Less than three months into his tenure as the NWSL’s first commissioner, Jeff Plush has visited all nine markets—plus a few prospective ones—and reports the league to be in good health and moving forward. And despite an offseason that included myriad of early retirements and the likely defection of Abby Wambach, Plush is bullish on the future as season three and the Women’s World Cup approach.
“The overall health of the league is great,” Plush said in a wide ranging interview earlier this week. “Between the passion and support and excitement around our sport in general, the excitement around our season starting next Friday is great.”
Plush is a former executive with the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer. During his time there from 2006-2011 the club built its current home, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, and the league made the proverbial jump into MLS 2.0 with the signing of David Beckham and entrance into the Pacific Northwest among other positives.
“I certainly bring a unique and pretty relevant point of view on where we are and where I think we can get to as part of a prudent growth strategy,” Plush said. “The most important thing, if you were to boil it down to what happened in MLS, they became relevant in their markets. There’s lots of ways to do that – ticketing, sponsorships, academies. There is not a magic bullet.”
No magic bullet, but Plush has unwavering confidence that NWSL can take the small steps necessary to become market relevant and eventually a force in the growing world of soccer in the United States. To that end, he believes both national sponsor dollars and league-wide attendance will be up in 2015.
With several groups lining up to bring expansion clubs into the league and a World Cup bounce expected later this summer, here is a roundup of Plush’s thoughts on NWSL as it enters its third season:
National Television Agreement
Plush said the league is in the final stages of securing a television agreement and that he hopes to have an announcement soon. While that could mean three consecutive seasons in which the national television deal gets announced after the regular season opens, this time around there is a chance for the partnership to extend beyond the current season.
“I have a lot of confidence that in very short order here we’ll have an announcement to make on television,” he said. “There is a very good chance it will be a multi-year deal that will provide that continuity that we are looking for. It goes from just being a platform to provide your content to an actual partnership.”
On the subject of team-produced, live web streaming there have not been any specific changes as far as minimum requirements in 2015 (not all teams met the standard in 2014. Full disclosure – I served on the pregame and halftime shows for Sky Blue FC webcasts in 2013 and 2014.) However the league has received more and more requests for footage so Plush and the clubs know keeping the streaming at high quality is important.
“We understand it’s part of our forward-facing product that we have to continue to enhance.”
“We’ll be up,” Plush said about overall national sponsor dollars. NWSL is expected to announce at least two new national sponsors, hopefully by the start of the season April 10. The Equalizer has learned that one of the new sponsors is Coppertone.
“Like anything, and it’s certainly an area where I cut my teeth in the business,” Plush said, “it’s an ongoing non-stop, it’s what you do. All you really do is try to build out your corporate pipeline. So while we’ll be up, there is more to be done, both in the individual markets and at the league level.”
Not much new to report since Plush chatted with The Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf last month and the commissioner would not divulge any other potential cities since none have gone public. He did indicate that next week’s board meeting should provide some clarity on an expansion plan.
“There’s a lot of other cities,” he said. “We have our board meeting in Houston next week. I would anticipate that would come out with a statement relative to expansion, kind of where we are in the process.”
Asked about new teams in 2016, Plush did not rule it out but did say the window was closing. The league does not appear to want a repeat of the Houston Dash launch, which was nascent as late as November before the league and club worked double-time to get the Dash on board in time for the 2014 season.
“The window is rapidly shrinking to get it done for 2016. There is an ongoing dialogue, but too much longer, I would just not feel comfortable. There is the appetite to do it, but you want to make sure you do it right. You want a chance to launch in the right way.”
The two cities Plush has mentioned are Atlanta and Salt Lake, which would be under the umbrella of Real Salt Lake. At least four other cities are interested. The Equalizer reported interest from groups in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
Just this week, Kate Deines and Julianne Sitch joined the party of players under 30 announcing their retirements from professional soccer. As Plush notes, each situation is different, and childbearing is always going to keep women retiring younger than men on average. He notes that an NWSL player leaving the league to start a family or to jump at a different professional opportunity should be viewed as a positive. But he would also like the league to keep building to make it a more attractive place for female soccer players to spend the entirety of their athletic primes.
“There is complexity to the situation,” he said. “Anytime you have young players retiring it gives you reason to ask why. I would say the numbers are not that large relative to the entire player pool. I think we have to be careful and try not to evaluate our player pool through the prism of other leagues and especially men’s leagues. Women are different. Women are quitting for a variety of reasons, including having families. Those are things to be celebrated. If someone wants to go back and get a masters degree to take a teaching job, those aren’t negatives. The question is, are we doing what we can do to build a platform for our players to stay in our league for as long as they choose to. That’s what we’ll continue to work on.”
One obvious factor that could keep players in is money, something NWSL and its clubs do not have much of to go around. In discussions with players, the commissioner said there is not one single factor that appears to be driving them to the sidelines.
“The environment, whether it’s the playing environment or the training environment or the relationship they have with their communities, with our fans and sponsors,” Plush said. “(We want) all those things to be positive and continue to be built out. It’s an issue that you’re very right to ask about and it’s something we are focused on.
“I don’t think there is one thing. If you think about a lot of our players and the college programs they come from, these are smart, well-educated, driven, disciplined athletes who also have opportunities to do other things in their lives. I look at those things as positives in our league and am really excited to be in the business of promoting these young athletes. But with that comes choices. And we had the exact same conversations in MLS 10 years ago where you had players get to the point where they might want to go back and go to med school or go get their JD or whatever it might be.”
Wambach is not under 30 but her decision to skip the season rocked the NWSL. Since she announced it, her rights have been traded to Seattle and her new coach Laura Harvey has not closed the door on Wambach playing for the Reign after the World Cup. Plush insists the loss of Wambach will not have a negative impact on the league or other players.
“I don’t think it impacts things down the road. Players still want to play and they still want to be professionals. Many of them are extremely important in their markets and we have no reason to think other people don’t want to play.
“Abby’s situation is totally different. Abby is at the point in her career and life that she made a decision that was best for her and we supported that. We understand it. Nothing could be more important for soccer in North America, certainly in the United States than for the national team to go on and win the World Cup and for Abby to be a big part of that. She has put her career and body on the line for 20 years. So she’s done a lot for our sport.”
Plush said potential expansion owners have, in the course of their regular communication with the league, inquired about the situation. “Once we let them know our point of view on it they understand it.”
Plush recently went to Bradenton, Fla., to visit the referee camp being run by PRO (Professional Referee Organization.) He said that complaints about referees are standard in every league and competition on the planet but that he is impressed with PRO’s commitment to improving the standard of referees in the NWSL.
“The reality is they’re working very hard. It was good to see a good referee pool, a young referee pool. PRO has now hired someone full-time just to oversee the NWSL referees. There are some positive steps being made and some investments being put into referees. It’s an important part of our game so you’re always looking to see what you can do. It takes evolution and continued development.”
Neither Plush nor NWSL have direct authority over the referee pool.
No sports league in North America has as much divergence among its clubs as the NWSL. The Thorns’ all-time lowest attendance is more than twice that of the largest attendance pulled by Sky Blue, the Breakers, and Red Stars (not counting the doubleheader with the Fire at Toyota Park). The Spirit have only one game with attendance better than half the Thorns’ lowest. But Plush says all nine teams are healthy, and that stronger clubs like the Thorns and MLS-backed Dash will not allow the gap to grow too wide to sustain.
“I don’t have a concern with the people in Portland and Houston specifically,” Plush said. “They’ve been around. They understand that it’s about the collective. It’s about what we call enterprise-wide revenue. There is a real sense of togetherness and shared understanding of where we’re going.”
Plush has already visited all of the clubs and he receives a weekly report regarding season tickets and other notable business happenings.
“I’m not concerned with individual situations. Like anything each situation is different. Could we use more people in more buildings? Certainly. But that’s part of building the business. If you look at where we are, year three of a young league, it is certainly a platform that has had some challenges in the past, I don’t think anyone would say that we’ve arrived by any stretch or that there isn’t more to do or that there won’t continue to be situations that arise that we have to take on. But everyone’s committed, everyone’s engaged, and everyone’s working to build a better product today than we had yesterday. We’ve seen incremental growth in revenues and in bodies in the building and you just keep working on that. Certainly what is happening in Portland is fantastic. But I’ve toured all nine clubs now and came away really excited. There is an opportunity to create really fun environments in all of our cities. When you don’t control your venue that creates a level of nuance to deal with that others don’t have to when you do control the venue. Nothing concerning there’s just work to do.”
If there is one thing Plush does not lack it is confidence. The National Women’s Soccer League is about to embark on its third season to match WUSA and WPS, which both folded after their third seasons. Plush acknowledges there are things the NWSL needs to do, but he brims with confidence it can rise to the challenges and find sustainability.
“If we put a good product out there for our fans to be excited about; if we’re a platform for our sponsors to be excited to allocated their resources and their time around. If we do the types of things that I know we can do in our market places with youth and with the less fortunate, we can become important to people. If we can do all those things I know we’ll be successful, and I know we’ll be important, and I know we’ll be around long term. And then we’ll let people debate whether we’re doing it the way they want us to do it or whether we’re doing it well enough in their opinion. But I’ll be very proud of where we’ll be and I have no doubts that we’ll be there.”
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