NWSL’s Model for the Now and the Future

By Zoe Abramson

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), now in the middle of its fifth season, has lasted longer than the two previous women’s soccer leagues in the U.S. The first league, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) launched after the United States Women’s National Team soccer team won the 1999 FIFA World Cup, but folded after its third season. The Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPS) didn’t fare better, folding three years after starting in 2009.

The NWSL learned from its predecessors; players’ salaries are different, costs are less, there is more cooperation between neighboring federations, and a new TV deal has secured the league’s future for now. It must continue to grow in order to stay a part of the U.S. soccer landscape for years to come.

The previous two leagues failed mainly due to the lack of financial control. SBNation reports that the WUSA had $40 million dollars invested in it to last five years, but they blew through the money is one year. They attempted to fundraise more funds, but blew through it just as quickly. The WPS was more conservative in their spending, but not conservative enough.

Now the NWSL has invested less money to stay stable. The salary cap and minimum salary per player is less than the other leagues. The current NWSL salary cap is $315,000, according to SBNation’s Kevin McCauley. For the first WPS season the salary cap was $565,000.

However, the NWSL salary cap doesn’t include the contract of the federation players, who are players the play for either the Canadian or U.S. national teams. According to the league, there are 22 federation players from the U.S. and 11 federation players from Canada this season. These athletes are paid by their federations instead of being paid by the team they play for. It also allows the teams to have what would be some of the biggest contracts compensated for, which keeps the spending for the owners much lower.

Unlike the past, the U.S. Soccer Federation helps to run the league. U.S. Soccer is the administer of the league and does things such as run the draft, handle the committees, and hold the league offices within their Chicago headquarters.

Another advantage the NWSL has over the previous leagues is the affiliation with Major League Soccer (MLS). According to The Washington Post soccer writer Steven Goff, the partnership with the MLS has increased attendance, because the teams that are affiliated with MLS teams “play in the same stadium…there’s some cross marketing and cross promotion.”

In 2013, the Portland Thorns were the first team to join with their MLS team, the Portland Timbers. The Thorns have lead the league in attendance every year. In 2014, when the Houston Dash joined the league partnered with the Houston Dynamo, they were second in the league with attendance. In 2015 the Orlando Pride were the third team to be affiliated with an MLS team, and they set the attendance record for a single game.

This season, Lifetime reached a T.V. deal with the league to show one game a week and streams the rest of the games online. Lifetime also holds stakes in the NWSL from their investment.

However, the league will have to continue improving its quality of the play to excite people to continue watching the product. Players like Kim Little and Jess Fishlock sacrifice big contracts in Europe by playing in the states. Since U.S. Soccer directly pays their national team players, many feel compelled to stay in the U.S.

“If you want to be the best, America is the best place to be,” Fishlock said to SBNation.

Meanwhile, thanks to the federations’ helping pay the national team players, they can pay for high-priced, international players. Recently, many Brazilian and Australian players, including stars like Marta and Samantha Kerr, have decided to play in the U.S., increasing the level of play in the league the past couple of years.   

The NWSL isn’t out of the woods yet. In order to keep the league running, Goff says that teams, “need to appeal to those [European] players…expand to California…continue building their sponsorships and connections with the communities.”

Photo Credit: NWSL

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