United States: National Women’s Soccer League

by Connie Cai

Published on May 1, 2015

 

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nwsl logo

Source: SB Nation

INTRODUCTION & FIFA RANKINGS

The US Women’s National Soccer Team is consistently one of the best teams in the world, winning two previous World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. However, the US has somewhat failed in its hope of translating the consistent success and popularity of their national team into a financially stable women’s professional soccer league. Two leagues have come and gone, and the third league, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), is currently in its third season and is still struggling to attract and retain fans.

Conversely, the US Men’s National Soccer Team has not achieved nearly the same amount of prosperity as that of the women’s team. For an idea of current standings, FIFA ranks the US Women’s National Team at #2, whereas it ranks the US Men’s National Team at #27 (“Women’s Ranking”; “Men’s Ranking”). However, despite the shortcomings of the US Men’s National team, the current US men’s professional soccer league, Major League Soccer (MLS),  is currently in its 20th season and generates millions of dollars in revenues every season (Smith).

So, why hasn’t the popularity and success of the US Women’s National Team translated into fan support and financial revenues for past and present US women’s professional soccer leagues? This page hopes to answer this question while providing a general overview of the NWSL.

 

HISTORY OF THE LEAGUE

Previous Leagues

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is the third women’s professional soccer league in the US, following the failures of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and the Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPSL) (Whiteside). Both of these leagues ended after three seasons, with the WUSA operating from 2000-03 and the WPSL operating from 2009-12. After the failure of the WPSL, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) held a meeting about the future of women’s professional soccer, with Tony DiCicco, the coach of the US Women’s National Soccer Team from 1994-99, and representatives from the WPSL, the United Soccer League (USL), and US Youth Soccer (Kassouf “New Women’s Soccer League in the Works for 2013 following Meeting in Chicago”). The meeting resulted in the creation of the NWSL and the first season officially began in April 2013 with eight teams, four of which came from the former WPSL (Foudy).

The WUSA (2000-03) and the WPS (2009-12) both failed after three seasons - a fate the NWSL is hoping to avoid. Source: http://wsoccerexpress.com/2012/12/16/and-the-name-is-national-womens-soccer-league-nwsl/

The WUSA (2000-03) and WPSL (2009-12) both failed after three seasons – a fate the NWSL is hoping to avoid. Source: Women’s Soccer Express

Both the WUSA and WPSL were built on unstable financial models, accumulating major debt that ultimately made it impossible for the leagues to continue operating. The WUSA attempted to build off of the intense popularity and interest in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, with many prominent, high-profile players opting to play in the league, including Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Julie Foudy. Financially, the WUSA was supported by league owners and corporate sponsors. But over the course of the following three years, corporate sponsorship dwindled alongside fan attendance and interest (Wyatt). The root of the issue however had less to do with player salaries (as many players took pay cuts in order to help cut costs) and more to do with the way the league was financially built upon a “national media model” (King). Corporations initially invested money in the league with the idea that TV ratings and fan support would significantly increase, but in reality, TV production costs and decreased interest in the league drove away corporate sponsorships and eliminated the main source of money supporting the WUSA. With $16 million of debt after the third season and only 2 out of the 8 corporate sponsorships needed to continue running the league, the WUSA was forced to end operations after its third season in 2003.

Playing for the Washington Freedom, forward Mia Hamm plays in the first US women's professional soccer league. Source: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Playing for the Washington Freedom, forward Mia Hamm was a prominent member of the first US women’s professional soccer league. Source: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

When the WPSL began in 2009, it focused itself around a new economic model based on “grassroots promotion” rather than the national media model put forth by the WUSA. Expectations were set low for TV ratings and fan attendance, league costs were cut all around, and players supplemented their modest incomes with clinics that were intended to increase the WPSL’s youth fan base. However, despite low expectations, the league ran into similar issues with low attendance and financial troubles (Oshan). Numerous teams joined and left the league between seasons, as teams generated low revenues and were unable to make payments to the league. However, perhaps more significantly, the WPSL was troubled with legal and financial issues stemming from a disagreement with former team owner Dan Borislow (Dure). Borislow lost ownership rights in the WPSL for his team “magicJack,” after which he decided to sue the league. As a result, Borislow created a huge legal mess that absorbed significant time and money from the WPSL. After spending much effort fighting the lawsuit against Borislow, the WPSL eventually resolved the issue by paying Borislow a settlement. All of this proved to be too much for the WPSL to handle and officials permanently suspended league operations after its third season in May 2012.

 

Current League

Following the failure of the WPSL and recognizing the need for a professional women’s soccer league in the US, the NWSL was formed around a drastically new financial and operating model. This model differs from previous league models in that the league is administered by the USSF and the best players are financially sponsored by the US, Mexican, and Canadian soccer federations (Bell). Specifically, the US, Canadian, and Mexican soccer federations are paying the full salaries of up to 24, 16, and 12 national players, respectively (Whiteside). Furthermore, the USSF is paying for the league’s front office, including the finance, legal, public relations, marketing, and operations departments, not to mention referees and other important league officials.

Similar to the transition from the WUSA to the WPSL, costs for the NWSL were again cut all around. This translated to smaller stadiums, lower salaries for front-office employees, and lower salaries for players. Specifically, since the league began in 2013, player salaries have ranged from $6,000 – 30,000, with each team’s salary cap set at $200,000 (Kassouf “A Quick Look at NWSL Salaries”). For context, this means that the highest paid players are earning somewhere around $15 per hour, while the lowest paid players are technically earning an illegal hourly wage (Gibson). These low salaries have been criticized and pinpointed as a major reason for the lack of experience and longevity of players in the NWSL (McCann).

 

Leadership

Cheryl Bailey served as league commissioner for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, after previously serving as the General Manager for the US Women’s National Team from 2007-11 (“Cheryl Bailey Named Executive Director of New Women’s Soccer League”). Bailey stepped down from the position after the 2014 season and Jeff Plush was named the new commissioner for the 2015 season (“NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey to Step down”; “Jeff Plush Is New Commissioner of Women’s Soccer League”). Plush previously served as a board member for the MLS and as the managing director for the MLS Colorado Rapids.

 

Sponsors and Broadcasting

The US Soccer Foundation, Nike, Coppertone, Mango.org are the official sponsors of the NWSL.

In the 2013 season, the NWSL signed a one-year deal with Fox Sports to broadcast and televise nine games on FOX Soccer (“NWSL, FSMG Announce TV Agreement”). The nine games included six regular season games and all three playoff games. For the 2014 season, the NWSL signed a one-year deal with ESPN to broadcast nine games, including three regular season games broadcast on ESPN3, three regular season games broadcast on ESPN2, and all three playoff games broadcast on ESPN2 (“NWSL and ESPN Announce National Broadcast Agreement”).

Although no TV deal is set for the 2015 season, the NWSL recently announced that all games will be broadcast on YouTube Live for free (“NWSL to Live Stream All Games via YouTube for 2015 Season”). The YouTube Live platform provides DVR, chat, full HD, and social media interactive features. Here is a link to the NWSL YouTube page with live games, game replays, and other video clips. For those interested, a highlights video of the 2014 Championship match between Seattle Reign FC and FC Kansas City is provided below.

 

High-Profile Players and Results

Notable players in the NWSL include Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach (see more on Wambach below, in the section “Relationship to National Team”), Megan Rapinhoe, and Sydney Leroux. For detailed results and season highlights for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, please see here and here, respectively. Here is a breakdown of the past honors and awards (“2013 Season Highlights”; “2014 Season Highlights”):

Award 2013 Season 2014 Season
NWSL Championship Portland Thorns FC FC Kansas City
NWSL Shield Western New York City Flash Seattle Reign FC
Golden Boot Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City) Kim Little (Seattle Reign FC)
Most Valuable Player Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City) Kim Little (Seattle Reign FC)
Coach of the Year Vlatko Andonovski (FC Kansas City) Laura Harvey (Seattle Reign FC)
Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City) Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
Goalkeeper of the Year Nicole Barnhart (FC Kansas City) Alyssa Naeher (Boston Breakers)
Rookie of the Year Erika Tymrak (FC Kansas City) Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars)

 

FORMAT/RULES

Schedule

The 2015 regular season runs for 21 weeks, from April 10 to September 6, with the playoffs running from September 12 – 27. Each of the clubs will play 10 home games and 10 away games. In order to accommodate the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the NWSL will take a two-week break during the group stage of the World Cup (“NWSL Announces 2015 Schedule Format”).

 

Regular Season and Playoffs

The point system and timing for games are the same as those for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup – three points are awarded for a win, one point for a tie, and zero points for a loss (“Regulations”). The team with the most points at the end of the season is awarded the regular season title, the NWSL Shield. The four teams with the most points at the end of the season will qualify for the playoffs, consisting of two semi-final matches (the 1st seed playing the 4th seed and the 2nd seed playing the 3rd seed) and one championship match, played in a knockout game format (“2015 Competition Rules and Regulations”). For more detailed information on team standings and tie-breaking procedures, see here.

 

Games and Rosters

Games last 90 minutes with two 45-minute halves, and referees can give stoppage time for appropriate game disturbances. Rosters must contain a minimum of 18 players and a maximum of 20 active players, with only 18 maximum players named for a specific game. Three substitutions are allowed per game. Team rosters can have an unlimited number of domestic players, up to four international players, and up to 10 amateur players. Teams can acquire players through allocations, the college draft, trades, discovery, waivers, amateur call-ups, the disabled list, season-ending injury replacement, or goalkeeper replacement (“2015 Roster Rules”). For more detailed information on roster rules and restrictions, see here.

 

Teams

There are nine clubs currently in the league – the Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, FC Kansas City, Portland Thorns FC, Seattle Reign FC, Sky Blue FC, Washington Spirit, and Western New York Flash (“The Clubs”). Two of the current teams, the Portland Thorns FC and Houston Dash, are currently partnered with the respective MLS team in their cities (“Houston Dynamo Launch Houston Dash as First Expansion Team in the NWSL”).

A visual depicting the various NWSL teams scattered throughout the country. Source: http://www.thenerdmachine.com/nwsl-the-best-sports-league-youve-never-heard-of/

A visual depicting the various NWSL teams scattered throughout the country. Source: Nerd Machine

 

WOMEN’S PROFESSIONAL LEAGUES VS. MEN’S PROFESSIONAL LEAGUES

Size and League Schedules

Although the US Women’s National Team has historically experienced more success than the US Men’s National Team, the NWSL is behind the MLS in many ways. The MLS recently began its 20th season, launching the league in April 1996 (“MLS Kicks off to Festive Crowd, Mixed On-field Reviews”). As a byproduct of the difference in ages of the leagues, the MLS is more than twice the size of the NWSL, as there are currently 20 teams in the MLS with 17 teams in the US and 3 teams in Canada (“Competition Rules and Regulations”). The overall MLS season is also longer – the regular season operates from March 6 – October 25, with each team playing a total of 34 games, 17 home and 17 away (“MLS Unveil 2015 Season Schedule, Add Two Teams to Playoff Format”). The playoffs run from October 31 through December.

 

Distribution of MLS teams across the US and Canada. Source: http://weduse.ninja/mls/mls-soccer-map.html

The distribution of MLS teams across the US and Canada. Source: MLS Soccer Map

 

Salaries

Salaries in the NWSL also vary significantly from those in the MLS. As mentioned above, current players in the NWSL are paid somewhere in the range of $6,000 – 30,000 per year. Current players in the MLS, on the other hand, are paid somewhere in the range of $35,125 – 368,750 per year, with other “designated” players making millions of dollars (Goldberg “Portland Thorns Players Take on outside Jobs to Supplement Meager Wages”). Salary data for the NWSL hasn’t been released, but it’s safe to say that the average salary in the NWSL isn’t even close to the average salary in the MLS, which is $148,693 per year (Finch). However, it’s important to note that the average salary is not a true representation of salaries in the MLS, given that there are a small handful of players like Kaka and Clint Dempsey who are earning $7.17 million and $6.7 million per year, respectively (Goff).

 

Attendance

Current fan attendance also differs significantly between the NWSL and the MLS. Total attendance for all NWSL games in the 2014 season amounted to 445,072, whereas the total attendance for all MLS games in the 2014 season was more than 13 times more, at 6,128,404 (Gehrke; “MLS Statistics”). This number is not a true comparison of the leagues, due to differences in the breadth and depth of the regular seasons. But even when you compare average attendance at games, the MLS commandingly comes out on top. The average attendance at any 2014 NWSL game was 4,121, whereas the average attendance at any 2014 MLS game was 19,151. For a comparison of the NWSL’s and MLS’s two teams with highest attendance and the two teams with lowest attendance, please see the chart below.

Graphic made by Connie Cai

 

 

MLS-NWSL Affiliations

The anomaly in the NWSL is undoubtedly the Portland Thorns FC team – this is the only team that has made a profit in the last two seasons, and they consistently have higher attendance numbers compared to the rest of the league (Goldberg “Next 2 Years Will Test Stability of National Women’s Soccer League”). Specifically, Portland averaged 13,362 per game in 2014, with a league record-setting attendance of 19,123 on August 3, 2014. As mentioned earlier, the Portland Thorns are one of the two NWSL teams with a MLS affiliation, affiliating with the Portland Timbers. As a result, the Thorns and the Timbers share the same practice facilities, stadium, front-office members, and certainly some of the same soccer fans.

Some have argued that this NWSL-MLS affiliation is the reason for the Thorns’ success and profitability, but the Houston Dash (the other NWSL team with an MLS affiliation) hasn’t experienced the same amount of prosperity. The Houston Dash joined the league in the 2014 season, using the resources, staff, and facilities of their MLS counterpart, the Houston Dynamo (Goldberg “MLS Affiliations Could Drive Success in National Women’s Soccer League”). But despite help from the Dynamo and the established soccer fan base in Houston, the average attendance at Dash games for the 2014 season was only 4,539, and overall the Dash failed to make a profit in the 2014 season.

 

Foreign Players

The MLS is widely touted as one of the most diverse professional sports leagues in the world. At the moment, the NWSL does not have a similar level of player diversity seen in the MLS. For more information on the nationalities of players in the NWSL and MLS, please see the table below (“List of Foreign NWSL Players”; “MLS Ranked Most Diverse Major Sports League in North America with 57 Nationalities Represented”) . The table is based on data from the 2014 season.

Total Number of Players Foreign Players (outside US and Canada) Percentage of Foreign Players Number of Countries Represented
MLS  543  208 38.3%  57
NWSL  180  31  17.2% 12

 

RELATIONSHIP TO THE NATIONAL TEAM

Allocated Players

As mentioned above, the US, Mexican, and Canadian soccer federations are sponsoring the salaries of their national team players participating in the NWSL. These individuals are labeled as “allocated players” – for the 2015 season, the allocated players include 25 Americans, 13 Canadians, and 4 Mexicans (“NWSL Announces 2015 Allocated Players”). When the league began in 2013, the NWSL distributed 55 allocated players to the 8 original teams based on player preference and qualities of players desired. All but one of the 8 teams received 3 allocated players, except one team that received only 2 (the Western New York Flash).

Allocated players are only expected to miss 7-8 games throughout the season, given the two-week break for the World Cup previously mentioned (“National Women’s Soccer League Announces Schedule Format for 2015 Season”). National teams have agreed to release their players from other obligations so that they can play the first 3-4 games of the NWSL season.

 

US Women’s National Team

Of the 23 players named to the US Women’s National Team for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, 22 players are currently playing in the NWSL regular season. Forward Abby Wambach is the only individual not playing in the NWSL regular season, but her rights are currently owned by the Western New York Flash. Wambach’s reasoning for opting out of the NWSL regular season was to rest and prepare, physically and mentally, for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup (“Wambach Foregoing NWSL Season to Focus on World Cup”).

Notably, the US has never won a World Cup or an Olympic gold medal while a women’s professional league was in place and operating (Foudy). Former US Women’s National Team player Julie Foudy explained the physical and mental burden that traveling placed on her body and argues that this fact is not merely coincidental.

For more information on the US Women’s National Team and notable players to watch, please see Players to Watch at the 2015 Women’s World Cup: USA.

 

CURRENT EVENTS (as of May 1, 2015)

TV Broadcast Deals

As mentioned above, games from the 2015 season are currently only broadcast on YouTube Live. Commissioner Jeff Plush stated his goal was to confirm a national television sponsor in the near future, in order to attract new fans to the league and sustain interest in women’s soccer once the World Cup ended (Goldberg “National Women’s Soccer League faces challenges and opportunities as World Cup looms”).

 

NWSL vs. World Cup

About 50 out of the 180 players in the NWSL will be competing in the World Cup this summer.  The league is struggling to figure out how to continue attracting attention and fans when their best soccer players leave during the middle of the season. In a recent interview, Plush spoke about this issue and how the NWSL is proposing new summer events with sponsors Nike and the USSF, attempting to capitalize on the media attention focused on soccer (Goldberg “National Women’s Soccer League Faces Challenges and Opportunities as World Cup Looms”).

 

Rumors of NWSL Expansion

Six cities are supposedly interested in joining the NWSL – the only cities that have been confirmed by Plush are Atlanta and Salt Lake City (Kassouf “Plush: Six Cities Interested in NWSL Expansion”). Other rumored cities include Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Plush noted that the addition of a 10th team to the NWSL would help limit cross-country travel and eliminate bye weeks.

 

WORKS CITED

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How to cite this page (MLA): Cai, Connie. “United States: National Women’s Soccer League.” Soccer Politics: The Politics of Football. Duke University, 1 May 2015. Web. (Date accessed). <http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/world-cup-guides/world-cup-2015-guide/womens-professional-leagues-in-notable-countries/womens-professional-leagues-in-notable-countries-united-states/>.

 

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