It takes an innovative and creative plan to breakthrough an ever-crowded digital media scene. In Major League Soccer’s case, bold digital moves over the last few years have paid dividends. But women’s soccer – Women’s Professoinal Soccer (WPS) et al. – is yet to find a breakthrough.
WPS failed at a lot of things off the field (on the field the product was, for the most part, very good). To point to a single mishap as the proverbial league death sentence would be inaccurate, but women’s soccer’s inability to penetrate mainstream media continues to remind everyone that the sport has a long way to go in order to earn respect.
The major outlets don’t care about women’s soccer. Fans continue to wonder what it will take to get mainstream coverage for their sport; It begins internally.
On Friday a post went up at Fake Sigi discussing some of the things the next incarnation of a women’s soccer league needs to do in order to be successful. We both agree that a strong digital footprint is essential, but the success of MLS Digital has been undersold by Mr. Rolf.
Mainstream media have a hard enough time caring about women’s sports beyond novelty events like the World Cup and Olympics or landmarks like the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Mainstream media definitely does not care about a sport that can’t get out of its own way and provide basic information.
Facts are even more hard to confirm or research with no WPS, as unmanned press boxes and a lack of timely, accurate or really any statistics at all are not anomalies in the WPSL Elite League (let’s not get started on late kickoffs and forfeited or cancelled games). The USL W-League has work to do, as well.
Whatever the third incarnation of a women’s soccer league is called – whatever type of league it tries to be and however big its budget is – it won’t be able to convince media to cover it, not after two failed attempts. Sure, journalists will write the obligatory ‘Can this league make it?’ piece, or their columns on why the league is yet another one doomed for failure. Maybe they produce a fluffy piece on a national team star trying to help the league succeed.
And then that attention will all go away.
No in-depth player features, no power rankings, no breaking news (unless a team or league folds, of course). There won’t be any of that coverage. That is just the reality of major media, where the intricacy of content planning is far beyond what anyone not in the business can imagine.
The only coverage that can be guaranteed – if the owners take the necessary risk – is in-house content.
MLSsoccer.com has provided a model for just how successful that sort of digital initiative can be.
In 2009 MLS completely changed its digital strategy. The league dropped MLB Advanced Media as its platform and MLSnet.com became MLSsoccer.com, a change not only in name but in tone. (Read more in at nysportsjournalism.com.)
MLSsoccer.com suddenly became the online landing spot for news, video and written content covering not only the premier U.S. league but soccer abroad as well. Most interestingly, the site began to break news on its own league and feature content critical of players and managers. It was discussion, it was engaging and it’s drawing more eyeballs than ever.
Boundaries continue to be pushed; the latest example is the LA Galaxy unveiling a new blog on Saturday, in which Southern California MLS writer Adam Serrano emphasizes there will be independent (so, presumably at times, critical) coverage of the Galaxy. And the blog lives right on the Galaxy site at lagalaxy.com/blog.
That is about as hybrid as it gets in the ever-murkier crossover between team public relations and independent journalism. But again, it has worked thus far. Web visits are up 40 percent, according MLS Digital GM Chris Schlosser in the aforementioned interview.
Any reincarnation of a women’s professional soccer league in 2013 (hopefully by then, anyway) would be silly not to learn from that model.
Of course, that would involve team owners and league executives being open to self-criticism, which in the Wild West of women’s soccer there could be a decent amount of that. Teams would actually have to be willing to have objective beat writers talk about their team having a poor game or about who the team should draft or sign on the free agent market. That kind of content is what generates conversation and interest, and while it won’t be a massive revenue generator for a women’s soccer league, it is a necessary endeavor.
There are many of stories about WPS and its teams being hyper sensitive about what words go onto the league site (from objections to draft predictions and plenty more). While the league built up a strong social presence, it did not engage readers at the virtual gate: the league website.
Just look at www.womensprosoccer.com right now. A first time user could be led to believe that the league still exists (and that Sky Blue FC still has not gone to Japan). There is no prominently placed note of ‘hey, we don’t exist anymore,’ or a simple ‘thank you fans’, as many have asked for.
It’s another way which women’s soccer fans have been digitally and informatively shut out.
Whatever comes next for women’s soccer, it must include a strong digital presence both on the social and content side. Schlosser referenced having “tech-savvy” players and fans, which women’s soccer also possesses.
A content-driven endeavor like this also requires transparency and access – no hiding stories and certainly no creating difficulties for the people willing to invest the time and energy into covering women’s soccer, a sport the majority of the world dismisses.
Questions That Need Answering
There are plenty of questions that would need answering in the process of building this digital platform, but the biggest is really whether or not this would be an independent endeavor or if it would involve Soccer United Marketing (S.U.M.). Who will run the show?
S.U.M. already has a very large digital network that includes MLSsoccer.com, ussoccer.com and goal.com, which is not bad company to be in – that is of course, if the women’s network is treated as something worthwhile.
An alternative would be to have a new women’s soccer league replicate the successful models put forth by S.U.M. and MLS Digital, which would require some seriously smart hires.
Another major question is whether or not the digital initiative could be funded, supported and marketed by a major apparel brand in conjunction with a deal to be the official provider of gear for the league.
Prior to WPS announcing it would suspend operations for 2012 (folding shortly thereafter), it had discussed a deal with Adidas to become the official uniform and gear provider of WPS. That deal would have been similar to the deal Puma provided WPS in the league’s first three years, a former WPS employee said. (As everyone wonders if MLS would get involved in women’s soccer, think of what a step it would have been to have Adidas providing official gear and marketing initiatives to both MLS and WPS.)
Locking up a deal with a company not only willing to provide gear to players and fans but also flex its digital muscles and be a part of driving content is another key component to the equation. Which brand will that be?
Puma showed interest in the past. Adidas was ready to step in before the league went bellyup. Nike is the official brand of U.S. Soccer (more place for synergy). Under Armour has made serious commitments to its Under Armour Women’s line.
So, there are options, each of which comes with recognizable national team faces who are already ambassadors of that particular brand.
These questions and many more can be answered in the process of building out a new league – a process which will be measured in years, not months – but the first step in the media world is saying ‘yes’ to a digital commitment. Otherwise, any new women’s soccer league or offshoot of a current one will continue to be behind the times and doomed for further failure.
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