By Laura Pappano
It’s draft day for the National Women’s Soccer League. Don’t bother turning on your TV or tuning into sports radio. Don’t expect NFL-style high drama.
Sure, there is reason to be nervous about yet another patched-together and rolled-out iteration of women’s pro soccer following failed WUSA and WPS efforts.
But before you dismiss the NWSL as another desperate run at an elusive dream, recognize that they are doing some things very right. Unlike the cliché of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football – failing to recognize that Lucy will always snatch it away – there is a learning curve here that is being honored.
A few observations:
1. It takes time to build an audience. The launch of WUSA on the heels of the spectacular 1999 World Cup victory mistook the groundswell of news coverage and excitement as evidence that women’s pro soccer had a huge audience that wasn’t being served. There is an audience, but it takes time to identify, reach, and commit them to become regular fans. WPS may have folded, but in many places play carried on. It may finally be the right moment: People have at last gotten used to the idea of a women’s pro soccer league sticking around.
2. Defining the brand – on fewer $$. As a corollary to the above point, WUSA started big with lots of cash, gimmicks, and giveaways (I won a refrigerator at a Breaker’s game). WPS downsized venues and simplified, but still dreamed of big-time corporate dollars (and leaned on that model). We have learned that soccer can matter without foam fingers and pre-game bouncy castles, but it does gain from the high-touch of small venues and players who sign autographs and greet fans. Let the on-field product lead.
3. You need star players. Whether it’s Broadway or Jeld-Wen Field, fans come to see talent they know. The fact that 55 National Team Players (including all 18 U.S. Gold Medalists) were allocated to the eight teams is critical. That this allocation happened ahead of the draft means that every market will have players who are a draw (granted, some more than others). This is where good media management will matter: teams that can tell the story and build public interest in rising talent will win fans.
4. Financial structure. This is where the NWSL is playing an essential role, not only for pro soccer, but also for women’s pro sports. It remains unclear in America what an independent, sustainable financial blueprint looks like for women’s pro sports. We know that – post WUSA – corporate dollars are scarce (even for the WNBA). We know (thanks to WPS) that individual owners with too much power can prove catastrophic. Aligning the financial stability of the league with natural allies – in this case governmental soccer federations of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada who need to develop players for their national teams – makes great sense. This synergistic approach may expand fan interest in international competition. The NWSL lets private and corporate sponsorship – which we learned can be fickle – to bear some, not all, of the weight of this developing league. By definition, that’s a more realistic and stable design.