner’s plan for the team and are encouraged by the progress that the team has made this season. The Pride are in second-to-last place in the league but are putting the work in to build a more competitive squad. They still know that what they are trying to do is bigger than soccer and can have a lasting impact in the sport.

“We’re always going to be trying to leave the game better than when we found it,” Krieger said. “I think we have done that, we will continue to do that every single day, both on and off the field, to really make sure that we get what we deserve and continue to fight for equality. Obviously, with the tournament, we put out such a great product on the field, and I think we deserve that. I know we deserve that.

“We’re going to continue that fight, and I think it’s important for everyone to jump on board because we’re riding this movement and I think we’re really breaking barriers. I think it’s pretty incredible to be a part of that. Not just a part of the 23, but also the other NWSL players who have a huge role in women’s football in our country and we just need the support.”