Questions for NWSL Year 4: Should fans worry about the rich club-poor club divide?

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There’s a new team in town, and their name is the Orlando Pride. Major League Soccer franchise Orlando City SC bought in to the National Women’s Soccer League, announcing they would field a women’s side starting in 2016. They’re now the third MLS team to do so, after the Portland Timbers started the Thorns and the Houston Dynamo established the Dash.

Three out of 10 teams in NWSL are now MLS-backed. That means MLS money, MLS facilities, MLS support staff. It might, theoretically, mean crossover from MLS audiences. In Portland, approximately one-third of Thorns season ticket holders are also Timbers STHs. The Orlando Pride announced they already have 2,000 season ticket holders signed up, which is approaching Sky Blue FC’s entire average attendance for 2015. In fact, is better than their average attendance in 2014 of 1,656 and approaches league champion FC Kansas City’s 2014 average of 2,018.

Teams like Orlando, Portland and Houston have the benefit of already having laid the groundwork for a portion of their ticket sales. They can turn towards a pre-existing audience and offer them more of what they want, but for cheaper, and with some World Cup-winners thrown in.

Other teams like Boston, Seattle, Washington, Chicago and Kansas City also have MLS teams nearby but aren’t part of the same organization, leaving them to forge unofficial partnerships or do their best to try to capture some of those audiences. It’s not ideal and definitely doesn’t carry the same benefits as official MLS partnerships, like getting to use their facilities and front office staff, but they make do.

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Then you have teams like Western New York and Sky Blue, who kind-of-sort-of have MLS teams around but are essentially on their own in isolated geographical pockets (WNY plays in Rochester, New York; Sky Blue plays in Piscataway, New Jersey). Sky Blue has suffered from the lowest average attendance in the league every season, and the Flash’s numbers are steadily declining despite every other team (including Sky Blue) enjoying a bump in average attendance in 2015 due to the World Cup effect.

With rich MLS partners slowly but surely making up a larger and larger part of NWSL, could we see a money-based gap open up between teams?

There’s one primary barrier to the eventual division of the league into two tiers, and that’s the salary cap. Currently teams are limited to $265,000 spread over their non-allocated players. There are also rules in place requiring teams with extra allocated players to provide salary relief to teams with fewer. So in 2015, a team like FC Kansas City, with allocated players Nicole Barnhart, Lauren Holiday, Heather O’Reilly, Amy Rodriguez, and Becky Sauerbrunn, might have been required to pay back into the league to the benefit of a team like the Western New York Flash, who had only Whitney Engen and Sydney Leroux.

So the league is definitely concerned not just with keeping budgets manageable but also making sure no team can run away with a stacked roster. Of course, the salary cap hasn’t prevented some teams from signing top internationals, like the Seattle Reign pulling in Scotland’s Kim Little or, most recently, Manon Melis from the Netherlands. Even with a maximum salary per player of $37,800, NWSL is an attractive and competitive league, and an international who does well enough could find it a boost to their profile.

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