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Why the NWSL needs Houston, Orlando markets to get it right – and what they are doing about it

The Portland Thorns FC franchise is the standard-bearer in women’s soccer. Over 16,000 fans turn up to Providence Park for each home match to create a spectacle like no other in the league – and few, if any, others in the world. It has led to a perpetual question from those within the National Women’s Soccer League and from those thinking about joining – most of whom start by dreaming of that type of success: ‘How can we get that here?’

Portland’s prosperity has driven the argument around the ideal model for professional women’s soccer franchises. The Thorns share ownership with Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers, and thus the MLS-backed NWSL model yields the highest-possible ceiling to date. It all makes sense, too: take a city already crazy about soccer and MLS, and bring that passion to the women’s game by treating it equal to the men’s team. That’s a massive oversimplification of what Portland is and how the Timbers/Thorns organization operates – but that’s the point. It has inspired the idea for others.

Utah Royals FC joined the NWSL ahead of the 2018 season and literally studied Portland’s books and practices. The Royals are owned by Dell Loy Hansen, who also owns Real Salt Lake, which began play in MLS in 2005. Utah’s average attendance of about 9,000 fans might be lower than the club hoped for, but it’s still good for nearly double the next-closest NWSL team – and a fine base to build upon. Either way, it’s much too early to declare a verdict on the market. There is a clear commitment to treating RSL and the Royals equally, which mirrors the attitude in Portland.

There is, however, sufficient evidence of struggles for the MLS-NWSL model in two other markets: Houston and Orlando. Houston Dash attendance is due to decline on average for the fourth straight season; Orlando Pride attendance is set to do the same for the second straight year. Those struggles at the gate have been particularly pronounced this year. Average crowds this season of about 4,800 in Orlando and 3,500 in Houston have left seas of purple and orange seats, respectively, on TV. That has quietly called into question just how viable these markets are, and, at a wider level, cooled confidence that the MLS-backed model is the only way forward for the NWSL.

It’s important to note up front that attendance isn’t the lone – nor necessarily most important – metric for judging business sustainability, particularly in a world where fewer people are attending games and media rights are as important as ever. The NWSL’s deal with A&E, which saw the media giant take a 25 percent stake in the league, was a boon when it was announced in early 2017.

Still, attendance is the most obvious, front-facing measurement of a market’s interest in a team, and Houston – now in its fifth season – and Orlando – playing in its third – have objectively been disappointments. For their part, they aren’t running from their issues.

“It’s not where we wanted to be. I’m not going to lie to you,” says Chris Canetti, president of business operations for the Dash and Dynamo (MLS). …

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