The days of wondering whether America’s women’s professional soccer league will survive are over. The always projected, but never fully realized, World Cup bump was actually real in 2019. The United States Women’s National Team’s success boosted NWSL attendance, attracted a highly-engaged national sponsor in Budweiser and gave owners confidence that thousands of new fans are here to stay.
NWSL’s successes also turned prospective new owners onto the league’s commercial viability. NWSL has attracted consistent expansion interest throughout its seven-year existence, but rarely from American soccer’s most successful and ambitious organizations. Now, men’s clubs with brand new urban stadiums like Louisville and Sacramento are on the verge of adding pro women’s teams, and other clubs are gauging whether they can expand into NWSL in the future.
“The question is going to be, is this a bounce where there’s a comedown, or is it going to be a sustained lift? I’m hopeful that this time it can be more of a sustained lift,” Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson says about the impact the last World Cup could have on NWSL going forward.
These big developments have happened at the same time that U.S. Soccer’s agreement to operate the league is winding down. U.S Soccer has had final say on all league matters since NWSL’s inception, but now NWSL owners are negotiating with USSF on terms that will allow them to take over for themselves.
NWSL owners won’t wait for USSF approval to plan for aggressive growth, however. The league’s board voted Monday to approve measures that would increase the salary cap, minimum salary and permitted assistance to players for things like cars and housing. NWSL will also have multiple-year contracts for the first time. These rule changes, after seven years of risk-averse management, suggest the league believes it finally has stable footing.
The league has also created an allocation fund to sign marquee players similar to Major League Soccer’s Targeted Allocation Money. The fund should help the league keep its non-American stars, while attracting some new ones, too.
NWSL released the details of the new rules on Friday. The salary cap has been raised by 20 percent, while teams can buy up to $300,000 in allocation money to spend on stars whose contracts exceed the new $50,000 per year maximum.
Agreeing to accept expansion bids and spend more money on players is just the beginning for NWSL owners.
“I think in 10 years, NWSL can be the dominant women’s sports platform in the world,” Washington Spirit owner Steve Baldwin says. “I have great respect for the WNBA, there are a lot of things we can learn from them, but I believe we have the upside to surpass them.”
With NWSL finally on even ground, it can start to think big about where it wants to go. But there are going to be significant growing pains in the first year of the league’s growth phase. A better NWSL is coming, but with progress will come challenges the league has never faced before.
Can NWSL retain and attract superstars?
The big story of the NWSL offseason will be the future of two-time MVP and all-time leading scorer Sam Kerr. Under 2019 rules, the Chicago Red Stars could only pay her $46,000 per year, not counting some permitted benefits. She has made up for lost earnings relative to what she’d make in Europe by spending American winters playing in Australia, where she’s well-compensated. But the W-League says it doesn’t expect her back this season, accelerating rumors that Kerr is heading to Europe. She has been heavily linked to Chelsea.
Owners have spent months brainstorming ways to make competitive offers to players like Kerr, and other international stars who are interested in playing in NWSL but aren’t willing to take a pay cut, and hope the new allocation money rules will allow them to compete for the best players in the global marketplace.
“Our country needs to understand the changes that are being made in the competitive landscape of women’s soccer throughout the world,” Baldwin says. “You have federations in Europe who are putting tons of money into their women’s programs. You have big clubs that are putting money into their women’s programs. And you have major corporate sponsors like Barclays that are making significant investments into the women’s leagues in Europe. We, as a league, have to get out ahead of that.”
NWSL teams have struggled to keep superstars, even if they’d prefer to play in America, because big European clubs like Olympique Lyonnais have been able to pay players well into the six-figures. The Portland Thorns would have liked to keep France star Amandine Henry, but were unable to match Lyon’s offer when she returned to the French club in 2018.
“We had Henry here and we had the ability to be pretty creative within league rules, because we’ve got sponsorship capabilities, Nike was helpful when she came out here,” Paulson says. “But when you have clubs around the world that want to throw more money at players like her, Sam Kerr, Kim Little, people like that, it’s a challenge.”
NWSL is also going to need to fight for the signature of Florida State star Deyna Castellanos, perhaps the most famous and marketable player to ever come out of college soccer. Castellanos was a finalist for the FIFA Puskas Award for best goal and FIFA Ballon d’Or for best player following her exploits at the Under-20 World Cup.
Castellanos has 1.2 million followers on Instagram and a dedicated Spanish-speaking fanbase. From a marketing perspective, she’s easily the most important international player NWSL has ever had the chance to sign. She’s also an entertaining and productive forward who will make her team better and win over fans from day one.
Under current rules, Castellanos can only enter the league through the NWSL college draft, giving her no control over where she plays. In 2019, she would have also been paid on the lower end of the league salary range, with the previous minimum salary being $16,538. She had little incentive to consider NWSL under previous rules when she could earn a six-figure salary in Europe. Under new rules, a team could offer her a salary of up to $350,000.
Kerr and Castellanos present an immediate need for league action, and there will be more players like them in the future. As European clubs and federations increase their investment in the game, competition for star players will become fierce, and NWSL will have to keep pace. By the end of Europe’s January transfer window, we’ll know how successful owners were in their first attempt to fight for the world’s best international players.
Rapid expansion is coming
Equalizer’s Dan Lauletta has reported that Sacramento is set to enter NWSL for the 2020 season. Ahead of the NWSL Championship, league president Amanda Duffy confirmed that the league is deep in talks to get that deal done soon.
“We understand the timing for 2020 is imminent, given the things that need to happen in preparation for the 2020 season,” Duffy told reporters. “So we recognize from a calendar standpoint, as soon as possible is what we need to do. We’re engaged in the ongoing process, and hope for more news soon.”
Louisville has already been announced as an expansion team for 2021, and the league plans to add another expansion franchise that season to bring it up to 12 teams. Two more teams are being lined up for 2022.
Owners all seem to be on the same page on this expansion timeline. “In my personal opinion, it’s one next year, two the year after that, and two the year after that,” says North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik.
Reign FC owner Bill Predmore agrees. “I’d like to move forward but not too quickly, so I’d be pretty comfortable with one coming in next year, I could potentially see two coming in the next year, and two the following year,” he says. “But I would not be enthusiastic about moving any more quickly than I just described, or ever bringing in more than two teams in one season.”
Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl has reported that Cincinnati, Austin, and LAFC are all interested in starting NWSL expansion teams. Crucially, those organizations all have, or are building new facilities that they control, a quality that the NWSL prioritizes among expansion candidates.
Paulson is on the league’s expansion committee and has spent much of this year seeking out potential NWSL franchises. Most of them already have men’s teams, because that’s who has control of good facilities.
“I’m actively recruiting people that I think can be successful,” Paulson says. “It’s not about, you can’t be an independent and do this, but unequivocally it’s a lot more difficult to be a professional soccer owner if you’re doing it without control of facilities. They have an additional set of challenges.”
When asked if there would be any ownership changes or relocations for 2020, Duffy says, “we anticipate for all of our current teams to be participating in the 2020 season.” But regular changes are normal for a league as young as NWSL.
“If you look objectively at the last few years of history, you can’t assume that’s just adding five teams,” Paulson says about the changing makeup of the league. “There could be some change in existing teams as well. Hopefully not, but that’s certainly what happened.”
NWSL may change rapidly over the next three years, but ownership appears to be as stable as it has ever been. And as the league grows, it will have the opportunity to assert itself as the sport’s preeminent league.
Fixing front office failures
From the outside, NWSL has looked disorganized this year, with the recent league awards debacle being the most visible example. Less than two months before the start of the 2019 season, the league terminated its partnership with A&E Networks, which had an equity stake in NWSL and operated NWSL Media, the league’s media and marketing arm. Previously, one NWSL game a week was broadcast on Lifetime, an A&E property.
The league’s website and social media improved considerably under NWSL Media. The graphics on broadcasts looked much more professional, and the excellent commentary team of Jenn Hildreth, Aly Wagner and Dalen Cuff called the games. But Lifetime did not attract much of an audience, and NWSL Media struggled on the marketing front.
“I don’t want to point fingers at Lifetime, but we had some big hopes there,” Paulson says. “There were some things that were successful and some things that weren’t, but when Lifetime ran the staff at NWSL Media, we didn’t do any national sponsorship deals at that time.”
NWSL’s front office has been short-staffed since the partnership ended. Many of those who worked for the league in A&E’s offices moved on, and it didn’t make sense for U.S. Soccer to backfill a large number of positions that could be eliminated by new management.
The league hasn’t finalized its deal to take over from U.S. Soccer yet, but it is already making moves to improve its marketing reach. NWSL recently announced it has hired sports marketing company Octagon to help it value and sell its properties. Per the league’s release:
Octagon will provide comprehensive media rights valuation, sales strategy services, and work directly with NWSL executives to secure and amplify new media distribution opportunities. In addition, Octagon’s marketing division will assist the league with brand marketing, asset development, sponsorship valuation, and fan engagement insights to help generate increases in overall reach and revenue for the league and its teams.
NWSL is also undertaking a search for a new commissioner, and Duffy, the current league president, is expected to be a candidate for that position. The league has not had a commissioner since Jeff Plush resigned in 2017.
But before NWSL owners can make big, structural changes to the league office, it has to finalize the deal to take over operations from U.S. Soccer. That’s complicated, because even though the owners are willing to take on more risk, they still rely on U.S. Soccer as a financial and organizational partner.
“Managing the league ultimately would be positive,” Paulson says. “But it’s essential that U.S. Soccer remains heavily invested, in every sense of the word, in this league. For our health and sustained success, we need them as a partner. I can’t state that emphatically enough.”
“I always viewed our objectives as 85-90 percent overlapping,” Predmore adds. “We’ve got to look at the big picture, and ultimately we all want the same thing. Both of us want women’s professional soccer to be successful.”
Owners are optimistic about coming to an agreement with U.S. Soccer soon, but time is running out for them to do so in time to finalize Sacramento’s expansion bid, implement new rules, and hire key staff in time to have a smooth 2020 season. Any setbacks would only be short-term ones, however. NWSL is confident it has found the backing for long term sustainability.
How does everyone make money?
After years of struggling to find big national partners, NWSL finally hit a breakthrough during the World Cup. Budweiser signed on, and has gone above and beyond the league’s wildest dreams for a sponsor. The company recently invited every team’s business manager to its headquarters in St. Louis to talk about how they can all make more money for each other. Following that meeting, Budweiser is now actively helping to recruit more advertisers.
“They’re bringing a supporters’ mentality,” Malik says. “Not just in the way they’re supporting the league, but in reaching out and working with supporters’ groups, encouraging others to get involved. It’s a great team to work with and can create additional opportunities.”
When asked why he thinks the league struggled to attract national sponsors in the past, Baldwin says that the NWSL undersold itself.
“We have the best women’s soccer product in the world and we need to sell it as such,” he says. “I don’t think we should be bashful at all about pounding our chest about the excellence of the product. Shame on us, shame on ownership, if we can’t sell the excellence that resides in our league, because in our hands is the best product in the world.”
You might recall last year’s #PassTheBall campaign, which essentially presented NWSL as a charity, rather than a world-class sports competition. The people behind that messaging no longer work with the league.
As Baldwin puts it, “we have a Rolls Royce product that has been sold as a 10-year-old car on a used car lot.” He adds, “I think we’re on a path where the league is getting much better on the sales front. I know you’re going to see more deals happening.”
But increasing revenue for NWSL clubs isn’t just about attracting big, league-wide sponsors. Teams have started to hire more and better local salespeople. That may help team revenues as much as big advertisers.
“You’ve got to remember that our team is a nine-team league today, which is not much of a national footprint,” Paulson says. “There’s been a sense that some people had that the panacea for all of us is national sponsorships and lucrative TV deals. But the reality is, with our footprint today, it has to start with local business.”
Teams have started to realize they need to spend money to make money. “They need the right staff for it, first and foremost,” Paulson says. “It’s a bigger conversation than ticket sales or sponsorships, it’s about ramping up and investing in your front office staff. To have a successful local sponsorship business, you need a staff with a track record as successful sales people.”
More teams appear to understand the necessity of a strong local sales business than ever before. That business requires a large up-front investment, but the eventual payoff is more sponsors, more ticket sales, and then, hopefully, higher player salaries.
When is a CBA coming?
The NWSLPA was founded last season, and their union was voluntarily recognized by the league. However, the players have not yet entered into collective bargaining with the league.
“Part of our understanding when they voluntarily recognized us was that we would hold off on that process, which is very non-traditional,” says NWSLPA executive director Yael Averbuch. “But we understood that the league is short staffed, and that [collective bargaining] takes time, resources and a lot of bandwidth.”
Players will once again head into next season without a CBA. They’re being patient, knowing that 2020 is a transitional year for the league office, but they’re also looking forward to getting into negotiations.
“I think the process will not just be beneficial to the players, but to the league as well,” Averbuch says. “In a CBA, you can help to clarify a lot of contractual procedures, and right now there are a lot of rules that aren’t clear. That’s a process that I think will solidify a lot of rules and create standards across clubs that will take the league to the next level.”
Right now, U.S. Soccer has minimum standards that professional clubs need to meet to be allowed to operate. However, some clubs have much better facilities and player amenities than others. These differences — even more than the ability to win a championship or style of play — have led players to request trades or leave the league in the past.
Averbuch says the players are focused much more on enforcing consistent standards across all teams than they are on increasing wages. She singled out maternity support, saying, “right now it’s difficult for players.”
”Playing as a professional athlete and being a mother should be a very feasible thing for any of these women to do, and right now I think it’s difficult.”
Players also want longer guaranteed contracts or other creative solutions that would allow more players to stay put with one team for an extended period of time.
“What we’re looking for is to increase stability in the lives of the players,” Averbuch says. “We’d like contracts to put a little bit more onus on the clubs to work to develop players so it’s not so easy to release them. What happens then is that clubs think more about who they sign. That will also allow players to create a home base somewhere. The players can connect to their communities more and develop second sources of income. It will save a lot of economic, but also emotional toll. Moving is detrimental for a lot of reasons.”
She adds, “some other players have been on the move constantly, and that’s just professional sports. We’re not going to change the landscape of how professional sports operates. But the more players we can have who we think of as part of the fabric of their community, that’s what we should be trying to replicate in as many markets as possible.”
To this point in time, players and owners have had a good relationship, and appear to share the same goals for the league. But until CBA negotiations get going, we can’t get a serious sense of where their differences lie. In any event, this can is being kicked a year down the road.
We eff with the vision, let’s build fam
NWSL’s owners aren’t just thinking about stable expansion teams, a handful of new sponsors and adequate compensation for players. They think this past World Cup and NWSL season has proven that they have a product they can take to a level that women’s sports hasn’t seen before.
“To suggest what [the salary cap] should be, in some ways I view that as putting an artificial limit on it,” says Baldwin. “I want to see the women make as much as they can make. I have the view that it’s dependent on ownership and the league to have a transformation in our revenue to drive the economics for the players.”
Malik shared a similar sentiment. “I’d like to see us be in a situation like the men, where there’s a transfer market and women can make as much as possible,” he says.
The Thorns are already profitable and able to spend like the European giants, but Paulson is still focused on the league and what can be done to make the league’s bigger ideas possible. “I’m focused on preserving our status as the best league in the world and solidifying our foundation to make sure the league is stable,” Paulson says, adding that he wants “to make sure we’re able to add more expansion teams, better broadcast deals, and really get this league on firm footing to make sure it’s a powerhouse for years to come.”
If the league pulls off what Paulson describes over the next couple of years, NWSL could expand well beyond the currently planned 14 teams.
“I’d imagine there’s somewhere between 20 and 30 markets that would be appropriate for an NWSL team,” Predmore says. “That would be a super ambitious objective, but I don’t think it’s crazy.
”My guess is if you went back a little more than 10 years ago with MLS and somebody said we’d be adding team No. 30 and it’s going to be a $250 million expansion fee, people would have thought you were crazy. MLS has demonstrated that if you’ve got a vision, a leader like Don Garber who has been able to execute against that vision, anything is possible.”
American soccer, as a business, is always discussed in extreme terms. When the United States does better than expected in the men’s World Cup or wins the women’s World Cup, national sports media asks if soccer in America is ready to EXPLODE?! When a national team fails or a club folds, those same people ask if soccer can ever truly make it in America.
Both questions are stupid. There’s never an explosion, and soccer already has made it in America. Two women’s leagues have shuttered, and MLS contracted in 2001, but those were minor dips in what has been slow, but fairly consistent growth for American soccer since the 1994 men’s World Cup. Everyone involved in the business of the game understands this. No one is sweating mismanagement of individual teams, nor are they sitting around hoping for a sudden boom in popularity.
But the stakeholders of NWSL believe that they have arrived at a pivotal and unique moment in which rapid growth is possible. A full-time, well-paying, money-making women’s sports league is within reach. They just have to grab it.