PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The 5,003 Sky Blue F.C. fans rooted desperately for a tying goal in the waning minutes of a match against the Washington Spirit last week, hoping Carli Lloyd or one of her teammates would score it. But no goal came, and the 1-0 loss cemented Sky Blue’s place at the bottom of the National Women’s Soccer League standings.
As disappointing as the result was for the home team, more important for the future of Sky Blue and the N.W.S.L. was the sold-out crowd that turned out to watch the midweek game at Yurcak Field on the campus of Rutgers University.
“We could definitely feel it,” said defender Estelle Johnson, who was playing her first game for Sky Blue since representing Cameroon in the Women’s World Cup in France. “I think that people came and showed their support, and we hope they continue to do that.”
Johnson, Lloyd and the other players on both teams who had competed in the World Cup were honored on the field after the game. Hundreds of fans screamed for autographs, mostly children wearing local soccer club jerseys. Among the adults, there was plenty of United States national team apparel.
But Sky Blue jerseys were few and far between, illustrating both the hope that the millions of fans who watched the American women win the World Cup can be persuaded to become fans of their local N.W.S.L. team, and the reality of how far away that dream remains.
Of course, women’s professional soccer has been here before. “We’ve gone through multiple World Cups now, through multiple iterations of professional soccer leagues,” said Amanda Duffy, the president of the N.W.S.L. “I think everyone understands the cycle and flow and the interest that does come.”
That cycle of interest saw Sky Blue’s attendance triple after the return of the World Cup stars last month; the club had averaged fewer than 1,500 fans before the tournament. The bump in the players’ visibility has meant similar benefits for other clubs in the nine-team N.W.S.L., half of which have set new attendance records in the past two weeks. It also led to a lucrative new sponsorship agreement with Budweiser and national television deal with ESPN.
It also was a reminder, though, that those things didn’t exist when the season began in April, and that they can easily disappear if the league cannot stabilize and grow. The biggest barrier to fans’ attending and watching games may not be that they choose not to, but that they don’t know the league exists.
“I think the anticipation of our success could’ve been better by the N.W.S.L.,” said Alex Morgan, the United States star who plays for the Orlando Pride. “But at the same time I think they’re putting a lot of things in place now to hire people to be able to market the league better.”
The N.W.S.L. has had time to learn some lessons. Yet while it is in its seventh year — each of the previous two American women’s professional soccer leagues folded after only three seasons — it has never been on sure footing. Three teams have folded or left the league (two were replaced by new franchises), and Duffy is the third person to be in charge of the league. The living and working conditions for players at times have been far less than professional, particularly at Sky Blue, and many league players still hold second jobs to make ends meet.
“I sometimes feel like we unfairly hold our women’s sports leagues to a higher standard, in the sense that it isn’t going to happen overnight,” said Jennifer O’Sullivan, who was previously chief executive of Women’s Professional Soccer, which collapsed in 2012.
“It is a long-term play. It is not something that happens in three years, four years, five years,” added O’Sullivan, now a partner at the Washington law and lobbying firm Arent Fox.
For the long-term play to succeed, according to those who work in the league or follow it, the N.W.S.L. needs committed ownership groups that are willing to suffer losses, but there is ongoing debate about how those groups should be structured. Five N.W.S.L. teams currently have affiliations with a men’s professional team — four with a team in Major League Soccer, the top domestic men’s league — while the remaining four are independent.
Affiliation gives N.W.S.L. teams access to greater operational resources, but there are fears that an ownership group with both a men’s and a women’s team will always prioritize the men. Then again, the Portland Thorns, a model for women’s sports success, average nearly 20,000 fans and the Utah Royals over 11,000 a game, and both share ownership groups with M.L.S. clubs. At the same time, the independently-owned Sky Blue and Spirit have been two of the more troubled teams in the league.
“N.W.S.L. players want an ownership group that cares deeply about them and that listens to them,” said Yael Averbuch, the executive director of the nascent N.W.S.L. players’ union. “That can occur in environments that are tied to other M.L.S. clubs, or in environments without that.”
The realities of Averbuch’s job demonstrate the N.W.S.L.’s challenges. The United States national team players who compete in the league aren’t paid by their clubs, but by U.S. Soccer under a separate collective bargaining agreement. (The Mexican and Canadian soccer federation also help support the league financially.) The rest of the players in the N.W.S.L., who make between $16,538 and $46,200 per season, are represented by a players’ union, but they haven’t bargained with the league. By choice.
“We felt it would be detrimental to the league initially, so we agreed with the league to hold off on negotiating,” Averbuch said. Her fear was that the league office — which has been short-staffed and continues to outsource some functions to U.S. Soccer — didn’t have the bandwidth to both run the league day-to-day and negotiate with the players, especially as it continues a long-running battle with the national team over its pay. Averbuch said those negotiations, with salaries and benefits likely at the heart, would happen in the “near future.”
Meanwhile, Duffy is working to parlay the post-World Cup interest into long-term gains. She said she was “optimistic” more national sponsorship deals would be signed, and that she is already hunting for a long-term television agreement. While the ESPN deal is better than nothing, it only lasts through the N.W.S.L. championship in October, doesn’t pay the league a rights fee and relegates most of its games it airs to the network’s second-tier ESPNews channel.
“We don’t see it as a precedent-setting agreement; it was the circumstances we were in,” said Duffy, adding that she was happy with the deal over all. She also said the league was working to expand to 10 teams, and anticipated having the new team begin play next season.
For decades the United States has been at the forefront of women’s soccer, and across the board the N.W.S.L. is still the best women’s soccer league in the world. But the league finally faces some real competition.
The World Cup attracted record ratings for women’s soccer in a handful of countries, including England, France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Seven European teams made the quarterfinals on the strength of the growth of their domestic leagues. Italy was appearing in the tournament for the first time since 1999. The Netherlands reached the final for the first time in only its second World Cup.
With Real Madrid’s announcement that it has acquired a women’s team that will begin play under its aegis this season, nearly all of the most popular European men’s clubs now field women’s teams. These clubs already have global followings, and can offer something the N.W.S.L. cannot, the same thing that has attracted men’s players for two decades: a chance to play in the Champions League.
Players like Morgan, who was loaned to Olympique Lyonnais in France during the 2017 season, applauded the growth in Europe, but she also said she hoped its advances don’t come at the expense of the N.W.S.L.
“We want all the leagues to continue to thrive, and my hope is the N.W.S.L. continues to ride the trend and continue to increase wages and be competitive with the other leagues,” she said.
Kevin Draper is a sports business reporter, covering the leagues, owners, unions, stadiums and media companies behind the games. Prior to joining The Times, he was an editor at Deadspin. @kevinmdraper
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