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Sorting it out: NWSL as it approaches year three

Harvard Stadium during an early season Breakers match, looking at the side opposite where fans sit. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)
Harvard Stadium during an early season Breakers match, looking at the side opposite where fans sit. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Harvard Stadium during an early season Breakers match, looking at the side opposite where fans sit. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Three is an ominous number in women’s soccer. Twice since the turn of the millennium, a women’s soccer league has folded after three seasons.

This time around, the prevailing wisdom among those involved in building the National Women’s Soccer League, now in the stretch-run of its second season, is that there’s no room for error. To steal another sport’s rules, it’s three strikes and you’re out.

“The league’s going to exist next year, I can promise you that,” said Merritt Paulson, owner of Portland Thorns FC, the NWSL sister club to MLS’ Portland Timbers. “The question we all have to focus on is optimizing the league. If there is something broken, fix it. If not fix it, figure out how to do it better elsewhere.”

The questions are recurring, and not dissimilar to the ones Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) faced in its three seasons from 2009-2011. There’s a World Cup in Canada to deal with next summer, an event that will likely create a hole in the schedule and in teams’ rosters for a still-to-be-determined amount of time. Sponsorships, attendance, budgets – they all fall under the umbrella of what everyone really wants to know when it comes to pro women’s soccer in the United States: Can it survive?

NWSL, by all informed accounts, is stronger than its predecessors, WPS and the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03). The backing of U.S. Soccer in particular, which has invested finances and manpower in the league with an eye on bettering its women’s national team, has team owners and players more bullish than ever.

“I think everybody is doing considerably better than last year,” said Boston Breakers owner Michael Stoller, who has funded the Breakers through three years in WPS and now in NWSL. “Whether everybody is hitting their budgets or not, I don’t know, but I think it is clearly going to be the least amount of losses that WPS or NWSL has incurred to date.”

Progress is there, but as Stoller notes, the ink is still red for everyone but Portland thus far. But even that is progress; women’s soccer teams have always been about limiting losses, not profiting. For the NWSL, the baby steps are all part of the growing process.

YEAR THREE LOOMS — NOW WHAT ABOUT THAT SCHEDULE?

Of all the questions that hang over the third season of the NWSL – Expansion? Contraction? Salary cap? Roster sizes? – the structure of the 2015 schedule will dictate which direction the other dominoes fall.

The 2015 World Cup runs from June 6 through July 6 next year, smack in the middle of the season in the current early April to late August format. Several options have been explored, and there likely won’t be a resolution before the August 11 owners’ meeting in Chicago.

But figuring out a scheduling structure for 2015 and 2016 – when the Rio Olympics hit from August 5-21 – won’t be easy. There is no consensus on how to deal with next year’s World Cup, a competition that stretches a month but consumes much more of the calendar when pre-tournament training camps and friendlies are factored in.

NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey. (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey. (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

Playing through the World Cup without a break looks unlikely. The NWSL stands to lose over one-quarter of its players — its best players, nonetheless — to the competition. There are different lengths of time that could be taken off, as well as starting the season earlier, ending it later or even playing a split season.

There’s an old guard of sorts – Boston, Chicago, New Jersey (Sky Blue FC) and Western New York, teams that competed in WPS and still exist in the NWSL – that has been through this before and seen first-hand the pros and cons of how WPS handled the 2011 World Cup, taking a two-week break that started the day of the World Cup’s first match and included a light schedule of six matches during actual World Cup competition.

And the league rode the World Cup bounce to increased attendance for the final six weeks of the season, highlighted by an over-capacity crowd of 15,404 fans in Rochester, N.Y. on July 20, three days after the U.S. lost the final to Japan on penalty kicks. Those were, however, the last six competitive weeks of WPS’ history.

“I think one of the things WPS did right was how we dealt with the World Cup,” Stoller said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

WPS took a break, but it played through most of June 2011 without U.S. national team players, diluting the play. And that is something that would worry Seattle Reign FC owner Bill Predmore, whose chief concern is maintaining a world-class level of play.

“I think our [Reign FC’s] perspective is that a substantial break during the World Cup is the right thing to do,” Predmore said. “The length of that is up for debate, but the product that is put out onto the field is directly related to the players.”

NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey says that the league has studied how MLS has dealt with men’s World Cups, including this year’s, to learn more about the approach. MLS took a little over two weeks off from regular season play during the 2014 World Cup, though U.S. Open Cup matches were played.

“There are several models that you can look at going forward,” said Bailey, who just returned from Switzerland for a FIFA workshop on the women’s international match calendar. “We’ve also taken a look at choices that MLS has made over the years, relative to this, too. They do have additional information that we don’t have, when you look at a world championship and how it might impact a league – whether you take time off, if you take time off. How much time off is beneficial in terms of keeping connected to the fans, but also being able to get the number of games in that you want? We have several models that we are looking at and we should have them solidified in the next week or two.”

Even with a break, some teams are prepared to be without their U.S. national team players for a significant portion of the season. Canada has already made plans to withhold players from the league before the World Cup, according to late 2013 documents obtained by The Equalizer. Mexico already waffled on its 2013 participation in the league, eventually committing a reduced number of players.

NINE TEAMS: PLUS, MINUS OR PUSH?

No speculation peaks the general interest more than expansion, especially in a fledgling women’s soccer league trying to find stability. Along with attendance, the addition and subtraction of teams is the most outwardly visible barometer for the league’s health.

The Houston Dash were a surprise addition as the league’s ninth team, officially announced in December 2013, exceptionally late in the process of planning the season. But the addition of a second MLS-backed club has been positive for the NWSL, league officials say.

And now what? The prospect of other MLS markets having interest in professional women’s teams is a concept that has existed, in theory, since before the NWSL even did. It was an ongoing tease of an idea in the WPS days, but it never happened.

According to several sources, there are multiple MLS ownership groups intrigued by the prospect of a women’s team under the NWSL model. But Bailey warns that they aren’t the only ownership groups that would be considered.

“MLS does not give a leg-up to any of the other [potential expansion bids],” Bailey said. “I think you have to look at markets. You have to look at the infrastructure that they would have, you have to look at facilities. There are so many key points that we look at in terms of somebody coming in with a franchise, that, no doubt, having the MLS infrastructure and resources is something that, if put on the table, I don’t think it really would preclude a team that is not an MLS team from having an opportunity as well.”

Better infrastructure and resources went a long way in helping Portland average over 13,000 fans per game in 2013, triple the next-closest team. This year, the Thorns will voluntarily share part of their revenue with the other eight teams in the league.

But there is some underlying fear of a league divided: MLS teams and non-MLS teams. Some dismiss the idea, genuinely or otherwise, but at least one high-ranking team official is legitimately concerned by how things may or may not balance out as MLS joins the fold. As Portland turns a profit and Houston tries to do the same, independent teams still lose well into the six figures.

Paulson disagrees that there would be a divide, but he is in favor of more MLS teams joining the NWSL and he says there are other MLS team owners who have expressed interest in a women’s team.

“I think it is never going to be a situation where it is the MLS teams versus the other ones, but I think everybody would agree that there are advantages to being an operator of a Major League Soccer game from a facility standpoint, from an infrastructure standpoint and from a sales standpoint. The more of those teams we get into the league, and get to launch an NWSL team, the better.”

MLS or otherwise, however, the scheduling challenges of 2015 still rears its ugly head over expansion. Will the scheduling structure surrounding the World Cup be adaptable to adding a 10th team?

Furthermore, will every team be back? Multiple team owners say they are not completely convinced that every team will return – citing attendance and lack of revenue in some markets – a fear that circles back to some of the third-year burdens for women’s leagues of yesteryear.

Bailey, however, shows no signs of concern about the teams currently under her leadership.

“We have not had anything along the lines or throughout the season that has given us any pause, whatsoever,” she said. “We have all nine teams fully committed, in terms of their investment with players, with their infrastructure. Several have made changes from year one to year two to increase that staffing, so at this point and time, we feel very confident about the nine teams that we have going forward.”

DEVELOPING LOCALLY AND NATIONALLY

“We’re only in nine markets,” Bailey says, reflecting on the league’s geographical footprint. “We’re not at a national level even like the MLS – it’s far more national. When you start out, you have to tap into the resources and what you have. Each of these teams has their own market.

“To be fair, nine teams do not necessarily make us national. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to try.”

With a league concentrated in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and three teams down the spine of the U.S. map, there are gaping geographical holes for the NWSL. And the divide in opinion regarding national versus local initiatives may as well be the distance from Boston to Portland.

Portland Thorns fans at Sunday's match vs. Boston, when 14,383 fans showed up. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Portland Thorns fans at Sunday’s match vs. Boston, when 14,383 fans showed up. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Paulson can’t use the word “local” enough. Sure, the soccer culture in the Pacific Northwest is unlike almost anywhere else in the country, but local tie-ins, marketing and sales have helped the Thorns in becoming the league’s flagship franchise. And it’s where other teams need to focus, he says.

Stoller, on the other hand,  would like to see an increase in national marketing and media campaigns to push awareness of the league as a whole. The NWSL just debuted on ESPN2 on Sunday (Portland and Boston put on a show, with the Thorns winning 6-3), the first of nine matches this season on an ESPN platform.

Perhaps no markets are more critical to the NWSL’s success than the Pacific Northwest, an area that buoyed MLS in its rise in popularity particularly over the last half-decade.

Seattle has been running away with the league’s regular season title since Week 1, and it has led to an attendance and revenue improvement of nearly 70 percent. Still, the Reign are averaging a shade over 3,400 fans per game this season.

Predmore sees the potential from Seattle Sounders FC, who average north of 40,000 fans each year in MLS, and even from the Thorns.

Paulson believes that a healthy rivalry with Seattle – and a Seattle team drawing big crowds – is a necessity for the NWSL. Paulson is confident the market is there in Seattle, just as it is in Portland, a slightly smaller city. He wants to see Seattle crowds similar to those in Portland.

“I really want Seattle to be drawing 10,000-plus people a game,” Paulson said. “The more strong markets, the better. They have a lot of really good players and they are really playing good soccer this year. What they’ve done is amazing, in terms of only one loss so deep into a season.”

Whether or not the Reign and Sounders men partnering would boost attendance and awareness remains to be seen. Predmore calls Sounders FC an “informal” partner as a fellow professional soccer club in the city.

“I think we are both at a point where we can both imagine a deeper partnership,” Predmore said of the NWSL and MLS clubs, without specifying what “deeper” could mean. “Whether that happens now, a year from now, 10 years from now – I don’t know. But I don’t think that it is required for the Reign to be successful.”

FUTURE USSF INVOLVEMENT

U.S. Soccer’s involvement sets NWSL apart from its predecessors. That the federation is directly involved in funding and helping operate the league brings the hope for longevity. How long that connection lasts could be a strong indication of the health of the league, even more than the involvement of Canada and Mexico.

It’s unlikely that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati would allow this venture to fail – at least this early in the process – knowing that he was a big part of the decision to start and support a league instead of sending the U.S. women into residency. There’s a personal stake in this for him, and for everyone at U.S. Soccer, let alone all the individual owners.

So for 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics preparations, the NWSL is U.S. Soccer’s vision for preparation and development of its players. That’s why every national team player has returned to the States instead of playing abroad.

But exactly how long U.S. Soccer will be needed to help support the league is unknown. In an ideal world, the NWSL would get to a point at which it is sustainable on its own, those involved hope.

“I think that’s been the goal all along, to be honest,” Bailey said. “To be able to have U.S. Soccer come alongside, in addition to Canada and Mexico paying for players and providing players. To be able to provide that stability within the league, that, over time, we will be in such a place that we can stand without that support.”

Bailey says she isn’t sure of what the timeline may be for that. She saw “a great deal of stability” from year one into year two, and forecasts the same for the transition into year three.

These sort of questions are monitored on and change from a year-to-year basis. They are the realities of women’s soccer as it tries to break the mold, get past a third season and ultimately thrive, not just survive.

For now, though, survival remains a large part of the game. And while there’s a good deal of optimism surrounding the league, those sentiments have existed before from teams and leagues that have failed. Time will tell whether the NWSL can create a different fate.

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