The saying tells us “there is only one chance to make a first impression,” but, beginning this spring women’s professional soccer will get a third shot at making a favorable impression on US fans, as the newly-created National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) debuts in eight markets around the country.
Like any product, the NWSL is happy to promote that it is ‘new and improved’ over previous models (WUSA and WPS); it has the backing of three national soccer federations, it was given the opportunity to allocate 55 players with varying Q-ratings among its eight franchises, and it hopes to capitalize on the high crest of popularity of its most marketable players – Wambach, Morgan, Solo, et al.
This column will not grade the allocations and the relative strengths of each team as a result; my many years of soccer experience tell me there are 11 players needed on the field to be competitive (newsflash!), and until the rosters are filled out ranking the teams is nothing more than a meaningless exercise. If you are looking at rankings based on magazine covers, media-awareness and Twitter followers, then no doubt the Pacific Northwest is far and away at the top. But as to the ability on the pitch, that is yet to be determined.
However, what can be evaluated, dissected and analyzed thus far is the performance of the league as an entity. And let’s just say that based purely on the public appearance (which is really all that matters), the NWSL has a long way to go in a short amount of time. A breakdown:
- Shots on goal:
Obviously, when someone with the charisma, looks and ability of Alex Morgan is available to promote your league you have a strong asset that needs to be utilized. Throw in Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Heather O’Reilly and the myriad members of what is a very media-friendly USWNT, and you have tremendous ambassadors to promote your game and your league.
The financial support of the US, Canadian and Mexican federations, as well as the salary cap, gives the league some much-needed structure and cost-certainty, in a time where cost certainty is of vital importance. Teams can allocate the necessary funds toward marketing, promotion, sponsorships, etc. while knowing exactly what their player costs will be for the season.
Locating the franchises in soccer-strong areas is also a positive. While only one current franchise –Portland– has any ties to the local MLS team, seven of the eight inaugural teams share a market with the MLS, giving the opportunity for similar partnerships to evolve in the future.
- Shots over the crossbar:
In late November the NWSL announced that Cheryl Bailey would be the league’s Executive Director. Apparently, she was subsequently whisked away to an underground bunker, as she has not been heard from at all in the ensuing weeks. As an example, like him or not Don Garber is the visible head of MLS. If Bailey was selected to be the head of the league, her absence during the announcement of the player allocations – arguable the single most important event for the league other than its creation in the first place – was puzzling.
Of course, the lack of a presence of the league’s Executive Director is overshadowed by the league’s abject failure to have a functioning presence on the web. Twitter is not the place to conduct official business, but the lack of a website (which to date is nothing more than a disabled Facebook page) subjected the league’s biggest announcement to 140 characters or less. To the credit of the potential fan base in cyberspace, there were numerous Twitter followers using hashtag #nwsl, refreshing for the announcement of player allocations, and a great deal of passionate back-and-forth discussions about player locations, teams, and the league. But the official league Twitter account had 11 tweets sent as of a week after the allocation; once again to their credit blogs, soccer media outlets and fans were picking up the slack and promoting the league where the league itself was failing to do so.
In 2013, the league MUST secure its place on the web, and move as quickly as Rapinoe down the flank on a break. A vibrant website, one that could have carried a streaming conference with the unveilings, must be up and running as soon as possible, with links to team sites, player profiles, and any additional information the public needs. Facebook and Twitter need to be used multiple times a day; post poll questions, surveys, links to other media coverage, etc. to build up a following and create the groundswell of interest needed well in advance of the kickoff. The desire is there; a Twitter-based discussion hosted by Yael Averbusch in the days following the allocation was popular enough to make the discussion hashtag – #wsoccerchat – a trending topic on Twitter.
Finally, and this is where I disagree with many soccer fans in how to build the base, the league must do everything possible to reach out and secure the thousands of young female soccer-playing fans in their region. Justin Bieber, One Direction and the like did not become popular because of a fan base made up of 30+ year olds. There are millions of soccer playing girls in the country of all ages, and anyone with a daughter can tell you how directly connected they are to their parents’ wallet. I took my teenage daughter to a book signing for Hope Solo in Ridgewood, NJ. The posted start time was 7:30, but there were girls on line as early as 3:00 for the chance to meet her, many with cardboard signs or #1 Solo hand-made shirts. I doubt if half of the girls there – many younger than my daughter – even read the book that their mom or dad shelled out $25.00 to buy, but everybody made out; the girls saw their hero, the parents gave their daughter (or son – there were boys there as well) an unforgettable experience, and the bookstore sold out of books.
Reach out to local teams and leagues; send players to local tournaments to pose for pictures and pass out team information; sponsor contests and fund-raising events to bring in fans to games, and be sure to schedule games for the maximum opportunity for that loud and enthusiastic fan base to attend. For example, in a region where most travel-level soccer is played on Sundays, look to Friday nights or Saturdays for home games. Flood the local area with information through the media and social networking. These young girls are savvy and more aware than their parents at the same age, and if they are motivated and drawn into the league and their local team, via social media they will reach exponentially more people on their own and spread the word and the excitement of the brand.
While this is the third effort, soccer does not follow the rules of baseball, so three strikes may not be an out. After all, nobody talks about 1-Up, 2-Up, and the rest; 7-Up was obviously the success. For that matter, the world is not concerned about WD-1 through 39, and success there didn’t come until the 40th try.
When all is said and done, it is the product on the field that will determine if games are won or lost (or tied), it is the product off the field that will determine whether the league wins or loses. The games on the field begin in the spring; the work off the field begins yesterday.