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A Rapinoe-Krieger final is an NWSL dream – if the league can tell the story

(Rebekah Wynkoop / SPP)

There are few bigger figures in women’s soccer — or arguably even women’s sports — than Megan Rapinoe. The legendary forward is known as much for her on-the-field play for her club OL Reign and the U.S. Women’s National Team as she is for her outspoken and unapologetic advocacy off the field on issues such as racial justice, LGBTQ visibility, and equal pay in women’s sports.

Earlier this year, Rapinoe announced her retirement from both club and international soccer, and after a career that has produced an Olympic gold medal, two World Cup victories, the Ballon d’Or, and even a Presidential Medal of Freedom, it seems like she’s already won everything there is to win.

There is, however, one trophy that’s eluded her. Megan Rapinoe has never won a National Women’s Soccer League Championship.

Despite winning three Shields with OL Reign, for whom she’s played since the inception of the NWSL in 2013, she’s never lifted a championship trophy. But now, for the first time since 2015, OL Reign has made it all the way to the finals and Rapinoe may have a chance to claim that final hardware in the final game of her career.

As far as sports storylines go, it doesn’t get much better than this – until it does. OL Reign will be taking on NJ/NY Gotham FC in the season final, and Gotham is captained by Ali Krieger, a beloved veteran defender and two-time World Cup-winning United States teammate of Rapinoe’s who is also retiring and who has also never won an NWSL championship in her career (which spans the decade-long history of the league). Additionally, Gotham has never won an NWSL championship despite also being an original team in the league — first as Sky Blue from 2013-2020 before rebranding as Gotham in 2021.

In short, an incredibly compelling narrative has developed to frame this final. Two teams, neither of which have won a championship, led by star players in their very last matches, chasing an elusive trophy to cap off legendary careers. Even casual fans going into this match will know that they’ll be guaranteed the chance to experience the elation of witnessing one team and a retiring star win a championship for the very first time. Such fans will also have the guaranteed pathos of watching another team and retiring star miss out on their chance to win their first trophy. A Clash-of-the-Titans type of storyline with these stakes doesn’t come up organically so often, and it would be in the league’s best interest to take full advantage and promote this storyline as aggressively as possible to bring in a larger general audience. Because, in a league that is still working to gain the attention of casual viewers, compelling storylines are an excellent way to garner interest.

There is no question that the NWSL is growing. But while average attendance was up 32% this year over 2022, there’s still a lot of room for growth in most markets. While the top six teams averaged over 10,000 attendees per game, Gotham, at number seven, dropped down to an average of just over 6,000, with the remaining teams tapering off to the Chicago Red Stars at the bottom with just under 5,000.

For the league to continue this growth trajectory, it needs to get more eyes on games, which means games need to be visible. Big strides were made last year when the championship match’s kickoff was moved from 12 noon ET to 8 PM ET on CBS. An average of 915,000 viewers tuned in to watch the Portland Thorns take on the Kansas City Current in 2022 — a full 71% increase from the previous year. This year, the kickoff will remain at prime time on CBS and will be taking place in the league’s number one market – San Diego – so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect another increase in viewership. And with a storyline like Rapinoe v. Krieger in their final matches, the league has a potent narrative it can use to maximize return.

Rapinoe’s storyline should be enough to garner interest from audiences both at home and abroad and should bolster the broadcast numbers, but it’s also not hard to see how this angle alone could be marketed to bring more casual fans into the stadium, and help surpass a million broadcast viewers as well. Rapinoe’s much-hyped final home match in Seattle with OL Reign was interesting enough to break the league’s single-game record with 34,140 fans in attendance — a massive increase over their season average of 10,765 per game. Krieger’s final match at home brought in 9,005, which was approximately 3,500 more than the average attendance for Gotham that season. While this isn’t the home market for either team, these stories are important to the growth of the league at large. If this match is sold aggressively as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these legends in their final games chasing a final trophy, it should sell tickets. Maybe not as many as if the home team the San Diego Wave had made it to the final, but the opportunity remains there.

Now it’s up to see how the league and its affiliates, like CBS – its sole media broadcast partner until the end of this season – do with this story. How will they market it? How will they try to sell it to an audience outside of the league’s existing fans? There’s no question that this will be a topic that dominates media events surrounding the match and in discussions in women’s soccer spaces. It’ll probably be a major talking point throughout the game’s broadcast as well. But how will it be brought outside of those insular areas and into places the general public will find it and decide that this is an event they don’t want to miss? That has yet to be seen.

While it’s certainly the responsibility of the media and outlets such as The Equalizer to tell these stories, the league needs to tell its own stories, too, and use said stories to sell its own product — something it’s historically failed to do. And only a few days out from the final match itself, there’s not a huge amount of buzz being intentionally generated on this topic or any others that’s directly coming from the league itself. Outside of a few tweets, there’s very little storytelling going on to draw the maximum amount of viewers into this match.

How the NWSL ultimately chooses to act on a golden opportunity such as this will be an interesting glimpse into how the league views its own role and that of its broadcast affiliates — which are expected to multiply into numerous partnerships instead of a single deal with CBS next year — in promoting its own storylines for growth.

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