A discussion originated on an National Women’s Soccer League-related forum in which I’m active wherein the original poster discussed potentially withdrawing support from the NWSL and its teams due to several issues with the league and its US Soccer Federation parentage. The following started as a response to that thread. This is definitively editorial in nature, so I hope the readers will forgive the departure from journalistic convention into the use of the first person pronoun. After all these are one person’s opinion. That person happens to be ‘this reporter’, but usage of that convention in an op-ed seems at best stilted.
“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”
Is the NWSL flawed? Yes. I’m sure that anyone who has been paying any attention can rattle off lots of ways it is.
Is it still the best option we have? Yes.
Unfortunately, there’s a weird chicken-and-egg situation. The league won’t grow without better infrastructure and simultaneously, can’t [afford to] develop better infrastructure without growth. It’s almost comically minor-league – perhaps even bush-league – that the league office is something on the order of three full-time employees and a handful of interns, and at least in the non-MLS co-owned/partnered markets the situation is likely at least as sparse (I know in Seattle it absolutely is and that the turnover rate is incredibly high – we’re on our third or fourth media contact of the season, and have had I think seven now in my three years covering the team). People are stretched to the breaking points and beyond – and this is just the off-field administrative stuff.
The NWSL has abdicated its responsibility to the writers and photographers who cover the league and the game, allowing a self-selected clique of accredited media to form an officially sanctioned media association. I think this is solely because someone from that pool noted that such a thing was probably needed and the league Director of Communications simply didn’t have the bandwidth to oversee the formation and governance of one. This group alleges that it models itself on the Baseball Writers Association of America, ostensibly to ensure access and facilities which empower the press to do their jobs, but elects to ignore the tenet of “[t]he main requirement for membership is still that a writer works for a newspaper or news outlet that covers major league baseball on a regular basis.” Rather, what the NWSL Writers’ Association seems to have arrogated unto itself fits the BBWAA’s description of a chapter Warden (see Article 3, Section 4 of the BBWAA constitution while conveniently ignoring that primary qualifier and seemingly using it to exclude media who have covered the league for other outlets. [nota bene: The Goalkeeper Guys were both nominated to the NWSL Media Association by our local representative, Jacob Cristobal, but were not accepted by the unknown composition of that group. We love Jacob and see him as a brother-in-arms covering the team, and thank him for the nomination while indemnifying him from defending the decision. He’s a good guy, and if you don’t already read his stuff, you should.]
The player payscale is simultaneously ridiculous and sustainable – as wrong as it is for anyone who works as hard as the players for potentially as little as $7000 a season (assuming they make the roster and aren’t amateurs who may work as hard for nothing), there isn’t the revenue stream to support it being higher – and even though team owners are reasonably well heeled it’s an unreasonable expectation to demand that they lose more to pay better. We’ve also seen in past leagues what results when compensation rates are significantly higher – leagues folding in three years because they become fiscally untenable. That option is obviously not viable from past experience.
So, how then to fix it? I don’t have the answer, but I suspect that it involves significantly more investment from the US Soccer Federation as the lead partner in the coalition of associations which underwrite the NWSL – particularly given the general track record of the US Women’s National Team – into both the infrastructures and on-field product. Getting more teams will help – it seems ludicrous that there are only five NWSL teams in the top 20 US markets (#3 Chicago, #5 Houston, #6 Washington, D.C., #10 Boston, and #15 Seattle) and the list of those other 15 is studded with places which come up over and over again – NYC, Northern and Southern California, Dallas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver, St. Louis. Adding eight to ten teams at once is probably disastrous, but if I’m in the commissioner’s office, I’m actively recruiting potential ownership groups in those places and building a plan to include them as rapidly as seems feasible. Adding presences in those places will help build revenue, and has the chance to make it possible for the league to get a TV contract which doesn’t see it displaced by NASCAR second-tier truck racing and high-school football (in the past two years, playoff games have been shoehorned around such events, resulting in such disasters as a semi-final match featuring Washington at Seattle having a 10 pm Eastern time Thursday kickoff even if this made it unrealistically late for fans of the visiting team to watch).
Sure, having almost every game since the league’s inception available for viewing and live-broadcasting those which aren’t televised via YouTube is great, and makes it possible for fans without deep pockets to follow their teams away from home. But I don’t think anyone can make the argument that doing so is an acceptable alternative to having a regular nationally televised match broadcast on a significant outlet. As with so many of the things we’ve seen above, if you’re already a fan, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t know about the broadcasts; but if you’re not, they’re not easily discoverable – and that accessible discovery goes a long way in building interest.
I’d be looking at ways to make the merchandise more readily available by getting it into national distribution and offsetting the hit to owners by giving them a share of the profits – this has been cited as a reason why it hasn’t been done yet; that by making merchandise available strictly through the teams and league stores it drives all that revenue back to the owners. This strikes me as one of two things: either a well-intentioned mistake on the part of the league or a tacit acknowledgement that there simply isn’t the overhead and infrastructure to hire a league merchandising and marketing director worthy of the title who could get this sort of thing done. There are so many places in Seattle I can go and buy merchandise from our other professional sports teams. For that matter, I can buy Seattle Supersonics gear, and the Sonics were uprooted to Oklahoma City eight years ago. I know of a single store which isn’t online or the team’s Match Day popup in the stadium where I can find Seattle Reign stuff, and that one’s limited to t-shirts. I strongly suspect that this particular outlet (if you’re curious, the Simply Seattle! store at 1st and Pine) bought a handful of shirts in their most common sizes for women, youth, and men from the team itself simply because people asked for them.
I’d also want to focus on some way to get the players – not merely the cadre of national team stars – visibility and name recognition, at least within their communities. For instance, if you’re a sports fan in Seattle or Portland, you probably know who Clint Dempsey or Diego Valeri are; if you’re a soccer fan, you probably know Alvaro Fernamdez and Darlington Nagbe. Sports fans probably recognize the names Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe – but what does that say about the Jess Fishlocks and even moreso the Hayley Rasos of the league? I’d be surprised if 2% of self-identified sports fans in Seattle know who Jess is, and would suspect that the Portland number might be less than 2% even among self-identified soccer fans for someone like Raso. Yet it’s the intensity and drive of the Fishlocks and Rasos – and of the twenty or so players on each team’s roster who aren’t well-known names from the US. If you can find me someone who isn’t a die-hard fan, family member, classmate or former teammate of Andi Tostanoski, Didi Haracic, or Allie Wisner who knows who they are, I’d be shocked.
So, the NWSL thus far has failed at a logistic level; it has failed to properly treat its players and particularly those amateur players who train with the teams and fill out the rosters when national team players are off representing their respective countries; it doesn’t market itself well enough to get more than a toehold of national broadcast coverage for anything but some of the most important matches each year; it hasn’t managed to establish a presence in more than a quarter of the largest metropolitan areas, and remains nearly invisible and hard to detect outside the cities where it does have a presence.
Still, it’s a start. We need to support it, lest it go the way of the WUSA and WPS. What do you think can reasonably be done to make the league a better and more sustainable presence? Chime in! Your opinions are as valid as mine.