The National Women’s Soccer League offseason is slowly, mercifully nearing its conclusion. Believe it or not, preseason kicks off in less than three weeks.
It has long been a topic of conversation that the player movement front was glacially slow this winter. It took long enough for the three teams with coaching vacancies to act. But what about the off-the-field activities for the league’s member clubs? As we near the SheBelieves Cup and then the start of preseason, let’s take a look at the nine teams and try to figure out what a good 2019 will look like on the business front.
Chicago Red Stars
As pointed out last week by John Halloran, the Red Stars are unique among the “independent” clubs in that they have shown no significant signs of struggle, yet they remain in a perpetual battle to become relevant in one of the most dense sports cities in the country. Despite their large rise in average attendance in 2018, numbers for standalone matches were relatively flat.
Here’s what the Red Stars have going for them: When the World Cup starts, the U.S. goalkeeper is likely to be a Red Star (Alyssa Naeher), the most vital U.S. player could be a Red Star (Julie Ertz), and the world’s most prolific goalscorer at the moment will lead an upstart Australia side (Sam Kerr). Additionally, if Danielle Colaprico somehow makes the World Cup team, hers will be a story worth telling. Can the Red Stars take advantage of these stars, especially on the back end of the World Cup, which usually provides at least a temporary rise in attention? Let’s hope so.
The Dash have fallen so far behind at the gate that they are often overlooked in discussions of NWSL teams that are affiliated with MLS sides and thus part of the upper echelon of the league’s power structure. Their abysmal home record over the years surely does not help, but for smaller sports leagues to survive and thrive, teams will need to be supported no matter what the standings say at any given time.
New head coach James Clarkson appears to be a breath of fresh air with his approach to player communication and happiness. Happy players are not exactly a business model, but if the culture inside the locker room improves then perhaps the Dash players — led by local favorite Kealia Ohai — will in turn sell their club to the public. And the team has made strides behind the scenes as well, bulking up the sales staff and devoting more time and manpower to Dash-centric initiatives.
I’m expecting attendance to go up at BBVA Compass Stadium this season — and if I’m being honest, it better.
North Carolina Courage
When last we almost had an NWSL match in North Carolina, a hurricane was approaching The Triangle and after a week where no one wanted to act quickly enough, the game was moved to Portland — much to the dismay of Courage ownership. One of the main sticking points was that they believed they were on track to selling out the match for the second year running. The switch to Portland was a financial drain.
Many of NWSL fans are hoping to see the Courage open the 2019 season at home against the Red Stars, which would be the seven-months-too-late version of that semifinal from a season ago. Is it too late to sell out that match if it happens (or whatever the home opener is)? In truth the longer it takes for the schedule to drop, the more difficult it becomes to attract a big gate. But the Courage are a phenomenal soccer team in a scorching-hot soccer market and they did well last season to raise attendance over their inaugural campaign. Filling Sahlen’s Stadium on the regular is probably too far out to think about in 2019, but the Courage should be able to inch closer to that goal.
Unfortunately for the Pride, they have done a good job mirroring their MLS parent club. Orlando City were the darlings of Major League Soccer in 2015 and the Pride came along a year later and opened in front of what remains the largest crowd ever to watch an NWSL match. But attendance never hit the lofty goals of ownership, and the two seasons at Orlando City Stadium have seen it plummet nearly in half. Things got so bad last summer that Ashlyn Harris called out the front office and fans for the empty seats.
The poor record is hardly an excuse, either. The Pride ended 2017 on one of the great runs the league has seen and were a top-four side deep into last summer. They also boasted the most popular American player (Alex Morgan), one of women’s soccer’s few global stars (Marta), and a fanatically-followed local (Harris). If that group can’t attract the commercial side, then which one will?
The goal in Orlando should just be to stop the bleeding and get back some of the fans who have not returned after 2016. And they are probably the only NWSL side affiliated with a men’s club that could get a real boost if the men started to thrive on the field.
Portland Thorns FC
It would be easy to suggest that all the Thorns need to do is continue to set the trend as the most successful women’s club team on the planet. But the 2019 has a bit of nuance to it.
First, Thorns attendance was down in 2018, something that had never happened before. No cause for alarm there. No one’s business numbers can point upward 100 percent of the time. At the same time, if the mighty Thorns suffer another dip in average attendance this year, it could be seen as a negative that ripples down through to some clubs struggling to just get by.
Another factor is that Providence Park won’t be ready until around June 1, the date of the Timbers home opener. That means the Thorns’ 12-game home schedule will be packed tightly, often a challenge when it comes to drawing top crowds week over week. At the same time, if you’re going to back-load your schedule, best to do it in a World Cup year.
The Thorns are going to be fine. They will also have enough seats that they will become eligible to reclaim the league’s single-game attendance record — currently 23,403, in the Pride’s inaugural home match. The Thorns have sold out at least one match every season since 2015, but they will have about 4,000 extra seats to achieve that this season.
This one is easy, and this one is not so easy. The Reign will be playing matches in Tacoma after five seasons under the Space Needle at Memorial Stadium. This was a necessary move that should net long-term gains for the club, but it does not mean they will make the transition smoothly. In fact, it will take about half the season to establish a new baseline before we can even really get a read on what to expect at Cheney Stadium.
If Reign attendance is higher in August than it is in April, it will be a plus. Some finality about the project to build a soccer stadium for the Reign and Tacoma Defiance (formerly Sounders 2) would also create some buzz and could bring people in who are hesitant to watch soccer in a baseball stadium. (That stadium wouldn’t be ready before 2021, however.)
Sky Blue FC
Sky Blue’s issues have been covered here, there and elsewhere over the last eight months. It will be a good season if they can survive and get some groundwork laid for 2020. The latest twist has Tammy Murphy, wife of co-owner and New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, taking a more hands-on role with the team. The club told The Equalizer that Murphy is not currently available for interviews, but a team spokesperson offered the following:
On the administrative offices: “Our new offices in Howell are a short drive from player housing and our training facilities. This proximity will allow staff to better provide the support our players need.”
On staffing increases: “All new staff are full-time, salaried employees. We have expanded our communications, operations, and sales department.”
On housing improvements: “Thanks to an increased housing cap, we were able to secure apartments for 14 players and, thanks to an investment from ownership, we are providing brand new furnishings for those apartments. Like the rest of the league, Sky Blue FC is moving away from host families and will be less reliant on them this year than ever before.”
Details beyond that were vague other than the promise of more exciting news to come.
Utah Royals FC
Remember in 2014 when the Dash swooped into the league and immediately became the model for the “other-than-Portland” teams? Remember two years after that, when the Pride came in, traded for Alex Morgan, and bumped the Dash off that plateau? If you do, you’ll understand the cautionary tone as the Royals enter their second season.
Just about everything the Royals did in 2018 was brilliant, the notable exception being the abrupt ending of the local television deal near the end of the season. After a season-opening crowd of 19,203, attendance settled in at the low 8,000s and they drew 11,851 for the final match of the season. Their season average was better than any other NWSL season outside Portland — and would have been even if taking out the smash-hit opener.
When I visited Utah for that opening game, everyone from journalists to Uber drivers told me it was a fair-weather sports city. Does that mean the pressure to win is already on? Either way, the debut season was fantastic. The next step for the Royals is to prove they can sustain.
This is another tricky read because the Spirit remain in the process of changing majority owners from Bill Lynch to Steve Baldwin. They have been pesky about not making a formal announcement about this, but as it turns out, Baldwin has held a minority stake in the club for at least two years.
Considering the on-field mess the Spirit have become in the two years since they nearly won the NWSL Championship, things off the field have been alright. The best of it was a raucous crowd of 7,976 that showed up to their game at Audi Field despite the team being mired in a brutal slump. Will there be more games at Audi Field this season? Nothing formal has been announced as of yet.
The Spirit are similar to the Red Stars in their independence. But the D.C. area seems like a strong market for women’s soccer. At some point, the Spirit need to commit to the SoccerPlex, Audi Field, or some place else to call home and hope the fan base follows. Slow and steady growth in 2019 would suit.