In the August afterglow of the United States’ FIFA Women’s World Cup victory, more than 25,000 fans set a National Women’s Soccer League single-game attendance record by selling out Portland’s Providence Park.
Two weeks later, the league’s Washington Spirit packed Audi Field — home to Major League Soccer’s D.C. United — with nearly 20,000 fans for a game. That’s more than five times its previous average attendance.
The U.S. women’s national team itself on Thursday in Philadelphia attracted nearly 50,000 fans — many sporting red, white and blue scarves and some pink hair, just like star Megan Rapinoe — to the second game of its monetized five-game “Victory Tour” that visits St. Paul’s 19,400-seat Allianz Field on Tuesday.
Two months after it beat the Netherlands in France in July’s Cup final, its players remain beloved entertainers, polarizing political activists and bona fide rock stars whose presence on their tour, or allocation to the NWSL’s nine teams, begs these questions:
Is an American pro women’s league — in its third creation since 90,000 fans watched the U.S. win the 1999 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl — viable for the long run?
And is Minnesota a viable market for league expansion or relocation?
About that first part: “I hope so, if we can build off this momentum and continue to create this kind of buzz around our league,” U.S. women’s World Cup team member Samantha Mewis said.
And about the second: Not any time soon.
Too soon to get on board
Four of the NWSL’s nine teams are affiliated with MLS teams — Houston, Orlando City, Portland and Real Salt Lake — in a league owned by its teams and managed by U.S. Soccer.
Founded in 2012, the NWSL has by two years lasted longer than any other U.S. women’s soccer league. It increased its roster size and salaries ($46,200 maximum) before this season. At the World Cup, it reached agreements with ESPN to televise 14 games through season’s end and a multiyear sponsorship deal with Budweiser.
Minnesota United managing partner Bill McGuire said his organization has watched, inquired and educated itself about the league and its potential but for now is not prepared to join the party. He has decided a mere three-year-old MLS franchise with a new $250 million stadium doesn’t have the bandwidth to launch a second franchise because it still must build and refine the first.
“We need to get the overall operations running the way it needs to run in all aspects before we take on yet another big project,” McGuire said. “We have to make what we have now really work. We’re doing a lot of things well now. We want to be very good at what we’re doing.”
Among United’s present priorities is fortifying its “second team” beyond its starting 11. That includes strengthening a development academy that identifies and nurtures top prospects from its region’s top youth clubs.
It needs to develop its new stadium’s operations.
It also is being careful about growing and grooming Allianz Field’s grass playing surface and isn’t yet ready to accommodate another tenant in any venture where you might have to draw at least 15,000 people a game to break even.
‘Pockets’ of success
McGuire compares women’s soccer and the NWSL with women’s basketball and the WNBA as well as men’s soccer and its history of successive leagues, dating in Minnesota to the NASL and the Minnesota Kicks in the 1970s. Mewis and some of her World Cup teammates visited Lynx practice Saturday to shoot some hoops and meet the four-time champs.
“The WNBA has had pockets of teams performing well, like the Lynx, and others have struggled to make it,” he said. “We had the same struggles with men’s soccer in this country to get something established. Even now, every city with a MLS team isn’t drawing the kind of attention and involvement we all want to see.”
He calls the national team’s visit to the only intimate, soccer-specific stadium on its tour a “reflection” of United’s fans and recognition that Allianz Field already is an “iconic venue” for soccer.
“It’s a big deal,” McGuire said.
Families and fans have flocked to two American football stadiums and filled a couple of MLS stadiums as well as smaller minor league ballpark sized since the World Cup, a victory tour of sorts for both the national and NWSL teams.
Will those new deals with ESPN, Budweiser and others signal a sea change for women’s soccer in those years when there isn’t a World Cup or Olympics that captivates?
“Those things help make this kind of buzz more sustainable because there’s money and visibility in it,” said Mewis, who plays for the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage. “Hopefully, people who watched the World Cup are becoming fans of the game and want to see more and more. Our league, it’s a good reason if you’re a fan of the game to watch soccer when there is no World Cup.”
McGuire cautions not to get “caught up in the emotion” of a women’s World Cup that the United States has won four times now.
“These are great athletes,” McGuire said. “The game they’re playing deserves the same attention to be successful you give the men. … Down the road in particular — as awareness of the women’s game and the quality of the players increases — you’ll see more players come along and it will be viable.”