As Women’s Soccer Grows, the NWSL Aims to Be the Sport’s Global Leader

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Last month, the National Women’s Soccer League wrapped up its season with a North Carolina Courage championship. Concluding its sixth season of operation, the NWSL is the first women’s soccer league in the U.S. to continue operation past its third campaign, a testament not just to the management and operation of the league itself but also a growing interest in the sport and appreciation of the women’s game.

Amanda Duffy, managing director of the NWSL, attributes the league’s success where others have failed as a product of several factors.

The league was founded by a group of owners that had experience operating both women’s professional teams and MLS organizations and launched with the support of U.S. Soccer, which currently serves as the manager of the NWSL.

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“[U.S. Soccer] provides critical support both financially and with human resources for women’s national team players and their compensation that allows for the teams to focus their investment across the other players, as well as locally with our organization,” explained Duffy.

The federation also provides other resources, including front office and strategic support that has helped with the league’s growth and ability to bring in owners from the Houston Dash, Orlando Pride, and most recently the Utah Royals.

While soccer in the U.S. is experiencing a period of rapid growth, the women’s game, in particular, is growing globally —  something that excites Duffy.

“We’re seeing more investment and more resources being put towards the women’s game (globally), and while we consider ourselves a leader in the space of the women’s game, it pushes us to remain in that place.”

European clubs have been increasingly prioritizing their women’s leagues, cross-promoting content on social across its men’s and women’s teams, encouraging attendance to matches, and bringing their teams on tour to the U.S.

With the Women’s World Cup approaching, Duffy knows all eyes will the on the sport next summer.

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“It’s a global event and there will be a lot of the visibility on the women’s game and on the NWSL, in particularly, as we are a league that is a leader in the professional women’s space.”

To maintain its position as the world’s top women’s soccer league, the NWSL has taken a very measured approach to growth, expanding in ways that will ensure the league’s success. A large part of this involves prioritizing bringing in the right owners in the right markets where new teams will have the best opportunity to be successful.

“We look at (whether the markets) are currently operating a professional sports organization, not necessarily soccer, but a professional sports team that would allow some shared resources across the organization to really be able to support a team in the right way,” said Duffy.

She also says the league looks into whether or not the teams operating within these markets have community relationships through that existing infrastructure that would allow an affinity towards the club at an earlier point versus building something new.

“Our approach to expansion isn’t just in a narrow like we want to go to this market or that market. It’s about a combination of several different elements that need to be right in order for us to take a strong step forward with expansion groups.”

Having taken the factors of ownership, market, resources, facilities, and infrastructure, cities like Portland have been hugely successful for league. The Utah Royals, who entered the league in November 2017, also exceeded expectations despite not having a whole pre-season cycle of planning preparation and ticket sales.

The upcoming Women’s World Cup will provide the NWSL and its clubs another opportunity for growth. This will be the second World Cup of the NWSL’s existence — the first occurring in 2015, during which the league saw a spike in attendance and tickets sales during and following the event.

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“Based on what we learned from the 2015 Women’s World Cup, we’re excited about next year and anticipate it will be another year of growth for us in 2019,” said Duffy.

To support the growing interest in the league, the NWSL has relied on its partnership with A&E Television Network, stating the value of its Lifetime Game of the Week for boosting awareness to consumers in their homes. Having some games featured on ESPN News has allowed the league to gather data on its developing fanbase and a streaming relationship with Verizon and go90 has helped fans follow with the NWSL more easily through their phones. Next year, digital games will move to Yahoo! Sports, something Duffy anticipates will give the league more exposure.

Heading into the offseason, the NWSL is already actively planning for the 2019 season.

“We’re taking into consideration that the visibility and impact of the Women’s World Cup next year and maximizing that opportunity,” said Duffy, highlighting ongoing conversations with sponsors to try to move those relationships forward.

It doesn’t look like the American soccer gold rush will end anytime soon and, especially with the Women’s World Cup right around the corner, the NWSL is in the perfect position to take advantage of growing resources. Powered by league longevity and home to some of the best women’s players in the world, the NWSL appears positioned to maintain its global dominance for years to come.