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The Conversation Around NWSL Attendance And The World Cup Sucks

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

*in best Liz Lemon voice* God, what a year.

With the 2019 season mercifully over and 2020 already here, it’s time to talk about how far the league has come since its second coming and where it now stands, attendance-wise.

I warn you all now that this is a conversation that my editor, RJ Allen, and I have been having no less than twice a week for the past six months. This is a conversation that makes my blood boil and my organs melt. But it is the hill I have decided is mine and that I must roll a rock up like I am the NWSL version of Sisyphus.

While the NWSL may still be in its surprised but welcomed infancy, there’s no denying that the organization has managed to make a name for itself in its seven years here on Earth. The NWSL does, however, have a habit of making a name for itself in the wrong sort of way. I mean, what other league would have a regular season game played on a baseball field or go this long without a commissioner?

For being the best and most competitive league in North America, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of fans. At the games, I mean. In fact, attendance being a game of haves and have-nots seems to be something of an open secret in the league. Watching certain games played in certain stadiums seems to drive the point home as the camera pans over rows and rows of empty seats, sometimes almost surprisingly so depending on the day or teams playing. But it’s not ALWAYS bad.

Every four years, the league receives what has been dubbed the World Cup Boost. Legend has it that during a World Cup year attendance climbs to new heights as fans come in droves to see their champions play in clubs they’d been ignoring for the first half of the season.

The 2015 World Cup was the first real test the league would face in terms of keeping butts in seats while the superstars were away. With a path of destruction behind them and a certain sense of trepidation before them, it was a nervy time for the league as they broke for the World Cup break. The fears would be laid to rest when attendance shot up in all but two clubs.

Boston Breakers

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 2,373

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 3,598

Chicago Red Stars

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 5,481

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 3,363

FC Kansas City

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 3,295

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 2,888

Houston Dash

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 4,418

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 8,408

Portland Thorns FC

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 13,769

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 18,443

Seattle Reign FC

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 2,654

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 5,465

Sky Blue FC

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 1,298

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 3,080

Washington Spirit

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 3,025

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 5,148

Western New York Flash

  1. Pre World Cup 2015: 2,135

  2. Post World Cup 2015: 3,584

The NWSL being able to put more butts into more seats post 2015 World Cup is good. That is a fact. But it’s also true that the league wasn’t ready to fully bank on the bump coming from the World Cup.

As Charles Olney wrote about in Women’s Soccer Is Far Too Conservative, it was even more so in 2015.

Before we get into 2019 and yet another bonkers year, one thing I believe is important about attendance are the national team players and how they’re marketed by the league.

It’s no secret that the NWSL leans very heavily on the national team players to bring in fans. I’ve often commented that the NWSL markets friendlies and national tournaments better than their own seasons, flaunting and bragging about how the national team plays in THEIR league and that’s why they’re so good. Often times it feels like the NWSL is just an USSF academy in disguise. And It’s not only the American national team players getting touted. The NWSL also likes to pimp out their Canadian, Australian and Brazilian players as well; neglecting the other players in the league who work just as hard with almost nothing to show for it in terms of recognition from the fans and the league they play for.

And it’s not just the players the league neglects, it’s the fan base and the real demographic within it. Right now it feels like the league only cares about little girls. The league front office needs to start looking over their sales and see who’s paying for season tickets, for Wednesday night games, for beer cozies. Stop neglecting the 18-35 year olds and market to them. That’s the demographic that pays the kind of money to sit THAT close to the pitch, that pays out the ass for jerseys, scarfs, shirts, jackets, and hoodies. Little girls aren’t shelling out the money, neither are mommy and daddy. By marketing to ONLY little kids, the NWSL is telling the college kids and adults that they don’t care about them, just their money.

Now with a benchmark for success after a victorious and decisive 2015 World Cup win and the knowledge that they can weather missing its superstars and a break, the league was ready for the World Cup. As I wept bitterly about France once again coming so close and failing yet again, the Americans would go on to win, proving that luck and arrogance are the winning combination.

With all that being said, let’s talk about 2019. First, the numbers.

Chicago Red Stars

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 4,288

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 6,055

Houston Dash

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 3,714

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 5,269

North Carolina Courage 

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 4,907

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 6,842

Orlando Pride

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 4,705

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 6,424

Portland Thorns FC

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 18,052

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 20,780

Reign FC

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 3,605

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 6,282

Sky Blue FC

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 2,864

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 4,699

Utah Royals FC

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 10,757

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 10,790

Washington Spirit

  1. Pre World Cup 2019: 2,990

  2. Post World Cup 2019: 4,607

To start, I’d like to mention that those pre-World Cup numbers are dope as hell. Considering that numbers for the first half of the season are bleak, these are really good.

There are three clubs that I really want to highlight: Washington Spirit, Sky Blue and Reign FC.

The Spirit would play two games in Audi Stadium, home to D.C. United. Their first game against Orlando would draw in 19,471 fans. An incredible showing for the fans of both the Spirit and the Orlando Pride, with Washington winning the game 2-1. In their next game against Reign FC, crowds of 17,418 would once again show their support and cheer their team on to a 2-2 draw.

Sky Blue also saw success at an MLS stadium. Sky Blue played two games at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. Their first game saw 9,415 fans and their last game had 8,314 fans. As with Washington, drawing between 8,000-9,000 fans shows the support for Sky Blue is there. Minus those two games, Sky Blue was seeing 4,600 fans with an increase of 1,800, which is how much they were averaging LAST SEASON.

The Seattle Reign packed their bags and headed south to Tacoma and got an updated name of Reign FC. They settled into a new stadium and kicked off their season with their old Seattle fans and new Tacoma fans. Their third home game had 3,032 fans, four less than their second home game. Their return home game would tell a better story, having set an all time franchise record of 7,479 fans. New adventures lay just beyond the horizon for this team, as it was recently reported that French powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais were in negotiations to buy Reign FC and set up shop for the upcoming 2020 season.

Despite how far the NWSL has come, their overall attendance falls flat of where it could be if the league put in 10% more effort or demanded 10% more from the teams. I find it ridiculous that in stadiums with a 20,000 seat capacity, a club can barely crack eight thousand. And it’s even more ridiculous to me that Chicago, Houston and Orlando have such consistently low attendance for their markets. It’s even more ridiculous that North Carolina Courage – back-to-back NWSL champions North Carolina, the most hated team North Carolina, the underdogs of the league North Carolina – YES THAT NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE – is not selling out every weekend. For all the numerous articles that other women’s soccer journalists and pundits write about women’s soccer making it in America, it’s hard to take that seriously when there are seas of empty seating at so many games.

The debate around NWSL attendance sucks. It sucks because gains are overblown and losses under reported. It sucks because there are teams that show you can get 10,000 plus fans to games week in and week out if you treat the fans like adults and have the team play in a stadium fans can get to. But it sucks most of all because the NWSL is a league that has honest to God amazing players who will never put on a national team kit that they didn’t themselves buy at a store. It is full of players who we should support and talk about and cheer on not because women’s soccer is a charity but because they are damn good.

I want the NWSL to do well, I really do and that doesn’t happen until the teams, the media and the fans stop living in a world where 4,000 people at a match is celebrated.