It’s been a non-stop party for the US women’s national team since they won the World Cup on Sunday. The champagne started flowing in the locker room immediately after the US beat the Netherlands and, from the charter flight home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, players’ Instagram accounts have featured bottle-popping, dancing and singing ever since.
Once the celebrations stop, however, the players have to return to their day jobs. That means the National Women’s Soccer League, a fledgling competition now in its seventh season. If fans want to keep up with Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, they will have to watch Reign FC and Orlando Pride. The question, of course, is whether that will happen. There was a spike after the US won the World Cup in 2015, with NWSL games selling out once USWNT players returned, and just about every club setting attendance records. The problem is that crowds then dipped once the World Cup glow faded. Portland Thorns, the biggest club in the NWSL, average more than 18,000 fans a game but they are an exception. Rapinoe’s club, Reign FC, drew fewer than 4,000 a game last season.
“For whatever reason, we’re constantly having to remind people that the quality is there, the entertainment is there, and the competition is there,” Rapinoe said of the NWSL. “World Cups and big moments like these always provide that extra boost. You know it’s going to go up a level and maybe it’s not going to sustain – but we hope this time it gets there and levels out a little bit.”
The more the NWSL grows, the better it is for the USWNT’s standing in the world as other countries nip at their heels. After all, the NWSL’s talent pool is partly why the US have been so successful in the last two World Cups. But other countries with strong domestic leagues, like Germany, England, France and Sweden also tend to have the strongest national teams.
For the teams that made surprising runs into the knockout round of the World Cup, that global success tracks closely with new investment in domestic leagues back home. As Serie A clubs in Italy have started adding women’s sides in the past four years and the Italian federation has invested more money, the national team has benefitted, with Italy making the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time since 1991.
“The biggest example is Italy,” said Dutch forward Vivianne Miedema during the tournament. “They put a lot of money into Juventus and in a couple of other clubs. You see it directly [at] the World Cup.”
Rapinoe agreed: “There’s the clearest correlation that you could possibly have with money invested in the federation and the level of play, the product on the field and the level of success these teams are having.”
But the NWSL is at risk of being overtaken by its European counterparts. Europe is already a soccer hotbed but the investment has been almost exclusively reserved for the men’s game. As these countries fully embrace women’s soccer, it could negate the USA’s built-in advantage from Title IX, an anti-discrimination law that essentially created the robust and competitive college soccer system for women.
And recently, it seems Europe’s women’s leagues have accelerated their growth at a faster rate than the NWSL. Barclays, the former sponsor of the English Premier League, announced earlier this year a multimillion-dollar deal with the English Women’s Super League, which includes £500,000 in prize money. Mastercard sponsor Arsenal and Olympique Lyonnais, the powerhouse French club that features more national team players than any other.
In the past, the NWSL has struggled to draw those kinds of sponsors. After the US won the World Cup in 2015, the NWSL could only add sunscreen Coppertone and insect repellent Cutter to its sponsors, which already included the National Mango Board — hardly an A-list group of companies.
But there’s reason for optimism that the NWSL can capitalize on the World Cup more successfully than it did four years ago. Budweiser, a longtime sponsor of the USWNT, signed on as the first official beer of the NWSL during the World Cup on a multi-year deal. As Budweiser’s vice-president of marketing said when the deal was announced: “Becoming the official beer sponsor of the NWSL is our way of not just supporting the US women’s team once every four years, but also supporting women’s soccer every single day.”
A broadcast deal for the league was also confirmed during the World Cup. After the termination of a strange partnership between the NWSL and the Lifetime Channel, which is known for made-for-TV movies rather than sports, the NWSL will be shown on ESPN, in addition to having games streamed by Yahoo Sports, a much better fit.
“We need more things like that,” said defender Kelley O’Hara. “Eyeballs are important and representation is important. For ESPN to have the NWSL on its channels, we need that.”
The biggest asset the NWSL has going for it, however, is the players. All 23 women on the US World Cup winning squad play in the NWSL, plus another 35 who represented other countries in France. After the World Cup, the NWSL, which is still trying to find its foothold in the American sports landscape, may feel like a downgrade. But the players, who are paid by US Soccer to play in the NWSL, insist that the club game is important, too.
“I haven’t won an NWSL championship yet and that’s on my list of things I want to accomplish,” said Alyssa Naeher, goalkeeper for the US and the Chicago Red Stars. “After I get through these next few days, I have to get back to Chicago to finish my season.”