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.