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NWSL enjoying a World Cup bump, but sustainability is next step

Young fans in U.S. national team jerseys attend a National Women's Soccer League match in Piscataway, N.J. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

The National Women’s Soccer League is enjoying a healthy bump in interest, thanks to the U.S. national team’s rock-star popularity and World Cup glory.

It is a small sample size: The tournament in France ended three weeks ago, and the 23 triumphant players returned to league play last weekend.

But consider: The Portland Thorns, the league’s runaway attendance leaders in each of seven seasons, set a club record with 22,329, achieved on a weeknight. The Chicago Red Stars opened additional sections to accommodate 17,388, four times their 2018 average.

The Utah Royals counted almost 16,000 last weekend and more than 10,500 this weekend. The Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC welcomed small-scale sellouts of 5,000-plus and Reign FC (Tacoma) set a club record with 7,479.

“I couldn’t stop smiling,” Portland’s Lindsey Horan, a U.S. midfielder, said of the turnout at Providence Park on Wednesday for a 5-0 victory over the Houston Dash.

The nine-team league has had a lot to smile about this month: Aside from the crowds, ESPN platforms added a weekly broadcast and Budweiser signed on as a sponsor.

The early TV numbers have shown promise, albeit at low rates compared to most televised sports: Last Sunday’s ESPN2 broadcast of North Carolina at Chicago attracted 149,000 viewers, the largest NWSL audience since the 2016 final and a 67 percent increase over a match shown by Lifetime network on the same day last year.

Over two weekends — the first without U.S. World Cup players, the second with them — viewership was up 47 percent compared to 2018.

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The NWSL is benefiting from every member of the U.S. squad playing on the domestic circuit, plus non-U.S. standouts such as Chicago’s Sam Kerr (Australia), Portland’s Christine Sinclair (Canada) and North Carolina’s Debinha (Brazil).

This Saturday’s clash between North Carolina and Utah, played before 10,545 in suburban Salt Lake City, featured seven players from the U.S. team and several non-U.S. World Cup performers.

Through Saturday, NWSL average attendance had inched up to 6,493, ahead of the league-high mark of 6,024, set last year. All but three teams, however, are under 5,000.

MLS, the top-tier men’s soccer league in its 24th season, is at 20,803 this year.

Portland has always driven NWSL ticket sales, never dipping below an average of 15,000 the past five seasons and peaking at 19,079 this year, which is higher than 12 MLS teams.

“It’s every month, every couple of months,” Thorns Coach Mark Parsons said of the red-clad supporters. “They set a new standard and then they smash [the] new standard.”

On the women’s sports front, the WNBA, which launched in 1997, is averaging around 7,700 this season. Its TV audience on CBS Sports Network is about 420,000 per game.

Women’s soccer hopes to expand its international footprint beyond the World Cup through a second annual club tournament, the Women’s International Champions Cup, an offspring of the popular men’s summer tour. On Aug. 15-18, the Cary-based North Carolina Courage will welcome UEFA Champions League winner Olympique Lyonnais, Spanish champion Atletico Madrid and English power Manchester City.

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Next year, organizers want to expand to eight teams and two venues (one on each coast).

The challenge for the NWSL as a whole is sustainability after the World Cup glow fades. After all, the 2015 U.S. World Cup title did not carry a long-lasting effect. The league expanded to Orlando and Utah, but Boston and Kansas City folded, Western New York moved to North Carolina, and New Jersey-based Sky Blue has hung by a thread.

David Carter, an expert on U.S. sports business, warns against equating the national league with the national team.

“If the people who run the league think they can capture lightning in a bottle and sustain that type of [World Cup] popularity, it’s misguided because any league — men’s or women’s — is about growing deep roots to be successful on a long-term basis,” said Carter, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and founder of Sports Business Group.

“If we’ve seen anything about women’s sports leagues over the years, they have had great trouble finding a way to make money. You have to really manage your expectations and not get caught up in comparing an apple to an orange.”

The appeal of the World Cup, Carter argued, was nationalism, activism and compelling soccer. All, he said, go into decline upon the conclusion of a global event.

The recent commercial additions will help, Carter added, but only go so far.

“It’s an unfair and unwarranted comparison between what we saw in France [in enthusiasm] and what we are likely to see the rest of the summer around the U.S.,” he said.

Nonetheless, optimism abounds.

“If we could get [fans] here for this one, we think we can get them back two or three times,” Chicago owner Arnim Whisler told ESPN after the big turnout last weekend. “Once you’ve been here a couple times, you really want to be a part of it.”