One of women’s soccer’s biggest issues is its propensity to come and go from the national spotlight with major international tournaments. It is front and center every four years during the World Cup, as shown again this summer, but it lacks stability.
Evidence of what women’s soccer can be at its height splashed across televisions and web pages in early July. The United States women’s national team won the 2015 World Cup – the country’s third title – in front of a record-smashing TV crowd that averaged 25.4 million people in the United States. The victory parade in New York City and the endless media opportunities soon followed.
But six weeks later, the realities of the ‘other’ side of the sport can begin to settle in. The World Cup was a boon for the fledgling, three-year old National Women’s Soccer League, which has seen about an 18-percent increase in league-wide attendance since the end of the tournament. The NWSL’s challenge, like its two failed predecessors, is keeping customers around and the momentum going.
That brings the league to Monday’s formal announcement that the 2015 NWSL Championship will be played on Oct. 1 at Providence Park in Portland, Ore., a shift away from the previously established rules that the highest remaining seed in the playoffs would host the final. Setting the championship match ahead of time allows for a longer ticket sales lead-in and for more planning around the event, NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush says.
“There was a consensus that there was an opportunity to create a signature event, to develop an event that we call a tent pole that we can build from and build ancillary events off of,” Plush said. “And really to create a celebratory opportunity for our final, which is difficult to do, because in years past it was difficult to know where the event was going to be.
“We certainly saw an opportunity to do something in a pre-ordained location. Obviously, looking at Portland and everything that they have achieved, really a great opportunity to celebrate our sport and celebrate the pinnacle event of our season in a great location in Providence Park.”
In the first two years of the NWSL, the team hosting the final had less than a week to market the final after winning a semifinal match. Last year, the match drew 4,252 fans in Seattle. Rochester, N.Y. drew a crowd of 9,129 for the 2013 final.
MLS used a predetermined championship site for its playoffs from 1996-2011 (Plush worked for the Colorado Rapids in MLS from 2006-11). The NFL runs the most successful preset championship each year: the Super Bowl.
The decision to select a set location for the NWSL Championship was made by team owners prior to the start of the season, in early April. Plush said discussions about the idea pre-date his tenure, which began in January. Several cities were considered, including markets outside of the NWSL which could be potential expansion sites, Plush said.
News of the Portland-hosted final broke on Friday and looked like a second mid-season change to the playoff format after the league announced on June 30 that the final would be moved from the final weekend of September to Thursday, Oct. 1 (the final is set to kick off at 9:30 p.m. ET). That date is less than 50 days away, making for what to the outside world looks like to the a hasty decision. Plush didn’t offer specifics on why the announcement took so long to make.
“At the end of the day, I’ll take responsibility,” Plush said of the delay to announce the playoff format change. “I was probably doing this in a more traditional, old-school way of presenting the information and that’s a learning experience certainly for me and for the league. I just don’t want it to dampen our enthusiasm, because it doesn’t.”
Plush says he plans to join Twitter soon to better connect with fans and stay current.
Hosting the championship at a set site in the years to come will allow the league to plan events around the match and make it a more integral part of the league’s brand, Plush says. Plans for this October, while still in preliminary stages, include a community day in or around Portland. Plush says it is easier for sponsors and local markets to plan around the final, and in Portland’s case it will mean integrating Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike into events. Nike is the official gear supplier of the NWSL and of U.S. Soccer. The commissioner hopes to have NWSL players interacting with youth players in the market in a grassroots effort. And the championship will once again bring together all nine ownership groups.
Plush says that other markets have already expressed interest in hosting future championships. Portland made for a natural fit to best show off the league’s marquee event both in person and on TV, he said. (Plush refuted the idea that Fox Sports, which will broadcast three regular-season games and all three playoff games this season, was a driving force in selecting Portland as the host, but the move to a Thursday night final coupled with the June TV deal announcement almost certainly speaks to TV being the impetus of the change to the date. Fox Sports 1 broadcasts college football on Saturdays and it airs MLS matches every Sunday night.)
The commissioner said that the league is looking at “other events that make sense, whether that is in-season or postseason,” to avoid lulls in league activity. Plush is aware of the criticisms that the league goes dark from the end of the season until the college player draft in January. An all-star game is a high-profile event which the league lacks; Plush did not acknowledge whether that is one of the events being considered.
[LAULETTA: When, to where will the NWSL expand?]
Expansion remains the area to watch for the NWSL, with several MLS clubs expressing interest in taking up roots in the women’s game in the future. Looking at his board in his office, Plush put the number of expansion candidates at 12-15 markets, with varying levels of interest. He insists that there is “absolutely no dialogue about relocation” regarding any of the current nine clubs.
Real Salt Lake and Orlando City SC are among the MLS teams to have publicly stated interest in the NWSL.
The door remains open for 2016 expansion, “but it’s getting near the end of our timeframe to do 2016.” Plush said an expansion plan for 2016 would likely need to be in place by the final, and that it isn’t “totally off the table” yet. The Houston Dash were added in December 2013 for the 2014 season, but there is a consensus that such a tight time frame wouldn’t be replicated.
Portland is a market which the NWSL hopes it can replicate to scale in other places across the country in the coming years. On Oct. 1, the league’s hope is that the foundation will be laid for a successful championship model, too.