The first attempt burned through tens of millions of dollars and, despite an array of famous figures, was over in three years. The second try never took hold and ended in disarray after another brief lifespan.
But a dozen years after introducing top-flight women’s soccer to the U.S. pro sports landscape, organizers and investors believe they have finally found the right formula to sustain a national circuit and grow the sport’s female branch.
This weekend marks the launch of the National Women’s Soccer League, an eight-team alliance with high-quality personnel (all of the 2012 U.S. Olympic gold medalists are under contract), restrained payrolls (around $500,000 for a team of 18 to 20 players) and humble expectations (the Washington Spirit is aiming to average 3,000 fans).
The NWSL hopes to avoid the pitfalls that doomed the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11) and provide a permanent foothold for the sport.
“We are trying to be practical, really focus on sustainability, build that base and grow,” said Bill Lynch, owner of the Spirit, which will play home matches at Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County. “We’re starting simpler — a lot more modest makes much more sense.”
Women’s pro league endeavors have failed to capitalize on the success and popularity of the U.S. national team, which has won two World Cup and four Olympic titles since 1991, drawn respectable crowds and cultivated players, from Mia Hamm to Alex Morgan, who have more mass appeal than many of their American male counterparts.
But when the U.S. squad was broken into small parts and the players allocated around the country to perform weekly, the reception cooled. The overriding issue with WUSA and WPS, though, was reckless spending and mismanagement.
The WUSA, featuring Hamm and the other stars of the 1999 World Cup-winning team, averaged 7,246 spectators — a promising count but not nearly enough to offset the millions poured into the league. WPS took a thriftier approach but drew 3,930 per game and saw four teams fold and another relocate in the first two seasons.
What is different this time is the involvement of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body, which is subsidizing the league by paying the salaries of about two-dozen national team regulars who committed to the NWSL. The Canadian and Mexican federations are also involved, paying several of their top players to compete here.
The arrangement serves the USSF’s best interests because it expands the national team’s talent pool and keeps the players in a competitive environment. Without a domestic league, the federation would have to consider implementing a full-time residency program (for players who do not sign overseas) and scheduling more international friendlies than desired.
“It’s an investment in the sport,” USSF President Sunil Gulati said. Using a government metaphor, “public assistance was necessary to make it work. The likelihood of sustainability is greater.”
Germany, England, France and Sweden have kept most of their players at home with small-scale leagues.
“Anybody who doesn’t think there are several countries that have closed the gap on us,” Lynch said, “isn’t watching international soccer.”
Subsidies have eased the burden on NWSL owners. With federations covering the salaries for three Americans, two Canadians and one Mexican, Lynch is responsible for only about $200,000 for his other 12 to 14 players. (Non-elite players are on six-month contracts and have the flexibility to play elsewhere in the offseason or arrange other jobs.)
The USSF is also administering the league, headed by executive director Cheryl Bailey, the national team’s former general manager.
Sustainability was a selling point for top U.S. players, many of whom endured WPS’s problems or avoided the league altogether by playing overseas.
Spirit defender Ali Krieger, The Washington Post’s All-Met Player of the Year in spring 2003 from Forest Park High School in Prince William County, spent 51 / 2 years in the German league before committing to the NWSL this past winter.
“With the USSF supporting the league, it’s a better foundation — it’s sturdy,” Krieger said. “Before, I wanted to come home, but I said, ‘Why?’ You never know if you jumped on a team, the next year it was going to disappear. That’s not a professional atmosphere for me. With this set-up, it gives me hope.”
Each team will play 22 regular season games followed by a week of playoffs, culminating with an Aug. 31 final. The Spirit will open on the road Sunday evening against the Boston Breakers and make its home debut next Saturday night against Abby Wambach and the Western New York Flash.
The NWSL does not have a national TV contract and won’t buy airtime, leaving teams to stream their matches online.
Aside from low payrolls and broadcast savings, the league is playing primarily in small facilities with low rent fees. The only team housed at an MLS stadium is the Portland Thorns, who are owned by the same group that oversees the MLS’s Timbers. The city’s fanatical soccer culture has embraced the Thorns in the form of 7,000 season ticket holders. (The Spirit has about 700.)
The SoccerPlex, a sprawling athletic campus 34 miles from the White House, meets the Spirit’s needs, with a stadium holding 3,200 in a suburban environment. The base for women’s soccer is suburban families, compared to MLS’s foundation of young males and ethnic groups.
The Washington Freedom played at RFK Stadium in 2001-03 and, with Hamm on the roster, drew an average of 11,000 over three years. In WPS, the Wambach-led Freedom averaged 4,700 in 2009-10 at the SoccerPlex before relocating to South Florida.
Most other NWSL teams will play in high school, college or small municipal stadiums.
The league will afford opportunities to young players who otherwise would abandon the sport after college. And there are a lot of players out there. According to the USSF, girls and women account for 35 percent of American soccer’s 4.5 million registered players – twice as many as any other country. Women’s soccer boasts the highest participation numbers at the NCAA level, with 200 percent growth over 25 years.
Without a domestic league, the number of qualified candidates for the national team will inevitably shrink, jeopardizing the American reign over the women’s game.
“Other countries with leagues are catching up,” said Spirit captain Lori Lindsey, 33, a University of Virginia graduate and national team midfielder who played in both the WUSA and WPS. “The world’s soccer education is expanding and we need to continue growing. We should never be comfortable.”
NWSL organizers say they have learned from their predecessors’ mistakes and have taken the proper steps to avoid another collapse.
The WUSA and WPS “did some things right but needed to do it at a leaner level,” Gulati said. “This approach provides a higher probability to succeed.”