It’s a question that has plagued every women’s soccer league in the United States since the Women’s United Soccer Association collapsed: How do you get people to come to games, and keep coming to games? How do you grab people’s attention, then turn that into loyalty?
On the surface, it may seem like a fairly straightforward business question, but it’s complicated by the long slog women’s sports have endured just to get to this point, which is still no shining beacon of fairness and equality. The gap between what sports fans want and what the National Women’s Soccer League can provide is already partially filled with presumptions about women, women’s sports and who sports fan are.
You only have to peruse a female athlete’s twitter mentions to see how women in sports are perceived by many: overstepping their boundaries, subversively intruding on what should be a male sphere, abandoning the correct way to be a woman. That is part of the context when discussing why NWSL is a small-time operation and what might be hampering its growth.
On a purely technical business level, there are two basic arenas: attendance at games and television coverage.
Television coverage can be tricky. Thus far NWSL has not had the best deals with either ESPN or Fox Sports 1; they’ve never managed to get more than 10 games, including playoffs, out of the entire season on air. Out of the parties involved, you have to imagine that between a minnow of a league like NWSL and a cable giant like ESPN or FS1, the balance of power is pretty heavily skewed towards one side.
But NWSL also needs to step up its game, probably by getting parent federation US Soccer involved to try and squeeze a little more blood out of the networks. If US Soccer can tie an NWSL rider to its national team broadcast deals, that might be the leverage the league needs get a few more games on air. At this point asking for the entire season — or even the majority of the season — to get broadcast is unrealistic, but an increase to a mere 20 percent of games would more than double the league’s broadcast exposure.
There’s also that above-mentioned context to consider. It’s an age-old excuse for not putting women on the air: “No one cares about women’s sports.” And yet low ratings don’t stop them from airing men’s soccer games, both foreign and domestic. Over time, with regular exposure and promotion, those ratings are creeping up towards respectable. Just airing women’s sports on a regular schedule, with no fanfare but the same production value as other events, would plant the seeds for growth. Of course, there will be complaints from fragile sports fans who don’t like change, but the more audiences see these games, the more they accept that their presence is normal, the more they watch.
The other part of the equation is actual physical attendance at games. The onus to drive attendance falls more on each club than the league overall by virtue of their diverse geographical locations and markets, but there are certainly top-down strategies NWSL can employ. Earlier this month, league commissioner Jeff Plush mentioned that NWSL would be looking more national marketing and some “salesmanship 101” tactics to be shared as part of best practices for every club.
Plush also mentioned that the league would soon have access to demographic data, examining who NWSL fans are and enabling the league to better target them. Demographic data also tells you who your fans aren’t, which can help you decipher what your fans get out of your league and what you might be missing.
Without specific demographic data, though, we can probably create some general categories for NWSL fans. At the top level, there’s the casual/hardcore divide. Casual fans are there for a variety of reasons: family experience; curious about their local women’s professional league; saw a national team game and wanted another taste of that hype.
Hardcore fans tend to be either big-time fans of certain players (usually national team players) and will follow them to any team in any league, or big soccer fans, or some blend of the two. Hardcore fans are the ones who wake up at ungodly hours in order to watch a grainy livestream from across the globe, buy the limited merchandise, and travel multiple time zones for games.
So clubs have two tasks: keep up their casual numbers through their high turnover rate, and expand and solidify their hardcore numbers through deep fan outreach and cooperation. Limited resources means having to decide which group gets which amount of focus, but the division isn’t as hard a choice as you might think.
Contrary to first assumptions, hardcore fans can be much easier to please than casuals. What hardcores want is a good product on the field and some acknowledgment from the team for their time and devotion. That attention can generally take the form of a few concessions from the team: acknowledging them on social media, giving them their own section in the stadium, and designating a tailgate spot by the venue. NWSL hardcores, usually members of a club’s supporters group, tend to understand the limited resources their teams have and will adjust their requests accordingly.
Casuals, on the other hand, may sometimes expect much more. There can be demands for players’ time, with frustration and anger following when they don’t receive it. Casuals who only come to one or two gamedays and are new to the concept that women’s club soccer is not blessed with the glitz and glamour of a national team appearance can be surprised or confused by the difference between the two. They’re not necessarily there for the product on the field, so their experience is measured by metrics like the overall gameday experience and what souvenirs they got from the game.
This is not to condemn casuals or glorify hardcores. There are simply differences in the way they experience the game, so they both need different approaches when marketing to them. Understanding their differences and how they make up a club’s total attendance can also help determine what percentage of resources need to go where. Are season ticket renewals healthy or growing? Maybe a little more focus can go to casuals. Are walk-up or single-ticket sales looking good? Then perhaps more community outreach.
There are so many moving parts to nurturing NWSL. One or two big solutions are not going to save this league. The constant grind, the push for more fans, more TV viewers, more acceptance – those will yield results. Of course, it behooves the league not to mess up golden opportunities like marketing synergy with tent-pole events like the World Cup and the Olympics. Sometimes the league can sprint instead of taking it slow and steady. But this league, through its very continued existence, can help build better growth conditions for itself, creating a positive cycle that gradually chips away at the resistance to women’s sports.
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