NWSL Financial Viability Still Being Tested After Second Year

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is one of many incarnations of a professional women’s soccer league in North America.  In its second season, the NWSL has found moderate success and perhaps the strongest support system since 1999 when the United States Women’s National Team won the 1999 World Cup.  The Women’s United Soccer Association as well as Women’s Professional Soccer have each tried their hand at creating a top league to display the world’s greatest players, most of which already play in the United States.  Both leagues have failed largely due to lack of revenue or support from ownership; neither lasted longer than three seasons.

What makes the NWSL different from previous leagues is the support system and change in business and sporting model to create a viable league.  NWSL has taken a page out of the European model for women’s soccer.  Of the nine teams in the NWSL, two are directly affiliated with a Major League Soccer team.  The Portland Thorns and Houston Dash are partnered with the Timbers and Dynamo respectively.  Both teams play their twelve home games at the home stadiums of the men’s teams.  These affiliations offer a stable front office and built-in marketing systems which makes team operations much easier.

Still, there are seven NWSL teams not affiliated with MLS teams.  The league itself is sponsored by the Football Associations of the United States (USSF), Canada (CSA), and Mexico (MFF).  These national organizations have assured that top talent from the U.S, Mexico, and Canada were distributed evenly among the original eight teams, balancing the league competitively but also financially, such that the salaries of the most recognizable names in women’s soccer would not be a burden to just one team.

The cost of operating the NWSL is considerably low compared to MLS, which might encourage MLS clubs to partner with one of the remaining seven NWSL teams.  The salaries of NWSL players are extremely low and the gap between highest paid players and the lowest is quite significant.  In this way, NWSL and MLS are actually quite similar.

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NWSL players who are drafted from college into the league are willing to get paid between $6,000 and $30,000 for the five month season for a chance to move up to their national team and earn more recognition (and pay).

Low player’s salaries are just one of the many threats to the survival of the NWSL. Seven teams play in soccer specific stadiums to crowds of no more than a couple thousand (with the exception of Portland which averaged 13,362 in 2014).  Matchday revenue is hardly enough to pay for facilities, staff, players, and front office personnel.

The United States, a nation that boasts arguably the best female soccer talent in the world, could face challenges from Europe in retaining their elite talent.  Women’s leagues in Europe are becoming more viable options for the best players.  It has been noted that some American players play in Europe in the off-season to supplement their salaries while others have chosen to play in Europe permanently.  The competition of European leagues could harm the NWSL’s ability to retain top talent and market the league to fans.  The UEFA Women’s Champions League has a stronger foundation than the NWSL as well as a very compelling format for players and supporters.

Ultimately what will keep the NWSL running longer than its predecessors is the support of the national soccer federations.  MLS has had its fair share of growing pains in the American sports landscape with low player’s salaries, young unproven talent, and massive financial losses.  The major difference that NWSL has going for it that MLS even still does not is the elite player talent pool.  MLS competes with the wealthiest and most successful clubs in the world to acquire top talent to improve the league.  Europe may tap into the U.S, Canada, and Mexico to improve the quality of their league, but most will remain in the NWSL.  The United States has been mostly dominant in women’s soccer for the better part of the past decade, and currently ranks first in FIFA’s World Rankings.  If the NWSL can continue to sustain itself, it will have no shortage of talent to choose from.

The league shows a lot of promise to outlive the WUSL and WPS.  Like MLS, the NWSL needs to survive the initial lack of revenue and slowly gain respect and support from soccer fans.  And if MLS is any indication of the growth of soccer in the United States, the NWSL certainly has a place.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.