Despite a disappointing year in terms of results, the Orlando Pride remains one of the most well supported women’s teams in the world. Although stadium attendance is only at an average of 5,337 per game, below the 7,043 National Women’s Soccer League average (largely driven up by Portland) but slightly better than last season, the team still boasts a significant advantage when it comes to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with a combined total of 453,452 fans.
For context, that’s more than four times that of the reigning champions, the North Carolina Courage, and 23.3% of the total combined followers between all nine NWSL teams. The fan base is far reaching, largely thanks to its marketable global stars. Brazilian legend Marta is one of the game’s most recognizable faces, having won World Player of the Year six times, and Alex Morgan was named as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People this year.
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup saw record-breaking viewership and has heralded unprecedented commercial deals with sponsors looking to cash in on the latest wave of support. The NWSL was at the center of focus as the United States Women’s National Team, a 23-player roster made entirely of NWSL players, retained the title. In total, 58 NWSL players, including eight Pride players, were called up to World Cup rosters — more than any other league in the world. It seems obvious that the league would do everything within its power to harness the interest these star athletes have earned and convert it into league and club support, both domestically and abroad. But as the NWSL attempts to jostle for position as the premier women’s soccer league in the world, it could have instead done the complete opposite and decimated the league’s international viewership, appeal, and accessibility.
The global nature of the NWSL, and in particular the Pride’s fan base, was none-more obvious than when the NWSL’s new deal with ESPN began on Aug. 21, meaning Orlando’s season trip to Chicago was unexpectedly placed behind a paywall. International viewers who had tuned in at kickoff expecting to find the usual free-to-access stream on the NWSL website were instead met by a short statement lacking much by way of information or instruction, failing to successfully reroute viewers to where the game was now being shown. While U.S. users continued to have access for free via Yahoo, international viewers flocked to social media to voice their grievances about the convoluted change of availability. Those who did manage to work out that matches now had to be accessed by either TSN in Canada and the ESPN Player elsewhere, were equally unimpressed.
What the NWSL has failed to realize is the incredibly low reach these premium subscription services have, not least among their target audience. In the United Kingdom, for example, the ESPN Player subscription is available for £10 a month and offers “1000s of live sporting events,” which sounds like a fair deal. Dig deeper, however, and you find the events on offer are solely U.S. college sports of little interest to the NWSL’s target demographic.
A selection of ESPN’s digital programming is already available via BT Sport’s ESPN channel — a channel available to those with a BT Sport subscription, one of the most popular services in the UK that carries Premier League games among other things. However, BT’s ESPN channel only draws an audience share of around 0.02%. It seems to be a mistake for the NWSL to farm its international coverage to a subscription service that draws microscopic levels of interest among those it is already available to, never mind anyone now being forced to subscribe.
Rather than this, there are two logical ways of distributing games to a wider audience. If the NWSL was interested in drawing from the existing soccer fan demographic, it would have been best positioned to align itself with pre-existing soccer broadcasters popular among the sport’s fans, not a U.S. college sports network that doesn’t appear on anyone’s radar. If it were aiming at its already existing women’s soccer fan base, then the NWSL would have been best served to keep it in-house and generate revenue by putting its own website streams behind a paywall, offering better value single-game, single-team, or full-scale season passes instead of forcing its fans into subscribing to a premium subscription service they have absolutely no other use for and therefore see no value in subscribing to.
Previously, the NWSL had phoned it in by being the only globally available women’s soccer league, acting as a market leader by way of monopoly. It now faces significant competition from Europe. The best example of this is the newly-launched FA WSL Player, a free-to-stream service available to both domestic UK and international audiences (minus the select games televised on BT Sport, which are are geoblocked in the UK). Much of the World Cup rhetoric surrounded the increased competition from European teams on the pitch but it is also being translated into investment at the club level. England’s FA WSL saw a new Barclays title sponsorship following a landmark multi-million pound investment — money that has gone into developing the new service. The production value on opening weekend seemed high with both televised and non-televised games carrying good quality camera work, commentary, and halftime segments. There was also nothing in the way of refereeing controversy on opening weekend, something that has continued to plague the NWSL to the ire of players, managers, and fans alike.
Interest in the English league is now at an all-time high, riding the coattails of the World Cup. Following last year’s restructure, all WSL teams are required to be fully professional and some FA Women’s Championship teams have also opted to turn pro in pursuit of promotion to the increasingly-plentiful WSL. A new attendance record of 31,213 was set during the weekend’s Manchester derby, obliterating the previous 5,265 record helped by the two clubs’ loyal fan bases and vast brand recognition — yet another boost to the FA WSL’s profile that the NWSL cannot compete with on a global, nor a domestic U.S. stage.
How many Americans have heard of the Orlando Pride compared to Manchester United? In fact, all of the WSL teams this year are affiliates of men’s teams in the top two tiers of English football and stand to gain from the name recognition, fan loyalty, and tribalism that come with it, not to mention the facilities and marketing. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, the two newly promoted teams, are already proving they can be competitive against two of last season’s top three. With interest at the bottom generated by the threat of relegation (what interest have Sky Blue and the Pride been generating this last month?), two cups to contest, the glamour of continental competition, and a schedule that accommodates for international breaks, England’s rapidly growing women’s league and accompanying infrastructure is entering the 2019–2020 season with an aggressive bid for success.
Many of Europe’s giants have opened offices in North America to focus on growing their brands and the continued interest of the annual International Champions Cup, which has now featured three European women’s teams in each of the last two editions, shows no signs of slowing down. All of this adds up to what should be considered a warning shot to the still commissionerless and stagnating NWSL, which hasn’t made the same level of jump its European counterparts have made despite boasting the biggest selection of the world’s best talent.