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New Women’s Soccer League Aims For Success Its Predecessors Never Achieved

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"New Women’s Soccer League Aims For Success Its Predecessors Never Achieved"

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CREDIT: Icon SMI

At Nathaniel’s, a pub-style restaurant on the Gennessee Riverway just off of Rochester’s Main Street two Saturdays ago, no one seems to know that the city is hosting a playoff game in a mere two hours. The few people in the place are focused on the Buffalo Bills, who are in the second quarter of a preseason game in Washington. Quarterback Kevin Kolb has already left the game with a concussion, and what little discussion takes place focuses on who will actually line up under center when the NFL season opens in two weeks. A waitress shrugs when I ask about the Western New York Flash, the women’s soccer team that has won three consecutive championships and calls Rochester home. “Hockey and football are bigger,” she says. “That’s all people really pay attention to.”

I paid my bill and left, with no idea what to expect a mile down the road.

The Western New York Flash and Sky Blue FC were still 90 minutes from kickoff in the second playoff semifinal in the opening season of the National Women’s Soccer League. This year, the fledgling group of eight teams is trying to do what two other major women’s soccer leagues before it could not: survive.

If tonight’s semifinal was any sign, the Flash and their fans were doing their best to make that happen. A small line had already formed outside the ticket window and a crowd was slowly forming, for some reason, on the walkway between the ticket booth and the stadium’s front gate. The crowd, dominated by teenage girls, many of them in their own soccer jerseys, and their families, had noticed that Sky Blue FC’s players were making their way to the field for warmups, meaning the Flash would no doubt soon follow. The home team arrived to cheers, but the one player the crowd wanted — the league’s biggest star and Rochester’s native daughter — wasn’t yet among them.

“Abby!” the crowd seemed to squeal at once when she appeared minutes later by herself, head down and eyes focused. After obliging a few autograph seekers and picture takers, Abby Wambach jogged past them all and toward the field. There would be time for autographs after she helped the Flash clinch a berth in the final, but right now Wambach looked no different than she might have trotting onto the pitch for the World Cup final.

If the waitress is right, even if no one knows about the Flash, they certainly know about Abby. She’s a soccer legend, the all-time leading goal scorer in American history. Every time the ball glanced toward her on the pitch, the crowd belched with excitement, if only fleeting at times. She’s also a Rochester native, and so Rochester knows Abby just like the rest of the soccer-watching world knows Abby, except a little part of her is still theirs. Wambach’s placement in Rochester isn’t coincidental — and her presence here in her hometown may be indicative of a smarter business model that portends success for the NWSL its predecessors never achieved.

The first attempt to form an American women’s soccer league came after the 1999 World Cup, which the United States both hosted and won. The World Cup had been a smashing success even compared to the male version the U.S. hosted in 1994. The American women’s victory over China drew 90,000 fans and still ranks as the best-attended soccer match, male or female, in American history. That team’s World Cup clinching penalty kick, after which Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey in celebration, remains one of the most iconic moments in international American sporting history. That team’s stars, from Chastain to Mia Hamm to Julie Foudy, remain among the most recognizable names, male or female, in American soccer lore.

But the Women’s United Soccer Association, the World Cup’s offspring, folded after just three years. The second attempt, Women’s Professional Soccer, spent big on star power, bringing in top Americans and internationals like Marta, a Brazilian wunderkind who was recognizable to soccer die-hards. It, too, made it just three seasons.

The hope is that the NWSL will find financial stability the other leagues couldn’t because of its unprecedented partnership with U.S. Soccer, the sport’s American governing body, and the Canadian and Mexican soccer federations. That investment should prevent NWSL from being subject solely to the whims of anxious investors who dump millions of dollars in but back out when the league doesn’t turn into a financial windfall right away. That hope is especially strong after another successful World Cup in 2011 and Olympics in 2012, both of which saw more countries competing competitively, and ahead of the 2015 World Cup in Canada and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, both of which will take place in countries where women’s soccer is growing rapidly.

“Clearly this league is building out of the 2011 World Cup. We’re also building toward (2015),” NWSL commissioner Cheryl Bailey said, noting that her hope was that the NWSL would keep the women’s soccer landscape from being “quite so silent between those championships.”

“We’re capitalizing on all that happened in ’11 and ’12 and looking toward all that will happen in ’15 and ’16.”

Portland's Alex Morgan is women's soccer's brightest young star.

Portland’s Alex Morgan is women’s soccer’s brightest young star.

CREDIT: USA Today

That planning is evident in the allocation process that divided the game’s biggest stars — those who play for the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican national teams — among the league’s eight teams. Wambach is in Rochester thanks to that process, which allowed teams to rank the players they wanted and players to rank the teams for which they wanted to play, creating matches that will hopefully spawn success. So Wambach landed in her hometown and Canadian star Christine Sinclair ended up in Portland, where she played college soccer and where Alex Morgan, the sport’s brightest young star, joined her in a burgeoning soccer hotbed. The rest — people like Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo, Christy Rampone and Lauren Holiday — were spread throughout the league in an attempt to create immediate competitive balance.

The result was an intense race that saw the four playoff teams — the Flash, FC Kansas City, the Portland Thorns, and Sky Blue — finish within two points of each other in the standings. The top three seeds were tied on points, separated only by goal differential. The first season, which ended with Portland’s’ 2-0 victory over the Flash in the final Saturday, hastily conceived, brought together in mere months for the opening in March. But it was also a success, according to Bailey, with fans showing up and taking an interest in the league, especially in the three markets — Portland, Kansas City, and Seattle — where top-level women’s soccer hadn’t existed before.

“We wanted to set reasonable expectations,” Bailey said of the league’s first season. “The support that we’ve had for each of the markets, I think we’re very pleased with where we are with such a short time frame.”

Just as Wambach’s presence in Rochester was no accident, neither was the allocation process itself. Instead, it was a result of NWSL’s partnership with U.S. Soccer and its Canadian and Mexican counterparts, which will provide financial support for the league at least in its opening years. Players like Wambach, Morgan, and Solo have always created a paradox for women’s soccer leagues: they’re the most notable players and necessary for success, but they’re also the most expensive. To solve that paradox, U.S. Soccer and the other federations are subsidizing the salaries of the players from their national teams, providing a financial boost to the league that allows it to shift more resources to lower-tiered players. That partnership also makes sense for the federations, since a stable domestic league will feed international soccer teams, providing both a training ground for current players and a proving ground for up-and-comers.

“The most important thing is that for the first time they’ve created a business model where there’s an interested third party that’s subsidizing the league,” Andy Crossley, who served as general manager of the Boston Breakers in the WPS, said of the partnership with the federations. “If you look around the country at the minor league and second tier sports leagues that are sustainable and have staying power, the common thread is that they have some type of subsidy from another party, and they’re not just reliant on ticket sales and sponsorship sales and the indulgences of a handful of owners.”

The hopes for a successful, sustainable women’s soccer league are higher than ever, fed by the participation of the federations and the growth of women’s soccer both in the U.S. and around the world. People around the league are also cautious, though, jaded by previous failures and a stark reality: the NWSL is starting off as a minor league in an American sporting landscape already filled with major players. The first season may have been a success — the league has fielded interests in expanding to more cities but won’t do so next year, a spokesperson said — but early seasons in WUSA and WPS also felt like successes, depending on who was asked.

“The expectations and opportunities that we have with this league is to be able to set the stage and have a groundswell and grow year after year,” Bailey said. “I think it will grow and people are interested. I think we have to be realistic, however, that there are so many opportunities for people to see so many different sports. That is great, but that means you have to find your niche. That means you have to make sure that you’re bringing a great product to fans who want to be a part of that.”

Those fans look different in different places. Five of the league’s eight teams come directly from the WPS and semi-pro leagues that came after it, so many have strong identities in their communities already. That’s the case in Rochester, where the Flash exist as a proven winner that provides entertaining soccer and a family-friendly experience at a cheap price — general admission for the semifinal was just $10 for adults. The Flash drew 7,300 fans to the semifinal and 9,100 to the final. Their opponent there, the Portland Thorns, are a different story, a new franchise that is wholly unique in the NWSL because it is owned and operated by the same group that owns Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers.

Portland fans at an NWSL match in June.

Portland fans at an NWSL match in June.

CREDIT: AP

Portland is one of America’s most passionate soccer towns, a place where soccer matches feel the way they are supposed to. Portland has a beautiful soccer-specific stadium that is regularly filled with some of the MLS’s largest crowds, a raucous group that unfurls tifos — large painted banners with messages of support common at international soccer matches — and has player- and opponent-specific chants. That enthusiasm for soccer spilled over to the Thorns, who have benefited from co-branding and marketing with the Timbers and drew more than 13,000 fans a game in their first season.

Are similar partnerships realistic in other NWSL cities? Perhaps it would work in another soccer-mad city like Seattle, and Bailey said the NWSL is watching the Thorns-Timbers partnership closely to evaluate how it may benefit other franchises in the future. There may well be future ownership arrangements like Portland’s, but what is more likely is that the league and its individual teams will have to develop their fan bases and find their niches themselves.

Conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that if the NWSL wants to carve out that niche and elbow its way into the American sporting landscape, it could do so by building a vibrant female fan base. That may be true, particularly in the short term, where sustainability is the main goal. A large national following isn’t necessarily as important as strong support in the communities where teams exist.

But when it comes to attracting female fans, women’s sports leagues face an odd conundrum: female participation in sports has increased by 990 percent at the high school level and 560 percent in college since the passage of Title IX in 1972, but female sports viewership hasn’t kept pace. The gains that have taken place have largely benefited men’s sports. When women attend sporting events or sit down to watch them on TV, they generally do so with men, who have long made up the majority of the television viewership for women’s sports but who also don’t watch women’s sports en masse. In 2003, in fact, the XFL — the doomed football league affiliated with World Wrestling Entertainment — averaged three million viewers per game, triple the average WNBA viewership and 30 times the amount WUSA drew in its early seasons.

“If men don’t watch women’s sports, women aren’t going to watch women’s sports, because women watch sports with men and we’re socialized into sports through men,” Annemarie Farrell, a professor at Ithaca College who studies women’s sports participation and viewership, said. “We learn to watch sports with grandfathers and fathers and brothers and husbands and boyfriends. Men very much gate-keep sports from women.”

“The quick answer to how do we get women to watch women’s sports is how do we get men to watch women’s sports,” she added. “It’s a sucky answer.”

There’s no end to the theories of why men and women don’t watch women’s sports. Part of it is that men’s sports are easier to find than women’s, on TV and otherwise. Part of it is perception, the idea that women aren’t as good at sports and therefore aren’t worth watching.

That perception is, of course, wrong, and that’s not mere conjecture from people who enjoy women’s sports. Farrell pointed to research showing that in psychological tests, fans showed no difference when watching men and women play basketball. “You’re not more excitable, you’re not more aroused” by watching men, Farrell said. “The perceptions we have in our experience watching men and women play are not biological, they’re social. But social is really powerful. We assume mens sports are more exciting, more dramatic.”

And while it’s easy to point to male sexism as an explanation of that false perception, Farrell conducted an as-yet-unpublished study into men’s and women’s attitudes toward women’s sports and found that sexism affected both men and women.

“When it comes to attitudes about sports, women are just as sexist as men,” Farrell said. “Their hostile sexism is lower, but when we talk about the nature of ambivalent sexism, there’s no discernible difference. Women adopt the male perspective. Just dismissing that men don’t watch women’s sports because they’re sexist isn’t true, and that answer doesn’t help get people in the seats.”

There’s no easy way to change that, or to figure out how to attract both men and women to women’s sports like the NWSL. The league is trying to use new marketing tactics — aggressive promotion on Twitter and social media sites and highlight videos and other promos on YouTube — that weren’t as widely available to previous leagues.

The NWSL also has help. Soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport is finally growing steadily in the United States, and the women’s game may be well-positioned to take advantage of that, especially because NWSL has something Major League Soccer has never had: the ability to boast that it features the best players in the best league in the world. Saturday’s final alone featured Morgan and Wambach, the two biggest names in the game. Sinclair, the Canadian star, and American national teamer Tobin Heath scored the game’s two goals. When fans go to NWSL matches, they’re seeing not only great players but the best in the world.

And then there are the partnerships with U.S. Soccer and the Canadian and Mexican federations.

The NWSL’s first season ended Saturday. It’s too early to make proclamations, but the league at least seems positioned for success in ways its predecessors were not. But even if NWSL doesn’t work, women’s professional soccer isn’t going away. If anything, the league’s existence is proof that there is momentum behind women’s soccer even though previous leagues failed.

“Every time a women’s soccer league starts, people say it’s the last chance, because who’s going to try again?” Crossley, the former Breakers’ general manager, said. “I don’t believe that at all. Five years from now, 10 years from now, will we have a professional league? I’d say absolutely. Will it be the NWSL? I don’t know. But I think they’re well-positioned to be that group.”

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