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Beyond the World Cup: The Future of NWSL Fan Engagement

By Henry Greenstein on August 12, 2019
Henry Greenstein

Henry is an accomplished writer who loves exploring the intricacies of sports business. He researches activations as part of FanThreeSixty's solutions team.

The United States national team’s success in the 2019 Women’s World Cup has inspired a fresh generation of soccer fans. The responsibility of activating these new fans, however, lies not with the USWNT but with the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League). Armed with a new TV deal and big-name sponsors, the league should attempt to follow the example of one of its most successful clubs, Portland Thorns FC, in engaging this surplus of new fans.


When the USWNT wasn't plowing through one upper-echelon opponent after another, its players were making headlines off the field by boldly lobbying for equal pay from their federation and serving more broadly as advocates for social justice. After this eye-catching performance, certainly at least some of the 14 million American viewers who tuned into Fox for the final match can be persuaded to stick around and follow the sport for years to come. Shepherding these enthusiastic masses will be the job of the NWSL, and the league will need to start doing so right away to maximize its growth.

The NWSL had gone without a national TV contract for the start of its 2019 season after its previous broadcast partners, Lifetime and go90, backed out and shut down, respectively. But during the World Cup, the league received a generous ESPN deal. This promising development was followed closely by the announcement of a colossal new sponsorship from Budweiser, a longtime USWNT partner with a newfound desire to amplify its support of women’s soccer (SI). As new MLS and USL franchises keep springing up around the country, fans have begun to expect the same level of expansion from the NWSL (ProSoccerUSA). 

 

 

This expectation may be unreasonable. While the NWSL is by far the most successful top-level American women’s soccer league thus far — in fact, the only one ever to last for four seasons — the league has endured its fair share of difficulties. To say nothing of its many challenges over player salaries and working conditions, the NWSL has struggled just to connect with its fans and maintain consistent attendance numbers. This has resulted in general instability, particularly during a recent flurry of contractions and relocations (SB Nation).

Portland Thorns FC, however, has been the exception. The Thorns have been masterful in terms of fan engagement. Their 2017 attendance mark of 17,653, for instance, was almost triple that of the next closest NWSL team (SSD). The team has cultivated an ardent supporters’ group, the Rose City Riveters. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that since their 2013 inception, the Thorns have been the NWSL’s most successful team on the field in terms of total wins and playoff appearances and have brought a pair of championships to the City of Roses. As the rest of the NWSL prepares to harness the country’s reinvigorated enthusiasm for women’s soccer, what can it learn from the Thorns?

Personality-driven marketing is more crucial than ever.

NWSL rosters are deliberately designed so that members of the American and Canadian national teams are “allocated” around the league. With the extreme exposure of the USWNT, even some of its lesser players have taken on disproportionately large national profiles, and those that haven’t basically still benefit from the halo effect by virtue of their association with the World Cup champions. Soccer is one of the premier sports for individual-centered marketing, and you can bet that Reign FC will be featuring Megan Rapinoe in pretty much every communication from here on out.

 

Portland Thorns FC has always excelled at this with stars like Christine Sinclair and, in prior years, Alex Morgan. It shows in their high follower counts on social media and the praise they consistently receive for strategies like “[using] their digital platform to build personal relationships between fans and athletes” (SportsETA). The North Carolina Courage have been guided thus far this year by prolific scorer Kristen Hamilton and a trio of NWSL assist leaders, but the team will have to adjust its marketing strategy to highlight returning heroes Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald, and Sam Mewis — even though those players have been absent from Sahlen’s Stadium for a sizable chunk of the season. It’s not necessarily fair, but it’s going to be crucial for these teams to capture all the new fans they can by focusing on World Cup heroes.

MLS affiliation is invaluable and should be expanded.

The Thorns were the first team in NWSL to be directly tied to an MLS partner, the Portland Timbers. Even as they maintain two distinct brand identities, the teams are interconnected in every possible constructive way. Most obviously, the Thorns benefit from the deep pockets of their and the Timbers’ shared ownership, and consequently from the high caliber of their facilities (Maneland). In addition, the same front-office staff runs the two franchises; though their attention is divided, they can leverage their established expertise and business relationships from the Timbers in order to bolster the Thorns. Even the coaches and players collaborate and intermingle (NYT). The Riveters also originate from a pre-existing network of Portland soccer fans, and indeed, “20% of Timbers season-ticket holders also have Thorns season tickets, while the figure climbs to 30% the other way around” (Guardian). In short, from top to bottom, the Thorns have benefited from knowledge spillovers in the Portland soccer scene. 


This model has spawned several imitators — MLS-backed Houston and Orlando, USL-backed North Carolina — and as one North Carolina blog points out, the NWSL has only ever admitted affiliated teams and folded or relocated independent ones. This trend can continue, although of course not every team needs to acquiesce to complete MLS control, as any slight increase in cooperation could be extremely beneficial. Sky Blue FC, hoping to recover from a deeply challenging 2018 on and off the field, could learn a lot by expanding its partnership with fellow New Jersey residents New York Red Bulls.

 

Every league’s fan base is different.

This is a key truth for the NWSL to embrace, as it can result in unique corporate partnership opportunities. Clubs can pitch brands on a less expensive sponsorship opportunity compared to many men’s sports leagues, one providing access to a customer base with a contrasting, intriguing set of demographics and psychographics (there are plenty of success stories from the WNBA). Thorns president of business operations Mike Golub couldn’t “crack the code with IKEA for four or five years on the Timbers side” but the furniture giant readily accepted the Thorns, as did MINI (Guardian). On a league-wide scale, the NWSL was certainly on the right track toward catering to its young female fan base with the Lifetime TV deal, and even though those broadcasting arrangements fell apart, the league still lists the network as one of several sponsors. In fact, the NWSL games that were taken off Lifetime last year ended up on ESPNews given the networks’ common Disney ownership, which may have ultimately helped the league develop its current relationship with ESPN. Pursuing original partnerships pays off.

The NWSL is the first league of its kind to survive through two World Cups. It can’t let this unprecedented chance pass it by. In order to ensure its own longevity, the NWSL will aim to follow the example of its leading club and enhance its fan engagement strategy. Creating a more successful domestic competition would in turn improve the USWNT and elevate the American soccer ecosystem for generations to come.
 

 

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