Huge TV numbers and interest were generated by the United States’ victory in the Women’s World Cup, but as men’s soccer has learned, that doesn’t guarantee American pro soccer can capitalize on the bump.
Still basking in the afterglow of the Women’s World Cup win, members of the Seattle Reign FC practiced Monday hoping a major world event translates to more for them.
Fueled by record World Cup television ratings and national-team players like Alex Morgan becoming household names, the women’s pro game seems to have no place to go but up. But as their male counterparts can attest, parlaying World Cup success into bigger things domestically isn’t automatic.
“People believe in the sport, we just need to make them aware of it,’’ Reign co-owner Bill Predmore said of his 2½-year-old team in the fledgling National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). “Right now, people come out to our games, they have a real good time and they want to come back. But we’re still a new franchise. It’s our third season. So, part of this is just building awareness in our club. We believe when people come out to see our club, give it a shot, they’ll want to come back for more.’’
The Reign, second in the nine-team U.S. league with a 5-2-3 record, last year moved from the Starfire complex in Tukwila where Sounders FC of Major League Soccer (MLS) train to 12,000-seat Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center. The move paid off as the Reign made a run to the championship final and boosted average attendance from 2,306 to 3,666. They’ve averaged only 2,654 through five home games this season, but the team has invested money in marketing and promotion in hopes of a midsummer bump
Let it Reign
Laura Harvey, the Reign’s coach and general manager, said she hopes soccer fans who enjoyed the World Cup realize they can still see many of the same players at NWSL games.
“They play week-in and week-out in their hometowns for their NWSL,’’ she said Monday. “I think that can be something that’s really special and that really pushes this league forward. The reality is that the players who work so hard for that (World Cup) tournament also work hard every day and turn up and play games throughout the season. We need to make sure people know that.’’
Reign defender Kendall Fletcher, 30, a member of the 2009 U.S. national team, understands the high expectations and pressure her compatriots faced in their 5-2 win Sunday over Japan. Fletcher was 14 when the U.S. last won a World Cup in 1999, convincing her a pro future was possible.
“It told me that yes, this was something worth pursuing if you continue to work hard,’’ she said. “It kind of showed me what was possible before I even knew what was possible.’’
Like Harvey, she senses an opportunity for the Reign and NWSL. “We need to shift that excitement and all this attention and say, ‘Hey, look, these girls play week in and week out in their local clubs here in the U.S.’ It’s kind of a natural way to say, ‘Hey, this is their victory tour.’ ’’
Predmore said ticket sales showed modest, steady growth as the World Cup unfolded in Canada. But, he added, “over the past 72 hours, they’ve exploded.’’
A club spokesman declined to give numbers, but said ticket sales in the 24 hours since the World Cup win had already eclipsed any one-day period in club history.
The Reign host the Western New York Flash on Saturday, when World Cup winners Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe are scheduled to return. U.S. forward Abby Wambach — acquired by the Reign in March — has said she’s taking the season off.
World Cup spike
The men’s World Cup typically generates a spike in soccer interest nationwide, but then it wanes during the four years between tournaments. While MLS has come a long way since its post-1994 Men’s World Cup formation, its television contracts and ratings are dwarfed by the four major pro sports here — football, basketball, baseball and hockey.
Fox Sports said Monday that Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final was the most-viewed soccer game in the history of American television. Fox said its English-language telecast was seen by 25.4 million people, while NBC’s Telemundo averaged 1.27 million.
That topped the previous mark of 26.5 million viewers, set when Germany beat Argentina in the 2014 men’s World Cup final televised on ABC and Univision.
The numbers provided a huge boost for Fox and its Fox Sports 1 cable network. Fox just signed a far smaller one-year, 10-game broadcast package with the NWSL.
A New York marketing-research company reported a steep decline in “fan engagement” toward soccer in this country immediately after the men’s World Cup. Brand Keys surveyed between 1,800 and 2,000 fans in nine major U.S. markets during and after the 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 tournaments. Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff said the drop in interest was significant and consistent every four years.
“You see the same pattern,’’ said Passikoff, who added that his surveys are accurate within 3 percent. “You get high interest, high numbers during the tournament and then it’s ‘Thank you very much and goodbye.’ ’’
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With other sports, he added, the numbers climb a bit during playoffs and championships but “you don’t see as high a fluctuation.’’
Passikoff says women’s soccer faces the same challenge in transforming World Cup patriotism into sustained interest.
Indeed, the 1999 World Cup win by the U.S. was followed by the formation of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). That American pro league folded after only three seasons. Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) debuted in 2009 after a U.S. gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, but also vanished after three seasons. One year after that league’s demise, in 2013, the nonprofit U.S. Soccer Federation launched the NWSL.
FIFA gave $35 million to the German soccer federation for winning the men’s World Cup last year, but only paid out $2 million to the U.S. for its women’s victory. A purse 10 times as large might have helped U.S. Soccer transform the NWSL much more quickly.
NWSL president Jeff Plush, a former Kroenke Sports and IMG executive who took over the league’s top position in January, knows about the challenges.
“We’re only 2½ years old right now, so you have all the challenges of a small startup business,” he said.
Plush is pushing hard for a multiyear TV deal, but attendance remains an issue. Portland Thorns FC draws 14,000 per game, but the rest of the league averages only about 3,000. Still, Plush noted that all of the NWSL’s initial eight teams are still around, and a Houston franchise was added last year.
Expansion remains a hot topic, with talk of a half-dozen cities being interested in joining.
“We need to keep doing what we’ve been doing,’’ he said. “We need to continue to have conversations around expansion and around long-term sponsorship opportunities. And the day-to-day job of getting people into our buildings and connecting with our customers in a local and authentic way.’’