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The Lowdown: Seven questions for return of NWSL

The return of NWSL will see a different landscape for Jeff Plush to navigate. (Photo Courtesy NWSL)

The return of NWSL will see a different landscape for Jeff Plush to navigate. (Photo Courtesy NWSL)

Thursday marks the return of NWSL, eight days earlier than originally planned but also just in the nick of time after the United States’ untimely exit from the Olympic tournament. The make-up match between the Dash and Spirit could serve as the perfect tonic for fans still in shock that a major semifinal and medal matches do not include the U.S.

The return of NWSL—the regularly scheduled matches resume Friday, August 26—will also see the league enter a new phase. Gone until 2019 are the World Cup and Olympics and the tense absences of prominent players that accompany them. In will come rumors of some of those same players jumping ship for lucrative deals in Europe. There is also an impending labor impasse that could see NWSL awkwardly jammed in the middle of a tense battle between U.S. Soccer and the U.S. players.

Here are seven things to take note of as the league soldiers on toward national relevance. Before I start though, a note about the return of the U.S. players from Brazil. The agreement worked out in advance called for the players to get a minimum of seven days between the end of the Olympics and rejoining their clubs teams. Doing the math that means it was not so likely they would have been around for the first weekend back had the United States been in the medal matches. Yes, that stinks. I have also used enough space on the matter so we can revisit in 2019.

Now…

Will there be an Olympic bump?

This has been the million dollar question all year and we will soon get our answer. If we’re comparing to what happened in 2015, the answer will certainly come back a disappointment. But ratings were strong during the Olympics and the NBC broadcast team did a superb job of legitimizing NWSL by treating it as legitimately as any other pro sports league. With only a handful of matches left in each venue, I would assume there will be some push on ticket sales, some of which may be partially negated by midweek dates right on top of the school year starting up again.

Another potential blow to the league’s chances to market off the Olympics is the absence of any players from Sweden or Germany. That means not only will the United States players return empty-handed—and without a signature moment or emergence of a breakout player—but not a single gold- or silver-medalist will be making her way back to U.S. shores.

[GORDON: Where does USWNT go after early Olympic exit?]

Average attendance sits at 5,479—up about 12.5 percent from the final 2015 tally (removing the expansion Pride, attendance is up by an average of exactly 4 people per game among the nine returning teams.) With 10 of the 27 remaining matches in the three venues that are beating the average—including three in Portland—NWSL figures to see attendance growth for the year.

Considering there is unlikely to be a 13,000-plus crowd in Houston like the one that attempted to welcome Carli Lloyd back to the team after her Golden Ball performance last summer, a small increase in the average will be a fine achievement for the young league.

What about sponsors and television partners?

For all of the buzz the World Cup created there has been minimal impact the league level in terms of sponsorships and television partners. Will be the Olympics be any different? On the surface it would seem like the answer is no.

That said, sponsors that may have kicked the tires last summer could come back to the table and realize the league has indeed shattered the glass ceiling that was a three-year life cycle for women’s pro leagues, and that attendance and Youtube viewers are inching upward. We also hope the league has been chasing down sponsors all along that that someone is ready to jump on board. Time will tell.

(Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

(Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

On the television front, the 2016 deal with FS1 (finally) kicks in Sept. 7 and will run through the NWSL Championship. Word is there is at least one other network looking to get in the door but there is not much space left to fit anything in the rest of the way.

I have a different take on this issue than most. The free streams (full disclosure: I’m part of the Sky Blue FC broadcast team) are a rarity for North American professional sports. Meanwhile, everyone agrees that the future of live sports distribution is online. So while a meatier television deal for 2017 and beyond would be nice, the cutting edge move would be to figure out how to better package and distribute the online product.

Will Mallory Pugh sign?

Minutes before the 2016 draft opened the league announced a new mechanism for new players entering the league via the allocation process from U.S. Soccer or other federations. The hastily announced arrangement was accompanied by a trade in which the Thorns moved into the top priority spot in exchange for the No. 3 pick (which the Breakers used on Christen Westphal.) Reports quickly surfaced that the Thorns moved up to nab Pugh.

The next week Pugh’s father told The Denver Post that Pugh had toyed with going pro but ultimately elected to enroll as a freshman at UCLA. Then last month it was announced that Pugh was skipping her freshman year to play in the U-20 World Cup.

[LAULETTA: Five reasons the U.S. crashed out early in Brazil]

That event ends Dec. 3 which theoretically gives Pugh plenty of time to decide on 2017. But the Thorns will lose their priority at the top of the list after the NWSL Championship on Oct. 9 and the last-place finisher will take over. Earlier this year, Thorns coach Mark Parsons told The Equalizer that the Thorns were exploring several options for utilizing their USI (Unaffiliated Subsidized Individual) but if they are close to making a move it has been kept pretty well quiet.

Pugh’s final decision will be interesting not so much because at 18 she has potential to move the needle a bit with the general public, but to see if a trend develops that sees more players giving up college eligibility to turn pro. It is probably too early for many to do so without strong indications that a national team career is in the cards but as the league continues to gain stability and hopefully boosts salaries, talented teens skipping out on college would seem inevitable.

Will others leave?

Lyon have been outspoken about their desire to lure Alex Morgan to France. Carli Lloyd, albeit in an interview with Liverpool’s website, said she does not rule out a move to Europe at some point. Surely there are others getting feelers from some of the top clubs on the Continent.

160808 Alex Morgan OrlandoLyon’s owner certainly feels he’ll be getting some American players. So what will happen? And how much will it matter? I won’t pretend to have any idea who is going to do what, but there will clearly be tugs on players to forego being NWSL pioneers in favor of latching on to European clubs riding the financial coattails of their male counterparts.

When NWSL launched it was made clear that anyone playing in Europe had better quick time it back to the states else forget about being part of the World Cup team. But since then, Germany-based Gina Lewandowski has been in numerous camps and made it to the final cuts before being taken out of consideration for the Olympic Games. Was that a soft signal that players will have more freedom to ply their trade around the globe?

[OLYMPIC SEMIS: Sweden bunker to victory again | Germany handles Canada]

If Morgan or Lloyd leave it will sound off alarm bells as loud or louder than the ones that went off after Lisa Dahlqvist’s penalty sent the U.S. tumbling out of the Olympic last week. But the departure of a few players, even prominent ones, is standard fare in leagues all over the world. And if we want to have players like Amandine Henry in NWSL then why is it such a big deal if a few American players head elsewhere?

Players switch leagues for any number of reasons from money to the allure of the Champions League to a lifelong desire to live overseas or maybe even a lifelong—or family generated—connection to a famous club. One thing is for sure though. At this point there is no league anywhere offering the most consistent tests for its clubs and players than NWSL.

Will the league expand?

I have been surprised in recent weeks to see how split the inner NWSL world is on expansion. Everyone wants the league to keep growing but there is also a feeling that a few things should happen before more clubs are brought on board. Key among them is making sure straggling clubs like Sky Blue FC and the Chicago Red Stars are suitably keeping pace with what should be higher minimum standards each season. This has also been the year player salaries have found the cross-hairs and many would like to see current players taken better care of before creating new jobs for poverty-level wages.

Alyssa Mautz of the Chicago Red Stars. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Alyssa Mautz of the Chicago Red Stars. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Both points are fair. But there are a few reasons NWSL cannot afford to pass up any expansion group that fits the bill for what the league is looking for. One is that groups are not likely to be inclined to wait around as is often the case with owners and/or markets trying to crash more established and lucrative sporting ventures. So if a prominent owner willing to fork over the cash to make it a go comes along with a suitable venue and infrastructure it only makes sense to say yes.

There is also the matter of allowing a new club to land in a season with no major tournament to take away any marquee players on the roster. In that regard, 2017 would be the perfect season to get a couple of new clubs on board. Finally, adding teams could actually help with salary relief if sponsors or television partners become attracted to a league with a bigger footprint. Adding a team in Los Angeles could go a long way toward achieving that desired geographic diversity.

Ah yes, Los Angeles, where the rumor mill picked up earlier this week.

Additionally we already know the Carolina Railhawks want in. At one point, so did Real Salt Lake. An Atlanta group met with Jeff Plush earlier this year and then declined to comment on the process. If their website is a guide it does not look promising.

What will happen in Kansas City?

In a story that has mostly flown under radar to this point, there is a lawsuit pending between FC Kansas City co-owners with Brian Budzinski claiming that Brad and Greg Likens and their father, Chris, have shut him out of operational decisions with the club and Major Arena Soccer League side Missouri Comets owned by the same group. The most troubling part about the suit involves claims that Likens’ sent lewd emails about players, some of which have been obtained and published by Excelle Sports. (Brad Likens has threatened to bring slander charges against Excelle claiming the emails were fabricated.)

The league issued a no comment other to say they are gathering information. (This is standard practice in cases like this, but the league almost never having any public comments is a troubling pattern.) They cannot be happy though. If the allegations about the emails are true, there is no way the Likens can continue running the club. (The emails published by Excelle, if authentic, reveal a rather abhorrent view for a group of men to take in running a women’s sports team, but I’m not sure on their own they are a direct indication of legal wrongdoing. The Equalizer has obtained a different alleged email but has elected not to publish it at this time.)

If the worst-case scenario happens, what becomes of FC Kansas City? The relationship with Sporting KC has strengthened through the years but it is not evident whether or not that MLS club is in the mix to take on the full responsibility of running a women’s team. Relocation is a possibility no one wants to see. The truth is that small leagues rarely have either a lineup of willing investors ready to jump in and purchase teams or enough independent capital to skate by if owners pull out (see Los Angeles Sol circa 2010.)

However it plays out in the end, this situation is likely to get more complicated before it clears itself up.

What about the CBA?

The elephant in the room is the collective bargaining agreement. Don’t let any player tell you NWSL is different from negotiations with the federation. It’s not. NWSL terms are written into the existing CBA and will likely be in the new one.

Where NWSL is different is that its clubs are different from U.S. Soccer and are ostensibly caught in the middle. So it will be a game of wait-and-see as to how if at all the league is affected when the new agreement is struck.

The good news is that even if the players and U.S. Soccer can’t come to terms by the end of the year and a work stoppage ensues that should only impact the national team. Those players would likely not do anything for their NWSL clubs (and one would hope anything is resolved by March) but the league itself would be able to conduct business as usual.

There are plenty of reports with a better pulse on CBA mechanics and negotiations than mine so I’m not going to make any grand predictions. I will, though, advise cautious optimism that NWSL comes out of CBA negotiations as good as or better than it is today.

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