When Angel City FC was introduced to the National Women’s Soccer League in the summer of 2020, the greatest amount of attention was paid not to which players might become a part of the squad but rather to the long list of entertainment superstars announced as club founders or investors, including Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Uzo Aduba, Eva Longoria and Christina Aguilera. Whether or not they’d win any titles, they were a clear threat to win you some Oscars, Emmys or Grammys.
It was compelling to see so many prominent figures — and so many of them women — helping to establish a Los Angeles entry in the nation’s top women’s league. For an expansion fee of just $2 million, though, they didn’t have a lot to lose. Literally.
Just a few years later, whether or not you’re a movie star, you no longer can buy a chunk of an NWSL expansion team with the spare change in your couch cushions and piggy bank. The group behind Bay FC, the Northern California team that will take the field for the first time in the 2024 season, had to dish out $53 million for a spot in the league.
That’s a 2,550 percent increase in three years, which seems to follow the worldwide growth chart of women’s soccer in the decade of the ‘20s.
This FIFA Women’s World Cup set an attendance record of 1,978,274, 40 percent better than pre-tournament estimates, even though it’s a tough trip for fans from Europe and the Americas — and even though New Zealanders delivered a tepid response to playing host to nearly half the tournament. The tournament’s overall attendance record was broken when the U.S. played a round of 16 game against Sweden on Aug. 6. There still were a dozen games left in the tournament, including the final, which drew a crowd to Stadium Australia that was thousands above the listed capacity.
Viewers in the U.S. delivered an audience of nearly 8 million to Fox Sports and Telemundo for the second USWNT group game, against the Netherlands, and 1.35 million watched the Americans play Portugal to qualify for the knockout rounds — even though kickoff came at 3 a.m. EDT on a Tuesday.
MORE: Women’s World Cup attendance tracker 2023 with full breakdown of fans at matches in Australia and New Zealand
“I think we’re at a different place now in women’s sports, and specifically women’s soccer,” U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone told the Sporting News. “I think many people viewed the investment in women’s sports back when I was playing almost as a charity. And now they’re seeing it as an investment. It’s not just a good thing to do or the right thing to do. It actually makes good business sense.
“And we’re seeing that now. We’re seeing it from media. We’re seeing it from sponsors. And everyone’s investing more. More coverage, more fans are showing up, and so I think we are just really at the beginning of the explosion of women’s soccer.
“I think the men’s game is going to continue to grow, but we’re at a place where the women’s game is poised for exponential growth. We’re seeing that in many different leagues across the world. For me, this is a really exciting time because people are waking up that it makes good business sense to invest in women’s sports.”
Of course, one component of that exponential growth is having so much room to grow. Parlow started at striker for the U.S. women’s national team in the 1999 World Cup final against China, which drew an audience of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl and a national television audience that peaked at 40 million. That was only the third Women’s World Cup ever staged, and the tremendous enthusiasm generated through that tournament suggested the sport was about to explode in popularity.
Then came one failed U.S. professional league. Then another. It took the support of U.S. Soccer, which long covered the salaries of the national team players who competed in the NWSL, to secure the progress of a third women’s pro league after it was launched in 2012. Even at that, the league struggled for television exposure, choosing at one point to place games on the Lifetime cable network before signing a successful contract with CBS Sports (and later the Paramount+ streaming service) in 2020.
England didn’t launch its Women’s Super League until 2010. Spain didn’t recognize its top two women’s leagues as professional until 2020 — 13 years later they’ve won the World Cup. The surge in growth promised on the grass of the Rose Bowl, when Brandi Chastain scored to secure a penalty shootout World Cup victory for the USWNT, seemed as though it never would arrive.
It’s here, though, without any comparable, seminal moment to launch the ascent. It just kind of happened.
“It didn’t happen, really, overnight. I know for a fact we’ve been working toward this for a really long time,” Racing Louisville star Nadia Nadim told the Sporting News. “A lot of athletes, teams, federations have been working toward having almost the same recognition that you see on the men’s side, or having the same acceptance.
“For me, what’s been a game-changer has been the media interest. I always say: People need to know this is happening. Once you know the women’s game is there and people watch it, you’re going to fall in love with it. Football is reaching out to parts of the world that 10 years ago, 20 years ago, you wouldn’t even know a World Cup is happening. Now, everyone knows.
“I feel that clubs and nations are seeing there’s a huge potential. Investors are seeing there’s a huge potential to invest in the women’s game, because you can grow it rapidly.”
In March 2022, FC Barcelona’s women’s team drew a world record crowd of 91,553 – passing that USWNT-China World Cup final – for a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against rival Real Madrid. They topped that a month later in a semifinal game against Germany’s VfL Wolfsburg. Later that summer, the Euro 2022 final between England and Germany attracted 87,192 to Wembley Stadium, and the tournament had an audience of 574,875 for its 31 games, more than double the attendance from four years earlier. That helped generate a 173 percent increase in attendance for the England Women’s Super League in the 2022-23 season.
Former England “Lioness” national team star Karen Carney, appointed to chair an independent review of the nation’s women’s soccer infrastructure, recommended that with increased investment in the girls’ game, greater professionalization of the two highest leagues and enhanced television exposure that women’s soccer could become “a billion-pound industry” in a decade.
Private equity firm Sixth Street Partners is making a nine-figure investment in Bay FC, including the expansion fee and training facilities, and CEO Alan Waxman insists the impetus for this decision is, in large part, to make money. He told Just Women’s Sports the data signals women’s pro soccer is an “undervalued” property. “In five years, people are going to be saying: Why wasn’t this so obvious when it was happening?”
Anson Dorrance watched the Euro 2022 phenomenon with great interest, because someone who has spent 44 years as North Carolina’s head coach – winning 1,093 games and 21 NCAA championships – is going to be deeply invested in the women’s game. His attention also was captured because England’s head coach Sarina Wiegman, star defender Lucy Bronze, improving defender Lotte Wuben-Moy and super-sub forward Alessia Russo all played for the Tar Heels.
“There’s just so many good things happening, basically across the globe,” Dorrance told The Sporting News. He was head coach of the first Women’s World Cup champion, in 1991, and has seen the game come so far in the 32 years since.
“There had to be some housecleaning in the NWSL, and it was done very aggressively and very efficiently, and the players basically became the power-brokers in the league. And if poor coaching behavior was an issue anywhere, all of a sudden they had a conduit – it was almost like the #MeToo movement for women’s soccer – to a committee that wouldn’t brook poor behavior and, all of a sudden they’re just taking off.
“As a result, everyone wants to jump into the league so much, we might have three new franchises next spring. Are you kidding me?”
Berman explained to The Sporting News that the horrific player abuse scandal that affected several NWSL clubs and led to permanent banning of four coaches and the firing of some team executives had to be addressed and properly resolved for the league to enter this growth period. “From a business and brand perspective – but, frankly, also from an authenticity and humanity perspective – it was foundational,” she said. “The growth experienced recently “would not have been possible had we not ensured the transparency and accountability that resulted from the joint investigation in which we partnered with the players and players association.”
The massive increase in expansion fees and, in so many cases, team values obviously are a product of increased interest, but rarely is anything in business quite so simple. Berman said this also resulted from a “fundamental difference in the way we as a league are valuing ourselves.” That means investing in personnel at the league level to drive the league forward. The size of the league office, she said, has tripled in the last 12 months.
“That matters,” Berman told TSN. “It matters because – using expansion almost like a case study, because I do think it’s one of many examples that illustrate what’s possible for this league and where we’re heading in key performance indicators over the past 12 months – we invested in a process whereby we engaged to determine who had interest in the NWSL and created a competitive bidding process, which, of course, would only result in driving value if our value was warranted. But we set the stage for the opportunity for this value to be recalibrated the way it ultimately was.”
The NWSL’s 12 current teams are not uniformly successful. League attendance, on average, has increased 19 percent over last season, with the San Diego Wave over 20,000 per game and four clubs averaging crowds of more than 10,000. Only two are down from last season, although there remain two teams (North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars) getting crowds of fewer than 5,000.
With Chicago in the process of being sold, Berman views the problem there as an aberration, but for those that have “more room for growth”, the league has invested in resources to help those teams build audience, including sharing best practices employed by Angel City, the Portland Thorns and other teams attracting large crowds with those still working toward that outcome. The NWSL soon will be hiring to the league office with the job description of supporting these efforts.
In American soccer over the past three decades, each World Cup has been presented as an opportunity for the sport to gain a breakthrough. This no longer seems necessary for the NWSL, but neither will the league ignore the opportunity it presents.
With 60 players having earned roster spots at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, including 22 of the 23 members of the USWNT and representatives of 15 other countries, the league implemented a marketing campaign with an audacious message full of swag:
“We don’t just play the world’s game, we run it.”
Berman’s proud declaration that “we have the best league in the world” could be enhanced by continued investment, such as that from the Bay FC group, that leads to expansion similar to what MLS has experienced in the past two decades. MLS has grown from 10 teams in 2004 to a planned 30 by 2025.
And Berman’s boast could be proven if there were, say, a tournament in which the league’s champion could compete against those of other leagues or confederations. Although there has been an annual Club World Cup on the men’s side since 2000, and FIFA just announced an invigorated competition comprising 32 teams and staged on a quadrennial basis, there remains no concrete plan for a Women’s Club World Cup.
This is the case even though it represents a clear opportunity to grow the game. Cone told TSN it would be “fantastic” to have such an event. Berman said the NWSL is “ready to go, as a league” and willing to invest resources and energy to make it happen.
“We need more confederations to be able to show up and be organized enough to be able to put on the competitions that are necessary to lead into the Club World Cup,” Berman said. “As a league, we’re poised to take on a disproportionate amount of responsibility … There’s too much ground to make up, and too much lost time.”
Women’s soccer, as well, could see growth opportunities with greater attention from those in sports media. Even though the USWNT entered with a chance to win a third consecutive World Cup, the number of reporters and analysts who devote extended time to covering their games remained smaller than those who focus on the men’s team.
In advance of this year’s World Cup, the USWNT found themselves fighting for attention in their own country. To be fair, it took the biggest star of the 21st century, Lionel Messi, to battle the women for attentioin, but his introduction to Major League Soccer and Inter Miami became perhaps the biggest soccer story in the week the Women’s World Cup opened.
Four years ago, U.S. star Megan Rapinoe complained about the scheduling of finals in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Copa America on the same day as the Women’s World Cup final. This year, MLS and LigaMX scheduled their Leagues Cup tournament to run concurrently with this year’s women’s tournament.
The substantial progress made, though, is reflected in something as basic as how the greatest number of players who were involved at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup go about their daily routines.
“For so long, it’s just been a struggle,” USWNT great Carli Lloyd, who worked the tournament as an analyst for Fox Sports, told TSN. “It was a matter of picking and choosing your battles and knowing that the things we wanted to make better were often not being heard, and you just have to continue to go out and perform.
“For me, as a player, the national team always took precedent. That was what I, as a player, was always striving for. The league, for me, was a training platform and a way for me to prepare, to get better, for the national team. And I think now you’re seeing that even out, if not maybe the league take a little bit more precedent for the national team. And that’s ultimately what we want to get to.
“Of course the national team is important, but now, long gone are the days where you’re coming into a national team camp for 2-3 weeks, and you’re training several weeks before a game. It’s just FIFA widows now. So you’re coming in, training a couple times, playing a game and then playing another game, and then you’re out and back with your clubs. That’s how it is in the men’s side, and it’s going in that trajectory for the women, which is a good thing.”
For all the U.S. women have achieved since Dorrance coached such players as Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy to that first World Cup win – four total World Cups, four Olympic gold medals – there still are some sports fans who immediately dismiss their accomplishments and their sport simply because it’s played by women.
MORE: Women’s World Cup 2023 prize money breakdown: How much does each team and player make?
There are those who will watch high school boys play football or college men play basketball with great passion, but will refuse to spend time on elite women’s soccer because they don’t play at the same level as the best of the men. These are the people who will seize upon an isolated training exercise for a women’s team playing against young men – the USWNT lost such a game a few years back, and Australia’s “Matildas” after that – as evidence something like the Women’s World Cup is not worth their time.
Is there a cure for that?
“You remove the gender, and what you say is: These athletes work 24/7, 365 days a year to be the best versions of themselves they possibly can for the betterment of the group. And, frankly, with a somewhat more limited budget,” Racing Louisville assistant coach Bev Yanez, a veteran of two decades playing in American leagues and across the globe, told TSN. “And they’re asked to do all of this, just as everybody in the athlete world is asked to do. It’s the exact same thing. And they’re doing it at a very high level.
“You see it all the time: Dads are like, ‘Wow, I’m a huge fan. I had a daughter, and everything changed. Because now I want them to have the same access to everything, and I want them to be everything they want to be and do everything they want to do.’ And all of a sudden, your mind is completely changed. It’s going to continue to evolve in this sense. And I think those barriers will continue to be broken.”
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