The NWSL Attendance Issues are Hit and Miss

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Charges too much for parking; doesn’t allow backpacks; won’t allow bottle caps on water bottles purchased at the park; only has 1 men’s restroom open for an entire half of the stadium but has 2 women’s restrooms open; the food vendors are too slow. – Chicago

Too many rules around smoke bombs in supporters section, crowd engagement during game. – North Carolina 

Old facility with terrible bench seating and gross bathrooms. Only serves beer in a single beer garden with long lines. Unable to bring beer back to seats. – Seattle


When Backline ran a pair of surveys of NWSL fans, one for the general public and a second that focused on fans more than 100 miles away from an NWSL city, these were some of the replies on what the NWSL teams aren’t doing right.

Attendance in the NWSL is a hotly debated topic. It’s something that everyone thinks they have a fix for when you ask on Twitter or strike up a conversation at a game. But the reality is, the issues people have with most teams aren’t as fixable as “open more men’s bathrooms” or “have jerseys in more sizes at games.”

For instance, a team like the Seattle Reign only has so many options of where to play. Seattle has other soccer facilities, but there isn’t a perfect space that will fix apathy among Sounders fans, or the fact that even during the 2015 season, when Seattle was the best team in the league, the Reign barely broke 4,000 a game. Similarly, the Reign can only do so much about the rules when it comes to where beer can and can’t be taken, since the Seattle school district has its own rules for alcohol consumption on its property.

There are common issues among the teams. Most teams have comments about the team focusing more on young fans at the expense of older fans. Nearly every team had at least one comment about access via public transport or issues with parking.

Primary Problems vs Secondary Problems

When I look at the responses people submitted they mostly fall into two categories: primary problems and secondary problems.

The primary problems are the base problems. For instance, the team doesn’t play in a place that is easy to get to. These are deep issues that don’t have an easy fix. Most teams can’t just move to a new stadium that has great public transport and affordable rent—if they could, they would have already.

Secondary problems, or First-World Problems as they might be called on Twitter, are the type of problems that could be addressed and either aren’t because, 1) the team doesn’t know they are issues, 2) the team doesn’t know how to fix the problem, or 3) the problem isn’t a big enough issue for the team to dedicate resources to fix it.

A secondary problem would be, “there are not enough vegan options” at Portland Thorns games. Is it a problem for vegan fans? Yes. Overall, if the worst thing you can say is that a certain dietary restriction isn’t accomodated at a game, the team is doing pretty well. The team could—and in Portland maybe even should—address something like this, but they haven’t yet. But it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that they will. 

Oftentimes, the biggest issue is fans treating primary problems as if they have solutions as easy as secondary problems. An Orlando fan wrote in, “Change the time. 3 pm in Florida is unacceptable for the players and the fans. Don’t schedule the local NWSL team to play at the same time as the away game of the local MLS team.”

Let me first say that I understand the frustration this fan feels. Mid-afternoon in the south—and even some places up north—is a horrible time to be outside in the heat of the summer. But there is nothing that Orlando or even the NWSL, can do about the time. Is it something ugly that the league, thankfully, worked to mitigate in 2018? Yes. But can it be totally solved unless Lifetime decides to give the NWSL Primetime slots? No.

Same with when NWSL and MLS teams from the same city play. It’s not ideal, but the two leagues only have so much to do with each other. The NWSL doesn’t often get the first choice of times for their venues. They usually have to take what they can get.

The thing about primary problems is, they are still problems, but there is only so much that can be done about them by one team or during any one season.

Contrast this with an issue written in by someone who attends Sky Blue games: “Not enough merch for sale, could also use visiting team rosters maybe simple game day program.”

This is a perfect example of a secondary problem. It is not unreasonable for Sky Blue to get more merchandise to sell at games or to up their game day program game. They might have to invest more money to have more merchandise, but it is not an unreasonable request, nor is it something impossible for them to do in any given season.

The Universal Issue Around the League

The universal issue that really does pop up all over the NWSL is this question: when teams look at which fans to invest the most effort into, who wins out?

However, every team had someone write in about needing to improve on or fix the tension between adult fans vs kids and families. From Sky Blue to Portland, from Chicago to Orlando, it was the most ubiquitous issue brought up.

And honestly?

I don’t think most of the changes people want or that would help the atmosphere can come from the clubs. To make the change real and lasting, those changes have to come from fans and supporters’ groups.

It is absolutely true that some teams hinder their fan bases and supporter groups by imposing rules that can detract from adult fan experiences. Some teams actively try to limit fans chanting swear words during the matches. At the NWSL Championship in Orlando, a security guard—whether on his own or because of team/league rules is unclear—told fans they were not permitted to use a chant with the f-word in it because it was a women’s soccer match. Some teams prevent supporters groups from bringing in large percussion instruments, or smoke bombs, or other staples of soccer supporter groups all over the world.

And yes, there are some teams who lean a little heavily into the aren’t-these-women-just-great-please-support-our-team narrative that makes the league sound like they should play Sarah McLachlan before every game.

But by and large, most teams are just trying to make the fans that show up happy.

A strong group of fans, organized in a true supporters’ group or not, is the key to the game-day experience most fans want. The clubs should be open to working and supporting these groups as much as they can, as long as the groups follow the rules set.

We’ve seen in Portland what can happen when a team’s front office doesn’t stand in the way of a strong supporters’ group. It takes time to build up a solid fan culture for a team and some groups have been trying as long as the league has been around. But building it from the fan side will always be stronger than the club trying to build out in that direction.

Straight From the Fans’ Keyboards

People being upset about the $20 parking fee in Chicago or the marketing in Houston is something that will prevent some from going to games if the issues add up high enough or even if one issue persists long enough.

Going through the responses, I did find some answers that give a solid showing of the issues fans have with each of the teams. I also found some answers that showed what at least some fans liked about their game day experiences. Those who wrote in also did a great job of giving valid points that summed things up nicely. They also brought up things I hadn’t thought about before. Below are some of the best of the replies:

Chicago

The Bad – Stadium is a drive and parking can be expensive if you are not a STH (season ticket holder). Also, we sit in the sunny part of the stadium and they are not always prepared for crowds/heat (see Orlando game – they didn’t have enough cold water handy).

The Good – Toyota Park is a very nice stadium once you get there. Good view of the field, good announcing, fun halftime. They run a pub to pitch bus. Just wish there were more people there.

And a Third Thing – (About season tickets) Too expensive, staff has not treated friends in friendly manner, not worth the fuss. You can’t sell them for anything if you cannot attend a game making them only for personal use.

Houston

The Bad – The FO needs to at least appear like they’re thinking things through. They also need to appeal to their STH – married couples without kids. Play some older music that makes you want to rip into the other team. Stop making the Dash a charity case.

The Good – They’ve started doing Game Day emails to tell you what to expect. Just wish they wouldn’t send it late in the day on Friday.

And a Third Thing – Attendance won’t get better until we treat it like a grassroots effort – eating, sleeping, breathing your team. Create a sense of FOMO. We circle jerk about the NWSL on social media, but I think we’re doing it in a vacuum. Only those who seek us out will find us. We have to think outside the box.

North Carolina

The Bad – Charge too much for beer and police our songs.

The Good – Free parking, on-site parking, space to tailgate, stadium has good variety of food and drinks, activities for kids, players stay for autographs and photos at end of game.

And a Third Thing – I think there is a untapped market of young adults for NWSL. People in there 20s/30s who love soccer and have disposable income to support teams. Unfortunately promotion can be so geared toward families, it turns people off.

Orlando

The Bad – Chants. Supporters groups & team do terrible getting entire crowd involved in supporting Team during the game.

The Good – Nice experience, good atmosphere, largeish crowds, very personal and inclusive, love the games and tents on the streets before the game to win fun things.

And a Third Thing – I am aware of & want to support the league & the team so I attend all games as work schedule permits; in terms of attracting others to attend more games, the team front office needs to improve the visibility of the team through better marketing/advertising. There needs to be better cross promotion between Orlando City and Orlando Pride. If I didn’t know about the league then I would never know there is a professional women’s soccer team in this city because I can’t think of a single incidence of advertising during the regular season. They only promoted for the home opener & when the Pride made the playoffs.

Portland

The Bad – The streets around the stadium aren’t closed like they are for the Timbers games, and the Thorns crowd usually warrants it, size wise . Sometimes giving out Timbers swag rather than Thorns swag (bookmarks, for example).

The Good – The fan experience is amazing due to the supporter’s group. The team helps by working with them on atmosphere. They provide a wonderful product to watch with good facilities and access to good stadium food and drinks, including alcohol.

And a Third Thing – I think the security is too tight. I realize how important that security is, however it prevents fans from meeting the players, one of the key things the NWSL does that I love more than any other league.

Seattle

The Bad – Very few activities before the game, food lines can get long (food trucks), lack of advertising immediately outside of stadium – you can be at Seattle Center and have no idea a soccer game is taking place. Restocking bathrooms before half time.

The Good – Good atmosphere, food truck options, pop-up team shop, usually some activities for kids, beer garden for adults, DJ. Last but not least, performance on the pitch!

And a Third Thing – I’m a small sample size, but from my point of view the Reign are in a tough spot where there core market is tapped out. There are thousands of girls who play soccer in Seattle. The problem is that they and their parents have a ton of other obligations and commitments.

Sky Blue 

The Bad – Sky Blue FC needs a lot more with game day experience for “grown up” fans… it feels like their motivation is to encourage just the young fans to attends And not enticing to grown ups.

The Good – Gives Cloud 9 our own section and lets us in early to put up signs and on the field after games to take down banners.

And a Third Thing – NWSL revenue focus should be on new-age international market (via internet/online sponsorship), rather than on 20th century conventional ticket sales. Soccer venues should be “broadcast-focused”, not focused on local ticket sales. Team locale should be irrelevant to that team’s main revenue stream. As its funding base, NWSL should go after corporations that think globally like big tech (Apple, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Google, Intel, Cisco) and big sports (Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Puma, Reebok, Gatorade).

Washington 

The Bad – Catering to adults on any level—everything is centered around youth soccer—which is great short term but not in terms of sustaining and growing a fan base; marketing in DC (very few people—DC United fans included—actually know the team exists); creating an actual game day experience-feels more like a 90 min event.

The Good – The field is immaculate, and the setting is nice. Parking is free, and food prices are cheap compared to pro sporting events in the region.

And a Third Thing – I’m worried about the long-term viability of a team whose attendance appears to have more or less plateaued in their current location. Soccer fans in the region who aren’t devoted woso fans will have reason to choose skipping long trips to the Soccerplex in favor of easier trips to a fancy new soccer stadium. With the NWSL moving forward aggressively, it might not be possible to keep up in the years to come without moving to the new stadium or building a stadium of their own (which, in this area, would be borderline impossible to do without accepting major financial losses and requiring political connections the team does not appear to have). If the Spirit were selling the Soccerplex out on a regular basis, this wouldn’t be a concern, but their numbers appear to lean heavily on nice weather and star players coming to town.

Final Thoughts 

The hard truth is some of the current teams may need to move from the areas they currently are to area that are more conductive to having better attendance if they can’t figure out how to bring in more fans per game. While the number of fans at each match is not the only metric to how teams are doing it does show engagement of the area the teams are located in.

We’ve already seem FC Kansas City and Western New York move as well as the Boston Breakers fold. While not directly related to their attendance track records, if these teams were pulling in Portland level numbers there is a greater chance these teams may have been able to survive.

I don’t know how to put more butts in seats for the NWSL, but I do know the league needs to start figuring it out. Teams like Sky Blue, Chicago, Seattle and Washington, the group without MLS/USL backing, are going to have a harder and harder go to things if they stay as both independent teams and have lower attendance numbers.

Something has to be figured out before the next team goes under due to the costs outweighing the benefits to the ownership. The fans building up a strong culture by showing up and being present while clubs giving these groups the tools they need to build that culture may be the best way forward for both sides.