On October 20, 2015, Orlando City SC announced it will be bringing a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) franchise to south Florida, the Orlando Pride, starting in 2016. Having refused to add expansion franchises during 2015 in light of the Women’s World Cup, Orlando Pride will be the first NWSL expansion team for next season (cute name, too – OCSC are the “Lions” and a group of female lions is a “Pride”.) Orlando has also announced that former U.S. National Women’s Team coach Tom Sermanni will serve as Orlando Pride’s coach, and if rumors are true, the Pride are arranging a trade with the Portland Thorns to bring Alex Morgan to Orlando.
Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns) and Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign) both play in the NWSL
The NWSL started its first season in 2013 with eight teams and has grown to ten over the past two years. Average attendance for the NWSL 2015 season was 5,046, thought the Portland Thorns drove up attendance averages by pulling in an astonishing 15,639 attendees per game. The 2016 season will run from April to August, with each team scheduled for 24 regular season games, 12 each at home and on the road.
So close – Japan v. Australia at Women’s World Cup
A majority of NWSL teams have MLS ownership or an MLS affiliate team, including the Houston Dash (MLS Owned – Houston Dynamo), FC Kansas City (MLS Affiliate – Sporting Kansas City), Orlando Pride (MLS Owned – Orlando City SC), Portland Thorns (MLS Owned – Portland Timbers), Seattle Reign FC (MLS Affiliate– Seattle Sounders), and Washington Spirit (MLS Affiliate – DC United). The NWSL teams with no relationship to MLS are the Boston Breakers (Owner – Boston Women’s Soccer, LLC), Sky Blue FC (Owners Philip D. Murphy and Steven H. Temares), Western New York Flash (Owner Joe Sahlen), and Chicago Red Stars (Owner Arnim Whisler).
Claire Lavogez, tormented after Germany defeat & Gaëlle Enganamouit makes Cameroon proud
Most NWSL teams are located in the northeast, with the Portland Thorns and Seattle Reign being the only west-coast teams. A number of ownership groups are in negotiations with the NWSL about potential franchises, including Real Salt Lake of MLS, Indy Eleven of NASL, and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of USL Pro. In light of the fact that there is no NWSL team in the southwest, several Los Angeles based groups have made overtures to NWSL about a potential franchise, including the Los Angeles Strikers and Pali Blues, both USL W-league teams. Indeed, Mia Hamm, USWNT legend and part-owner of LAFC, has already announced that she would like LAFC to eventually have an NWSL franchise.
This begs the question: why doesn’t the LA Galaxy – the most successful, innovative, and trail-blazing team in MLS history, have an NWSL franchise?
Since the implementation of Title IX (enacted in 1972, compliance required by 1978), female soccer in the United States has experienced explosive growth. In 2014, there were 3,055,148 registered soccer players with U.S. Youth Soccer. Approximately half of those were women, which means there are some 1.5 million registered youth female soccer players in this country. This 1.5 million number excludes all those who do not formally register with U.S. Youth Soccer, of which there are many. The growth of soccer among women has outpaced all other major sports over the past twenty years. Between 1995 and 2013, there was a 93% increase in the number of female soccer players playing at the college level.
Further, one needs only to look at the hometowns of the players who participated in the 2015 Women’s World Cup to realize that southern California is perhaps the biggest ladies soccer hotbed in the country. Current U.S. Women’s national team players Alex Morgan, Shannon Boxx, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez, Whitney Engen and Rachel Van Hollebeke all hail from Southern California. And while the U.S. Men’s National Team commonly recruits players born and raised abroad, for the women that phenomenon is reversed. The Mexico National football team fielded nine players from California on its World Cup squad. England’s goalkeeper, Karen Bardsley, New Zealand women’s national team players Ali Riley and Simone Carmichael, and Swiss defender Noelle Maritz all hail from the LA area. San Dimas native Alex Morgan made history when she took the third place prize for FIFA World Player of the Year in 2012.
Crystal Dunn of NWSL’s Washington Spirit does stuff like this…
Women’s soccer is also a spectator sport. In 1999, the Women’s World Cup final, which was played at the Rose Bowl here in Los Angeles before a crowd of 90,185, drew an 11.4 Nielson rating, attracting 13.3 million viewers. This year’s Women’s World Cup final pulled an 18.3 Nielson rating, attracting some 43.2 million viewers, making it the most viewed soccer game in the history of American television (including men’s games), handily beating the viewership numbers posted by the final game of the 2014 World Series, the final game of the NBA Championship and the Men’s 2014 World Cup Final.
Carli Lloyd of NWSL’s Houston Dash became the second soccer player in history to score a hat trick in any senior FIFA World Cup Final and scored the fastest in world history (16 minutes)
So why hasn’t the LA Galaxy jumped on this particular bandwagon?
If LA Galaxy owner AEG is a bit gun-shy, it is understandable. The NWSL is the third female professional soccer league in the United States. The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was founded in 2000 and defunct by 2003. The Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPS) was formed in 2009 and folded by 2012. Further, AEG previously invested in a women’s team, the Los Angeles Sol, which played in the WPL for only one season in 2009. The LA Sol was co-owned and operated by AEG and Blue Star, LLC and played its games at the StubHub Center. During its only season, the LA Sol was actually quite successful by WPS standards: with Brazilian superstar Marta and U.S. Women’s National Team defender Shannon Boxx on its roster, the LA Sol won the Supporter’s Shield in 2009. Further, the LA Sol secured average attendance of 6,382 during the 2009 season – if similar attendance numbers could be duplicated in the NWSL, a Los Angeles based team would enter NWSL as the second-best attended team in the league (after the Portland Thorns).
In the case of the Los Angeles Sol, its ambition was also its undoing. The LA Sol signed Marta to a three-year $1.5 million contract. When AEG was unable to find a buyer for its fledgling ladies team, he gave the rights to the team back to WPS and abandoned the project, swallowing at least $2 million in losses in the process.
Kim Little of the Seattle Reign making defenders look silly.
However, there is good reason to believe that the NWSL will not suffer the same fate as the WPS or its predecessor, WUSA. In terms of its financial structure, the NWSL is much more stable than the WPS. The WPS used a franchise model, rather than operating as a single-entity, with each team operated independently of the others, which made the WPS more unstable than the NWSL. The NWSL is also underwritten by the women’s national teams of the United States, Canada and Mexico, whose federations allocate their national team players to the NWSL and pay their salaries. And the WPS was hobbled with administrative problems, e.g., when it became involved in a resource-draining lawsuit with one of the WPS team owners, Dan Borislow.
The WPS also paid much higher salaries than the NWSL. NWSL teams have a salary cap of $265,000 (that’s for the whole team), which is a modest investment for a professional soccer team – by way of comparison, Steven Gerrard earns $6 million a year with the LA Galaxy, which breaks down to approximately $176,470 per game for a 34-game season. The average salary in the WPS was approximately $32,000 whereas the average NWSL player earns just $16,000 for a six month season – indeed, the NWSL’s minimum salary is a paltry $6,842.
Nice backheel goal here from NWSL Portland Thorns’ Tobin Heath
Finally, with a majority of NWSL franchises having MLS owners as backers, NWSL owners have the financial wherewithal to backstop an NWSL franchise through its first few fledgling seasons. For the naysayers (including Don Garber) who suggest MLS franchises are “losing money”, bear in mind that sports teams don’t need actual profits to create a lot of financial value, and average franchise values in MLS have increased 4.7 times their 2007 value, which is higher than any other league. Further, as analysts are quick to point out, the average age of the U.S. soccer fan is early to mid-30s, whereas the average age of baseball fans is mid-50s.
Francisca Ordega of NWSL’s Washington Spirit made Nigeria a WWC darling this year
Thus, the NWSL is both more conservative in its ambitions than its predecessors, but also has a more viable plan for measured growth. And so far NWSL’s plan appears to be working. On June 30, 2015, NWSL announced a one-year agreement with Fox Sports to cover ten games during the 2016 season, including both semifinals and the final match. Six games will be televised on Fox Sports 1 and four games on Fox Sports GO. Roughly half of the games played since the 2015 Women’s World Cup were sell-outs and the league set a record for highest attendance this year on July 22, 2015, when the Portland Thorns played the Seattle Reign in front of a crowd of 21,144 at Portland’s Providence Park.
The Portland Thorns are the only team actually turning a profit, which sounds bad, but only until you realize that only about half the teams in MLS were earning a profit as of two years ago, and MLS has twenty years of history under its belt.
Julie Johnston of NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars can do some tackling
If Uncle Phil is considering the addition of an NWSL franchise, here are a few tips for maximizing its chances of success:
Play games at the Los Dos StubHub Center Track & Field Stadium, as opposed to the StubHub Center. LA Sol played at the StubHub Center, but most fans agree that an intimate setting is preferred for smaller crowds and most NWSL franchises play in smaller stadiums. Further, by playing at the Track & Field Stadium, AEG can avoid the overhead costs required for games at the StubHub Center and instead bring in the $2 taco food trucks to provide concessions;
Deploy the NWSL franchise as an LA Galaxy offshoot, along the lines of the Portland Thorns or Houston Dash, and manufacture merchandise accordingly – this will increase the chances of LA Galaxy fans taking an interest in the NWSL team and buying its gear. I attended the U.S. Women’s National Team against Mexico on May 17, 2015, and the StubHub Center was packed that day with little girls who would no doubt love to pull the jersey of the …. LA Stars, LA Flares, LA Torches, LA Blaze, LA Sunrise? I dunno, have a naming contest and the people of LA will come up with a cool name.
Cross-promote LA’s NWSL franchise in the same manner that the LA Galaxy does for Los Dos. Have a few times a year when NWSL games follow LA Galaxy games, stream the NWSL games on lagalaxy.com, etc.
Lauren Holiday of NWLS’s FC Kansas City announced her retirement from the international game right after scoring this hum-dinger
This is LA, after all. Are we seriously going to lag behind Indianapolis and Pittsburgh in landing a ladies’ soccer franchise? I hope not. It would be really depressing if the LA Galaxy leads the charge to advance soccer in this country in every way except the women’s game. It would be great for an LA-based NWSL franchise to produce the next Kim Little, Crystal Dunn, or Becky Sauerbrunn. But it will be hard for us to produce the next Marta if we don’t even have a team.