I am a lifelong soccer fan. I played for 10 years as a kid; I was one of those little girls who watched the 99ers and fell in love with the players and the drama of the game. But I had a really difficult time following them.
Even when WUSA started and the San Jose/Bay Area Cyberrays set up shop 30 minutes away from where I lived, we never heard about them. My youth league, which set up trips to go see the Earthquakes (who played at the same stadium at the time), never set up trips to go see them. I heard vaguely about them being on TV, but we didn’t have cable, so I wasn’t in a position to try and follow them that way. Also, I was young. I couldn’t drive anywhere, and my parents weren’t in a position to buy tickets to a bunch of pro games no matter how much I loved the sport and wanted to be Brandi Chastain, who was a defender like me (or Bri Scurry, because her save awed me, but she didn’t play in my backyard).
Fast forward to 2009, and things are different: I am an adult, albeit a poor college student. I have my own car, though, and a summer job that paid well enough for me to go do some fun things. I’m back home in the Bay Area for the summer, and lo and behold, we have a pro women’s team again. FC Gold Pride, presumably named for the former numbers of mountain lions that used to roam the hills surrounding the Silicon Valley. I was stoked. I went to the first match at home in Santa Clara and fell in love and then… didn’t go to a match again for the rest of the two seasons.
I followed them on Facebook, as much as that counted for at the time when Facebook was still relatively new as a marketing platform. I would occasionally check up on them on the WPS website or their website to see scores for the games. But I never went, even when I found out that they built a better team in 2010 and won a championship. I had friends that went—even one who managed to get a ball signed by the whole team, which still makes me melt in jealousy.
But why wasn’t I there with her? I had more money than needed for survival, for perhaps the first time in my life. I could have gone to games, could have followed more closely, could have done more than buy a shirt the first match and wear it occasionally. Looking back on this, I kick myself, because I had no idea what I was missing, particularly in 2010 when I had a number of chances to see the likes of Marta in person.Even more painful, the team ceased playing in Santa Clara and instead played in Castro Valley and at Cal State East Bay, which were even closer to where I lived at the time. Problem was, I had no idea Marta was on the team. I had no idea they had stopped playing in Santa Clara and moved closer. Because the team was operating at a loss after a terrible first season, they had no marketing whatsoever. Not a Facebook post, no local news coverage, nothing. And after 2009, I had stopped checking their website because, as much as I love soccer, it’s hard to follow when you aren’t actually seeing it played or even hearing about opportunities to go see it being played. Unsurprisingly, FC Gold Pride folded—even after their spectacular winning season—because the cost was not sustainable.
So now we have the NWSL. Let’s be clear, the NWSL has so far eclipsed just about everything that WUSA and WPS were able to do. Just by surviving for as long as it has and having teams like the Seattle Reign that are secure enough to offer Laura Harvey a new 4-year contract, we are way ahead of the game. We have games on YouTube, we have teams who have snarky Twitter accounts, we have a league that sometimes knows how to use the power of current social media to their greatest advantage. We have growth.
Still, there could be more, and that “more” so often comes down to marketing. Marketing is the difference between the perennially last-place Boston Breakers still selling out every single home game this season and Sky Blue FC, who had a breakout year by most standards, barely managing to break 1,000 for much of the season. I am regionally unaffiliated to any team, and when I came to the league after the World Cup last year (as so many did) I watched as many games as I could and followed all of the teams as much as possible before I picked my team based on what I saw.
I picked the Houston Dash, who have a top-notch marketing game despite their struggles on-field. I picked them because they have top-quality streams, one of the best quality broadcasting teams in the league (Jen Cooper is a gift to the WoSo world, if you didn’t know), and because their videos promoting the club were supremely entertaining. Some of them don’t even exist anymore (RIP Erin & Ella Show), but it was enough to get me in and to get me attached to the players.
My new devotion reached deeper than to just the players. There was a lot of shifting during the off-season, but I had cemented my love for the Dash. I was attached to the club by then, and this season when they fielded a drastically different starting lineup, I was just as into it as I was last season. I quickly became attached to the new players, and as you know, suffered greatly over the summer until Kealia Ohai found her scoring and made my life happy again.
The point of this isn’t how much I love the Dash, though. Well, it sorta is. The point is, I follow a team that is half a country away from me more closely than I was able to follow not one, but two teams that played less than an hour away from where I was living when they existed. And there are still teams in this league that are facing similar situations when it comes to marketing. There are teams in fairly big soccer markets, like Sky Blue, FCKC, and the Chicago Red Stars, that are putting up terrible attendance numbers because their marketing is terrible at letting people know that there are some pretty spectacular teams playing in the area.
The league as a whole needs to be better at this. There are really great markets out there that they are not tapping into. For instance, people like me. Young adults who don’t have that much extra money but are more than willing to spend it on the things we’re passionate about. The kids that a lot of teams market to are important, but they’re not the ones who can buy gear or special ticket packages. There’s a market there of people who love the sport but have no idea that the teams are playing in their backyard.
Unfortunately, no matter how strong the league looks right now, there’s always that chance that the money will dry up and teams will start going down. The way to stop doing that is by putting money into the things that the people with money care about. Put your money into peripherals that appeal to the adult crowds, who can spend money. Put your money in social media, and upgrading streaming equipment so that fans who live across the country can get attached enough to buy gear (I’m looking at you, WNY Flash). Put your money into drawing people who live in the area out to see the quality product you have on the field.
The competition is there. The stories are there. The players are there.
They just need people to watch them.