If timing truly is everything, women’s soccer may have finally gotten the message.
Over the past three weeks, the National Women’s Soccer League unveiled a 10th franchise, which is being almost unanimously heralded as a big step forward for the league, then kept the news cycle going with splashy player moves, none larger than the sport’s most recognizable face, Alex Morgan, being traded to the new Orlando Pride expansion team.
In a niche sector of a still growing sport which struggles so greatly to maintain relevance beyond major international competitions, the amount of attention given to the NWSL over the past three weeks is unprecedented. One month after the league championship, three weeks after an expansion announcement and now, several months after the Women’s World Cup, that ‘World Cup boom’ term which executives like to tout is finally coming to fruition.
Two previous attempts at professional women’s soccer leagues in the U.S. have failed. The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was born from the fervor of the 1999 Women’s World Cup won by the United States on home soil, but that league lasted three seasons, blowing through a widely reported $100 million before folding depressingly on the doorstep of the next Women’s World Cup.
It would be six years before Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) would take a second crack at selling women’s soccer to the American audience. Where WUSA failed, WPS attempted to learn, slashing budgets to a few million dollars per team. But even those weren’t low enough, among the many stumbling blocks the league faced.
By the end of 2012, the National Women’s Soccer League was born, this time – for the first time – with the actual backing of the United States Soccer Federation. U.S. Soccer runs the league’s front office and covers league-level expenses. And now the NWSL sits tantalizingly close to the uncharted waters of a fourth season for a professional women’s soccer league in the United States.
But just like the past two leagues, the question remains: Is it here to stay?
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Portland is an anomaly in the world of women’s soccer – literally, the entire world. Over 15,000 fans per game turn out to watch women’s soccer a dozen times each year. The very thought of what goes on in the Rose City is something that even four years ago was unfathomable.
But here stands Portland, a place where 21,144 people showed up to watch a mid-season women’s professional soccer game on a Wednesday night. This is the product of a passionate market which embraces soccer of all kinds.
Orlando will now look to establish itself as the next big thing in the league. Already, the signs are promising. The team says it already has already sold 2,000 season tickets, more than most established NWSL teams have. Orlando owner Phil Rawlins’ goal is to average 10,000 fans per game, which would second-best to Portland based on 2015 attendance. Early signs are that the goal could be attainable, and Orlando executives have been clear that they have big ambitions (the team will begin its tenure by playing in the cavernous 70,000-seat Citrus Bowl).
The blockbuster trade sent Alex Morgan and Canadian midfielder Kaylyn Kyle to new the Orlando expansion team – coached by Tom Sermanni, a big name who previously coached the U.S. and Australia national teams – for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 college draft, a highly coveted international roster spot for the next two seasons and, eventually, U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg.
Some have called this the Herschel Walker trade of the NWSL. Orlando went all-in on a superstar and Portland gets out of it potentially three-plus long-term roster pieces to build a team around. But such a comparison only sort of scratches the surface. This is a deal which impacts the entire league.
“Win-win,” is an oft-used but rarely applicable term for trades in sports, but it is fitting here. Orlando executives got the star power they desired; a healthy Morgan will score goals and sell plenty of tickets. Portland, in return, got a large enough haul to justify the move, which came at the request of Morgan in order to be closer to her husband, Servando Carrasco, who plays for Major League Soccer’s Orlando City FC (owned by the same group which owns the Pride).
The big winner in the deal, however, is the NWSL. The league acquired a 10th franchise and third with Major League Soccer ties, an avenue which is clearly being viewed as a favorable foundation for a women’s team.
See, this Morgan-to-Orlando trade has people talking. Not just the same people who are already watching, but soccer people, sports people, and the Orlando market. This is the buzz which builds a league.
“It raises the bar for all of us and it raises the opportunity for us to be collectively ambitious,” NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said of adding Orlando’s strong ownership group.
Portland never set out to trade women’s soccer biggest name. The Thorns are rebuilding, but they saw a healthy Alex Morgan – who missed significant time during the 2014 and 2015 seasons due to injuries – as a big part of that turnaround. Morgan, however requested the trade, and it became clear that Orlando’s entry into NWSL in 2016 was in part predicated on getting Morgan.
So Thorns owner Merritt Paulson personally engaged in negotiations, something he says he almost never does.
Paulson also owns Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers FC. He knew that he needed considerable value in return for Morgan to justify the trade to a knowledgeable fan base which has seen its team underachieve the past two years. And Portland is the one place where a marketable star isn’t necessary – the club and the culture are the selling points. Portland’s attendance will be just fine without Morgan.
As one of the more public owners in advocating for raised standards, Paulson understands the importance of Orlando’s addition.
“Owners recognize that this league could be the best women’s professional soccer league in the world,” he said. “Not one of the best – the best, in quality of play, in support in the stands, in sort of all the key metrics that you would judge that by. But we do have work to do. There were a lot of mistakes made in the last couple of leagues and I think that this league is off to a good start in correcting some of those mistakes. Having some franchises that have more stability and more infrastructure is only going to help the prospect here.”
He added: “My goal is to have as many healthy franchises as possible in the league.”
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There are a few slippery slopes which the NWSL must be mindful of. The league may have unintentionally set a precedent which can’t be matched for future expansion teams. Does the price tag of admission to the NWSL include a major player acquisition? There is only one Alex Morgan and the situation is unique, as sources across the league stress.
But objectively, Orlando had the leverage to concoct the biggest trade in the league’s history without a single player on its roster. Future expansion teams will recognize this in negotiating their entry into the league. And the Houston Dash, owned by the same group which owns MLS’ Houston Dynamo, will be wondering why they didn’t receive a similarly lucrative deal upon entering the league before the 2014 season. (By purely ironic coincidence, Carrasco was playing for the Dynamo at the time.)
Retrospectively, Orlando’s interest in bringing in Morgan was clear.
“You just have to follow Phil Rawlins’ social media accounts to know that there was something going on,” Paulson quipped. Rawlins and Morgan appeared in photos together in August and September.
And what if Orlando wasn’t backed by an MLS franchise? Surely an independent ownership group wouldn’t have had such leverage. There are significant gaps in resources between MLS-backed women’s teams and those which are run independently, a point which could create a schism as women’s soccer looks to MLS and, more than ever, finds mutual interest there.
Ultimately, however, mainstream fans and media are likely to forget such logistics surrounding this Morgan trade and view them as minutiae. There is a fourth season on the horizon, something which has never happened in professional women’s soccer in the United States. There are tangible signs of growth – a new team and an extension of the Nike apparel deal through 2019 chief among them – and no signs of teams folding, which plagued previous leagues. For the first time, optimism surrounding women’s soccer surviving in the United States doesn’t sound like head-in-the-clouds hope.
If and when in five to 10 years, the NWSL is a truly healthy league which isn’t just trying to survive, these past few weeks – with particular emphasis on Morgan’s move to Orlando – will be looked at as seminal moments for the sport. There was hot-stove news – trades, expansion, coaching changes – the kind of stuff sports fans eat, live, sleep and tweet. Fans and media were doing exactly that. Those are, finally, signs of a growing league.