It didn’t take long for the World Cup Bump to show up at the turnstiles of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Dan Lauletta, writing for The Equalizer, says attendance at NWSL games skyrocketed on the first weekend after Team USA’s electrifying triumph over Japan in the World Cup final.
The Houston Dash, who have Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd and Meghan Klingenberg back in the fold, had been averaging 5,582 fans at home games this year. On July 12, 13,025 — a Houston franchise record — showed up for a game against the Chicago Red Stars. (Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, Julie Johnston, Christen Press).
Then on Wednesday (July 22), the Portland Thorns (Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan) and the Reign played before a sellout crowd of 21,144 at Providence Park in Portland, the largest crowd ever at an NWSL game.
“I think people just totally got attached to this World Cup in a different way … It was so close to home,” Rapinoe told the Associated Press.
“That was such a huge thing to have American fans know they can go watch these players in their own cities for the rest of the season. Hopefully the bounce isn’t coming down, it’s just continuing to go up.”
Along with ticket sales, media interest has ramped up.
“We had more media inquiries in the two days after the World Cup victory than we’ve ever had,” Alyse LaHue, the Red Stars’ general manager, told Lauletta. With the national team players fully rejoining their NWSL clubs, she added, “I think we’ll find we get a second wave of media.”
Lauletta expects the bump to last through this season — the league’s third.
Unanswered, of course, is the much larger, more important question:
Will the huge success of Canada’s World Cup, and the emergence of America’s team as beloved champs, translate for the first time into sustained broad interest in women’s professional soccer?
Or will the current fascination prove fleeting, like our quadrennial interest in Olympic gymnastics or swimming? We care passionately about those sports, for a couple of weeks, when a charismatic American is winning gold medals by the fistful. Then we don’t care again until the next Olympics.
The NWSL’s third season is believed by many to be pivotal, in part because two earlier U.S. women’s leagues, the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer, both folded after three years.
The NWSL started on a more stable footing than either of those two previous ventures, thanks largely to “cost controls” — players’ salaries, to put it bluntly, are crappy — and to subsidies from the national soccer federations of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
“The health of the league is good. It’s exactly where we expected to be and where we wanted to be in the third year,” NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush says.
“I think it’s important for people to understand the context as a startup business,” he told the AP. “We’re 2½ years in.”
The league is far from a roaring success. Crowds are often sparse. It’s not uncommon for fewer than 2,500 fans to show up.
Randy Waldrum, the coach of the Dash, told the Houston Chronicle just before the start of this season that sales of both single-game and season tickets were disappointing. He warned that if interest didn’t pick up, “in a couple of years when this team is no longer around, then we as a fan base will have no one but ourselves to blame.”
This season, Houston is averaging 5,582 fans for home games. (That includes the record July 12 crowd.)
As unspecatular as that number is, it’s the second-best in the league, according to The Equalizer. It cited these recent (if not quite up-to-the-minute) average home attendance figures:
1. Portland Thorns FC (13,769)
2. Houston Dash (5,582)
3. Chicago Red Stars (5,481)
4. FC Kansas City (3,295)
5. Seattle Reign (3,174)
6. Washington Spirit (3,025)
7. Boston Breakers (2,395)
8. Western New York Flash (2,135)
9. Sky Blue FC (1,584)
In addition to Lloyd, Brian and Klingenberg, three of the U.S. team’s brightest and most marketable stars, the Dash roster features:
— Erin McLeod, the starting goalkeeper for the Canadian national team and one of the top-tier keepers in the international women’s game.
— Kealia Ohai, one of the most promising players in recent years to come out of Anson Dorrance’s storied program at the University of North Carolina. Ohai was the Most Valuable Offensive Player at the 2012 NCAA College Cup, where North Carolina won the national title, its 21st. That same year, she scored the winning goal for the United States in the final of the Under-20 World Cup, a 1-0 victory over Germany.
— Brittany Bock and Melissa Henderson (who was born in Garland and attended Berkner High School in Richardson), two All-Americans who played for Waldrum at the University of Notre Dame, which, after Carolina, is the second most successful women’s college program in the United States.
The team plays in BBVA Compass Stadium, an inviting, open-air, natural-grass stadium designed by the same architects who did the new Yankee Stadium. Located in Houston’s East End, it’s closer to the downtown core than any other Major League Soccer field in the United States. (In addition to the Dash, it’s home to the Houston Dynamo of MLS.) The sight lines and proximity to the pitch are exceptional. General admission is $15. For $25, you can get an excellent, lower-level sideline seat.
Hell, I’d pay 15 bucks just to watch Carli Lloyd boom shots during pregame warmups.
“With a soccer community of over 100,000 people here in South Texas … we should be putting 7 or 8,000 into the stands every weekend to watch this team play,” Waldrum said.
For those who don’t follow the league closely: The NWSL adopted an abbreviated schedule this year, 20 games instead of 24. This was done to allow for the absence of so many players (Americans, Canadians, and others) who were at the World Cup; and to minimize competition for soccer fans’ attention, especially in early June, when the World Cup was in the group stage, with games scheduled almost daily.
The league’s regular season ends on the weekend of Sept. 4-6, when eight of the nine NWSL teams will be in action.
The top four finishers make the playoffs. The semifinals will be played on the weekend of Sept. 12-13, with the two winners meeting for the championship two weeks later.
Soccer fans should hope that interest in the league keeps building; that the playoffs are exciting; and that the championship match is well-played, before a robust crowd and a decent TV audience.
Fans should also hope that the Olympics next summer give the NWSL a boost similar to what it’s experiencing now because of the World Cup. The U.S. team will be a strong favorite. Since women’s football became an Olympic sport in 1996, Team USA has taken the gold medal four times, and the silver once.
But hope doesn’t generate revenue. And revenue is what’s needed to make the NWSL viable in the long run.
You know what generates revenue, fans? Buying tickets, that’s what.
Supporting women’s soccer can’t just mean supporting the notion of women’s soccer. It can’t just mean supporting it ideologically, supporting it in the abstract. It can’t mean just supporting it when the World Cup or the Olympics roll around. At some point, and on some level, support has to take the form of real dollars changing hands.
Otherwise, as Waldrum said, those of us who profess to care about the game will have no one to blame but ourselves.