The NWSL Story: When Your Best Could Be Better

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I attended a very small, private Christian university just 45 minutes outside of Dallas, Texas. It is a well-known and respected school within the Christian faith that I belong to. And yet, there were businesses and residents within the town and its neighboring city who had no idea the university was there. The administration constantly wondered, “why don’t people know about the university?” When I graduated in Spring 2019, they were still pondering that question.

It’s Fall 2019 now and that very same question is being asked, albeit a little differently.

“Why don’t people know about the NWSL?”

The National Women’s Soccer League is entering its 7th season, already lasting longer than its predecessors, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) and Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). It is the only league in North America to feature the USA national team players. 

Last Sunday, NWSL had a historic game between Sky Blue FC and Reign FC take place in Red Bull Arena. For the first time in Sky Blue history, they saw 9,415 fans, with many more watching the game on ESPNews. This is not only great news for the small club out of New Jersey, but for a league that at times seems to struggle with attendance.

Competitive in its own right, some big international names have played for or currently play in the league. Brazilian legend Marta plays for the Orlando Pride; Australian wonder-kid Sam Kerr plays for the Chicago Red Stars; Canada’s golden girl and captain Christine Sinclair is with the Portland Thorns and French captain Amandine Henry also played a season with Portland.

With each of these names come fans from both overseas and domestically, watching the games on whatever streaming service is available (hands up if you’re a real one and remember Youtube) and through the NWSL website for international fans.

And yet, even after two World Cup boosts, plus the Olympics, we still have players like Carli Lloyd telling NPR reporter Tom Goldman “There are a lot of people out there that don’t even know there’s a league that exists. That’s a problem.”

Part of the lack of awareness problem?

The NWSL itself.

During the World Cup, the league’s official Twitter account had no problem highlighting its national team players. Game day stats, reminders, lineups, highlight reels were all tweeted out while the league was on a break. Why not also talk about the clubs they play for? Why not also highlight other players?

Having scored 8 goals this season Kristen Hamilton has become a star for a North Carolina team stacked with national team players. Midge Purce, who has really come into her own for Portland Thorns, has 6 goals. Bethany Balcer has 31 shots for Reign FC and Aubrey Bledsoe has 6 shout-outs for the Washington Spirit.

The NWSL seems to be depending on its national team players and big-name internationals to boost attendance in a league that…nobody is aware of. So, where should the NWSL go from here?

I had some ideas.

  1. Promotion. The NWSL should promote more than Sam Kerr, Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle and Alyssa Naeher. It’s time to show off Emily Menges, Haley Hanson, Imani Dorsey and Katie Johnson. Videos or interviews of those players can show the fans there’s more to the NWSL than the superstars of the national teams so they become interested in the whole team and not just its star(s).
  2. Reaching New Fans. Reach out to teams and do some collaborating on give-away prizes for new fans. “Are you a new fan going to your first NWSL game? Take a picture, tweet it out and we’ll give you a team scarf or shirt! Tag NWSL and your team so you can receive your prize at half time!” The league wants people excited to come to games and be a part of the fan base and have fun. Part of that territory is getting free gear. If there’s a new fan attending a game who hasn’t yet chosen a team, by giving them free team merchandise they now have something to represent that experience and a team to connect to. 
  3. Promote the NWSL website more. I really like the NWSL’s actual website. It has all the information I immediately need on the homepage, as well as articles, videos, and highlight reels. The different areas are well done and easy to find. The NWSL should be posting once a week reminding people that they can use the site to check scores, the schedules and watch anything they missed. The app is okay but can be frustrating to use sometimes, with some rosters not updated or having it buffer every time I check the schedule. The website is way better.
  4. Better streaming services. Having a different streaming service almost every year is one of the single most annoying things about the league. Youtube was good for its time period, but after that we had to suffer through the disastrous days of Go90, the well-intentioned Lifetime era and currently Yahoo!Sports with select games on ESPNews. Recently the women’s English league just announced their new streaming app that will allow fans from all over the world the chance to watch all their games. And it’s for free. If the NWSL would chill on one year streaming contracts only and just use a single streaming service that allows both domestic fans and international fans to watch the games, it would be a game changer. 
  5. Someone who is paying attention. When Andi Sullivan scored for the Washington Spirit against Portland, the graphic that popped up on the screen said “17-KYAH SIMON.” Kyah Simon plays for the Houston Dash. Kyah Simon has never played for the Spirit. And for the love of all that is holy, can they please stop putting up SEA for Reign FC? Is it really too much trouble to change it to RFC? It feels borderline disrespectful and lazy when they mess up player names or don’t bother to change team letters for game days.
  6. Newsletter. MLS sends out newsletters every week, with game recaps, the current schedule and where to watch them. Individual clubs send them as well, including links to articles, player profiles, short videos, and even a place where you can buy tickets for games. The newsletter itself isn’t taking the place of social media, it’s just one more avenue for getting information about the league out to more people.

Recently the league finalized an agreement with ESPN and are now offering NWSL games to international fans, since “an exclusive agreement for worldwide rights (excluding U.S.) to the league’s regular season and playoff matches” means USA fans still get to suffer through Yahoo!Sports. There’s no denying the league has come a long way since its humble beginnings, but that still doesn’t mean the journey is over. The league still has a lot it can improve on and I truly do believe that with time and more resources devoted, it can become more than an academy for the national team players; it can become THE national women’s soccer league.   

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