Diehard and casual fans alike rode the magical wave that was the U.S. Women’s National Soccer League taking home the World Cup victory in early July. But will the massive television ratings and post-victory burst in ticket sales lead to viable professional soccer in the U.S., or will the afterglow fade like so many other short-lived attempts at pro soccer?
The U.S. used a dominant defense, shrewd lineup adjustments by coach Jill Ellis, and clutch goals to win, beating Japan in the final 5-2 with three goals from Golden Ball winner Carli Lloyd. The telecast drew more eyeballs in the U.S. than any soccer game ever has, with 26.7 million American viewers on Fox and Telemundo. Compare that to last fall’s World Series Game 7 telecast, which drew 23.5 million viewers, and it’s clear there’s some serious potential in the team.
Domestically, that potential needs to translate, for now, to the National Women’s Soccer League, the latest in a line of efforts to professionalize the sport. The NWSL boasts nine teams, some of which are in major U.S. cities: Boston, Chicago, Houston, soccer-crazed Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
The initial post-Cup ticket sales were promising, with teams touting record increases. Lloyd’s club,The Houston Dash, had a record-setting 13,025 fans in attendance for its first match after the tourney.
Yet by late July, reality has begun to set in. The Boston Breakers had a near-capacity crowd in their first post-Cup home game, but that equates to only 3,400 fans in a 4,000-seat venue. The Western New York Flash, who play in Rochester, drew 3,161 people in their first home contest in a stadium that seats nearly 14,000.
Granted, Lloyd and other stars are just now returning to lineups for their clubs. Each NWSL team has between one and four national team players on its roster.
That star power doesn’t extend to every team, however. The Breakers’ sole national team player is goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who backed up Hope Solo in the World Cup, but never saw a minute of action. Abby Wambach, arguably the best U.S. player, ever, is not playing for the NWSL this season.
History shows that it is unlikely that the international success will translate to long-term. One only needs to look at the chronology of pro women’s soccer in the United States to see the trend. Here are the most recent efforts:
- Women’s United Soccer Association (2000-2002): Formed on the back of the national team’s 1999 World Cup victory the WUSA was the first women’s professional league in the world to pay its players. Founded in 2000 with eight teams, it started play in April 2001 but folded after its third season.
- Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011). WPS played with seven teams in its first two seasons, dropping to six for its third and final campaign. Financial woes and a legal squabbles helped derail the league. So too did the dissolution of the Los Angeles Sol before the start of the second season and the St. Louis Athletica folding six games into that same season.
- Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite (2012). This one-and-done league was an offshoot of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, a second-tier organization that started in 1998 and includes professional, senior, and collegiate players. WPSL formed the Elite league in response to the WPS collapse. It included three former WPS franchises and NCAA-compliant amateur teams. With the launch of the NWSL in 2013, the three former WPS franchises jumped ship to the new entity.
The bloom is on the rose for now, but there are several obstacles standing in the way of long-term, sustained pro women’s futbol. For one, most matches are not on television (Fox will air six games on Fox Sports 1 and another four online only) and NWSL games don’t hit the front of most sports pages.
The bigger challenge for the NWSL is the fickle fervor that Americans have for many sports. There is great national pride—witness the ticker-tape parade for the USWNT—when athletes are wearing the red, white, and blue. But it’s one thing to watch Megan Rapinoe control the midfield and send in blasts to the net when she’s wearing the national colors. It’s another when she’s suiting up for the Seattle Reign FC.
There’re the 2016 Olympics, which will return many of the emerging stars, players such as Alex Morgan, Julie Johnston, and Tobin Heath. But some familiar veterans like Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Christie Rampone, and Shannon Boxx have either already retired or will soon from international competition. Americans will, if not glued to each game, cheer them on in the medal games and tout their athleticism.
For the players, that is likely to be the best it ever gets.