Anyone who has attended a Portland Thorns or Orlando Pride match over the last four years has probably been in the following situation:
The players are walking onto the field. You know it’s coming. Maybe you grit your teeth and pull your hat over your ears. Maybe you smile indulgently as you recall your own years in the Mia Hamm fan club. Either way, you’re powerless to stop it. First comes the flash of braces and ponytails. Next, shiny new jerseys (the majority of which are USA, not Portland or Orlando) with the number 13 on the back. And finally, that wince-inducing, ear-piercing squeal.
Rinse and repeat, ad nauseam.
Alex Morgan has been known as the face of WoSo since her breakout year in the 2012 Olympics, although her momentum began to build in 2010 when she scored the goal that sent the USWNT to the 2011 World Cup. She sells the most jerseys, fills the most seats, and attracts hordes of screaming pre-teen girls wherever she plays.
Come the start of the NWSL’s fifth season in April, Alex Morgan will be playing in France.
The NWSL may not be the thriving, profit-building league we’d like it to be, but neither is it so fragile that the loss of one player, even the most popular one, will bring it to its knees. The show will go on, the games will be played, and the packs of adolescent girls will find someone else to adore.
— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) December 20, 2016
Sure, Morgan brings crowds, but she’s not the only one, and if she is, the teams aren’t doing their jobs. After, all she’s only on one pitch at a time. She was in attendance for one game out of the Portland Thorns’ ten at home, where they averaged a league-best 16,945 attendance, and in Houston for two of their ten, where they averaged 5,696. In fact, Orlando didn’t even average the highest away game attendance in 2016, coming in fourth behind Houston, Seattle, and Western New York.
Every team has at least one star, and more than just USWNT. Lynn Williams of the Western New York Flash, reigning league champions, was the 2016 NWSL MVP and Golden Boot winner. Kealia Ohai of the Houston Dash was right on her heels with an incredible streak of 11 goals in 10 games. It’s these types of young players, on the cusp of international stardom, who are just as capable of putting bodies in seats, and these types of players the teams ought to be promoting as much as any.
Or how about the international stars? Sky Blue has Australian striker Sam Kerr, who is already fifth on the NWSL all-time goals scored list despite missing large parts of the last two seasons with injuries and international duty. The Seattle Reign have Welsh midfielder Jess Fishlock, who is a perennial fan favorite. The Washington Spirit have Canadian midfielder Diana Matheson, who remains their top scorer.
The Portland Thorns, in their first year without Alex Morgan, increased their average attendance from 2015 to 2016 by over 1000 tickets/game. Now, Portland has plenty of other stars and has long proven themselves an anomaly in the NWSL attendance world, but the point remains: they didn’t need Alex Morgan. The Houston Dash claimed the third-best attendance in the league in 2016 even though their biggest name, Carli Lloyd, was out with injury and Olympic duty. They didn’t need USWNT stars.
Should we be worried about the NWSL if the biggest stars begin to leave in droves? Yes.
Should we be worried about the NWSL if the USWNT’s CBA negotiations lead to a strike? Yes.
Should we be worried about the NWSL because Alex Morgan is missing half the season to play in France? Nah.