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U.S. women’s pro soccer league hopes World Cup excitement will lead to a breakthrough

The U.S. women’s national soccer team’s lawsuit and co-captain Megan Rapinoe’s outspokenness regarding President Trump have cast the team in a political light. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

His franchise has long been the most supported in the National Women’s Soccer League, but even Mike Golub, the Portland Thorns’ president of business, has been wondering how his club might leverage the frenzy that has come in the wake of the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup title.

Portland, the league’s perennial attendance leader and an outlier in a young and often struggling league, has more than 11,000 season ticket holders. It is having a record sponsorship year. And on Friday night, it bolstered the league’s flat attendance figures by drawing more than 19,000 fans to a home game against Reign FC, even though both clubs had a collection of American stars preparing to play in the World Cup final in France two days later.

It is the kind of post-World Cup momentum Golub has been projecting for weeks and that he can only hope will make his franchise less of an outlier. Professional women’s soccer leagues have felt false hope in the wake of previous World Cups, but the immense excitement surrounding the U.S. championship run has NWSL officials believing this time could be different.

“I think you’ll see material upticks throughout the league in attendance, and I think you’ll see some major national sponsorships get announced in the coming weeks on the heels of this. This is definitely wind behind all of our backs,” Golub said. “I think it’s going to be the most successful half-season the league has ever experienced.”

In 2003, an 8-year-old Rose Lavelle dressed as Mia Hamm for a third-grade book project

Established in 2012, the NWSL represents the sport’s highest level in the United States and has sustained itself longer than its predecessors, the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2007-12). After the failures of those leagues, organizers launched the NWSL with the belief that a system with high-quality players, reasonable payrolls and modest expectations — with smaller stadiums and smaller budgets — could finally allow a women’s soccer league to thrive. The NWSL also contracted with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body, which subsidizes the league by paying the salaries of members of the U.S. national team.

The NWSL has long struggled to gain a foothold, but the league has had several key victories over the past week. It struck a multiyear sponsorship deal with Budweiser, and ESPN announced that it would carry the league’s second-half games on its family of networks, a crucial development given that the NWSL took a heavy financial blow in February when it ended its television partnership with A&E Networks, which also owned a 25 percent stake in the league.

While the ESPN deal is not a long-term solution — it is slated to carry games only through the NWSL playoffs in October — it opens the door for a potential longer-term partnership and has provided front offices across the league with optimism in growing its fan base and securing future investments.

“I hope it translates. That’s what these players deserve. They’ve worked their entire life to get to this level … and the revenue that they’re getting from it doesn’t necessarily equate,” Washington Spirit Manager Richie Burke said. “You hope that will give them the much-needed attention that they deserve and the much-needed revenue that they deserve.”

The league did not disclose the financial terms of its ESPN deal. The salary cap for NWSL teams in 2019 is $421,500, with a maximum of $46,200 per player and a minimum of $16,538.

Coaches around the league have celebrated the agreement with ESPN as an opportunity to showcase the growing stardom of the 23 players on the U.S. roster, all of whom play for NWSL teams. The league also touts more than 30 players from 10 other countries, and general managers have used the World Cup to recruit international players, recognizing that lucrative clubs in Europe could bolster their own investments and try to lure players away from the NWSL.

“I think it’s really important for us,” said Orlando Pride General Manager Erik Ustruck, who oversees a roster with U.S. star Alex Morgan and Brazil star Marta. “It’s attractive to other players who are not in the league. . . . I think it’s a great opportunity to potentially scout players who are in the World Cup and go after some players who do well for their countries and show that there are opportunities in the U.S.”

While the NWSL still boasts a majority of the world’s top players, seven of the final eight teams in the World Cup were from Europe, underscoring the amount of resources those countries have thrown into the sport in recent years. The strengthening of clubs such as Olympique Lyonnais, Manchester City and Barcelona, as well as other new investments — Real Madrid will launch a women’s team next year — could pose a threat to the NWSL in the coming years.

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Stakeholders have been wildly optimistic about the growth of the women’s game after U.S. World Cup titles before; the Women’s United Soccer Association was born out of the excitement of the team’s 1999 championship, only to crash after three seasons and losses of tens of millions of dollars. Following the U.S. women’s victory in the 2015, the NWSL’s average attendance climbed slightly from 5,046 to 5,558 — and while it saw a 19 percent increase in attendance from 2017 to 2018, when it averaged more than 6,000 fans for the first time, questions continued to swirl about the future viability of the league.

Most untapped NWSL markets — the league has seven franchises that average 5,000 fans or fewer per home game — are hoping returning stars can provide a bump during the second half of the season. Most of the league’s international players already have returned to continue their seasons with their respective NWSL teams, while the 23 American players are expected back within the next two weeks. That includes the Washington Spirit, which will welcome midfielder Rose Lavelle after she dazzled the world with the United States’ second goal in Sunday’s win.

Even for an already established star such as Morgan, 30, Ustruck said that she returns to the NWSL as a bigger brand than ever. As does Megan Rapinoe, who aside from claiming the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, will return to Reign FC as a worldwide phenomenon who stoked powerful conversations on politics and gender equality. Reign FC has plastered a portrait of her on its website for days, advertising a World Cup homecoming match against the Chicago Red Stars on July 28.

“She has been nothing but a true leader for our team, nothing but a true leader for our community,” said Reign FC Coach Vlatko Andonovski. “She has been a role model for everyone.”

Rapinoe will play for Reign FC when it hosts its first nationally televised game since 2014, on Sept. 29 against Portland on ESPN2. She did her part to boost interest in the NWSL during a Tuesday appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“Go watch your team, watch the national team, watch your local club teams. I think there’s a part in this for everybody to do,” Rapinoe said. She then added, “It’s time for that action to start.”

Whether Rapinoe’s Reign FC is one of the franchises that can close ground on Portland’s outlier status after a breakthrough World Cup remains to be seen. But Golub believes the results will materialize for the rest of the league.

“I think it’s an ongoing evolution, and [women’s soccer] is winning hearts and minds every step of the way,” he said. “It’s turning new people on to women’s professional soccer in our country, making those more casual fans be more avid fans and those avid fans even crazier — and the World Cup will absolutely help.”

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