Washington Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin has learned in his first eight months on the job that professional women’s soccer players in the United States should not be paid the same as men. He thinks they should be paid more.
That is one of his objectives for the Spirit and the National Women’s Soccer League that’s now in its seventh season. He said the league is scratching the surface of what it can and should become. NWSL needs to define itself and its platform, he said. This is an opportune time — as good as there may ever be — for the league and women’s soccer in the United States to make the post-World Cup bump sustainable.
He expects sellouts or near-sellouts in the Spirit’s two matches at Audi Field in the next three weeks. The crowds would exceed the club-record 7,976 spectators for its lone match at Audi Field last year. The first possible sellout comes Saturday night against the Orlando Pride and Alex Morgan, while the Spirit attempts to rack up wins amid its playoff push.
Heading into Wednesday night’s game, Spirit average home attendance was 3,593, near the bottom of the league’s nine teams. Audi Field’s capacity is 20,000, five times that of Maryland SoccerPlex, a small complex 17 miles outside the Beltway in Boyds. Beyond this season, Baldwin wants to keep playing at Boyds and, at least for now, select matches at Audi Field.
Still, he’s looking broader. NWSL has lasted more than twice as long as either of its two predecessors. Fan support is growing and owners, Baldwin included, are investing more in facilities. Since his first day in January, the Spirit have a new locker room, players lounges, better laundry and meal service, and apartment housing for players who want it.
Baldwin plans to upgrade team travel, expand the Spirit’s full-time staff of 20, shorten lines at the home stadium, offer more food and beverages, and continue to implement on-field technology and monitors. Helping the cause are recent deals with ESPN and Budweiser, which announced a multiyear sponsorship agreement with the league.
But salaries are still paltry by professional sports standards — between $16,538 and $46,200 — and Baldwin is hopeful that will soon change. He doesn’t want NWSL to continue to struggle for relevancy and solvency. So when it comes to solutions and decisions that affect the bottom line, he says his approach depends on corporate sponsorships. A lot of them.
At the top of his to-do list is helping bring bigger corporate partners at the league level. Baldwin said the Spirit has added about 20 corporate partners this season. The Spirit is pursuing dozens more opportunities, Baldwin said, and he believes NWSL can reach $30 million to $50 million in annual sponsorship revenue.
“Shame on us if we don’t get that done,” he said. “We have the best professional athletes in the world, and they are the best-educated group of athletes in the world. We have to sell that competitive advantage to drive that revenue to those types of levels. I think this is the best shape the league has ever been in, and I can’t imagine a corporation having a better opportunity to unleash fabulous female role models in a bigger way than what we have.”
While Spirit attendance is down slightly year-over-year, leaguewide attendance is up 15 percent. Baldwin believes the matches at Audi Field will function as a good test run. He and the staff will reflect and reassess after the season about possibly playing more at Audi Field in 2020.
“I’m not going to rest until we achieve the things necessary to support them and drive this league to a different level,” he said.
Baldwin said his younger daughter, Carlyn, inspired his interest in the Spirit, because he saw how she gravitated to soccer, staring at the University of Tennessee and forgoing her senior season to go pro overseas.
Baldwin also reflected on something that happened a month ago, when Rose Lavelle, the newly crowned World Cup champion midfielder and Spirit star, met a 7-year-old girl, who also is named Rose Lavelle. The video of their encounter circulated widely.
What happened next did not, though Baldwin says it was much more meaningful. After the game, Lavelle was told a young fan suffering from leukemia was at the game but could not make it to the field. Lavelle, wanting to meet the fan, made her way up the hill beyond the goal. She gave the girl an autograph and hung out for a few moments. The child was beaming.
“It is in their DNA to have those types of interactions and do it with ease and compassion,” Baldwin said, adding: “We have absolutely seen an increase in interest from the World Cup. The thing we have to accomplish this time is sustain and grow it from here.”