NWSL Goals Off The Pitch As Important as Those On It


As the various NWSL teams complete their open tryouts or secure their Discovery Players, the focus now turns to the preparations for the upcoming season, kicking off on April 13 at Shawnee Mission District Stadium inKansas Citywith the opening match between FC Kansas City and Portland Thorns FC.

With on-field talent such as Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Heather O’Reilly (the top four active career scorers for the USWNT), goals on the field should be abundant.  However, what are the league’s goals OFF the pitch?  It is here where these – and other established stars – will be most beneficial to the NWSL with their assists; specifically, assisting in getting the league firmly established for the long term.

The league must be fully vested in achieving success in the following areas:

1 – Sell the stars selling the league

Undeniably the biggest asset the NWSL has is the inherent star-power of its biggest names.  They have appeared in countless newspapers, magazines, and electronic media spots as part of their national team and many individually as well.  In the absence of a national TV deal the league, with the assistance of the USSF, need to get their media partners involved in the promotion of the NWSL by getting their best-known talent in front of the American public.  Put together interviews or stories with the biggest players to air on SportsCenter, Fox Soccer Channel and any USSF-sanctioned events.  Set up documentary-type shows on the building of the teams, training camps, etc.  The unqiue relationship in Portland with the MLS and NWSL squads under one corporate umbrella begs for cross-promotion for them; during game broadcasts, in media and marketing materials, and so forth.  There are six teams in the NWSL who share a market with an MLS  team; if they haven’t done so the chance to pool any available resources or opportunities must be explored.  Utilize the league’s website as a promotional tool as much as an informational one with new articles and photos of the stars as they prepare for year one.  Make sure they are out front with the local media and organizations to draw in the casual fans as much as the hard-core fans who have been all over social media giving support, asking questions and spreading the word.  Finally, it is imperative that these players appear in their new kits representing Seattle, Washington, SkyBlue, etc. as much as they are representing themselves (also increasing visibility and potential sales of league merchandise).

2 – Establishing Generation ‘Next’

While the established names will have a ‘tent pole’ effect of supporting the league initially, it is vital for the NWSL and each team to market the newest players to the national soccer stage.  Some established stars – Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Sydney Leroux among them – are still in their early twenties and will be a presence for most of the next decade or more, but there are other, older players for whom replacements will need to be found well before then.

While some players may be local favorites and will attract some fans as a result, the player allocation process placed many players outside their home geographical regions.  While some of these players may soon begin earning caps with the USWNT (what should be yet another goal of NWSL), many will be counted in by their teams to step when the national players are away with USSF commitments and maintain a level of success on the field.  Marketing the ‘next’ stars will introduce them to the fan base and allow the players a chance to be embraced by the fans, and perhaps build their own fan clubs in the home buildings.  Again, turning to the league website, create a weekly (or more frequent) ‘Fresh Faces’-type series that will feature the players (draft picks, free agents, etc.) who might be new to the national stage but most likely will make up much of next generation of US players.  This is an initiative that has no cost to the league, but could pay off in a big way as additional players are given a spotlight off the field to be introduced to the league’s followers.

3 – Building a strong foundation of franchises

This is a given, but an important factor nonetheless.  The league has gone to great lengths to give teams an opportunity to build a solid financial foundation with cost certainty on salaries and the agreement with the national federations.  Those dollars saved in paying players need to be pumped into the local area in the form of marketing, contacts with local soccer organizations, advertising, etc.  Open houses for fans for seats and ticket plans, open practices, team/public forums to discuss the upcoming season and meet the players – every door should be opened, every opportunity explored, and every fan that can be reached in some way needs to be in any way available.

The league as a collective must work together to get off to a strong start.  Teams need to talk regularly to discuss the in-game programs and publicity ideas that work (and DON’T work) to maximize the experience for all involved.  While it would not be fatal, turning over a franchise or more in the second season would be a red card the league should not have to deal with.  After two folded attempts, the league needs to come out strong and create solid bedrock upon which the future of the league can be built.

4 – Securing mainstream media attention

Admittedly the toughest thing to do on the list, the NWSL needs to find its way in front of the media’s microphones and cameras, which is made even more difficult in what is an ‘off year’ (read:  no World Cup or Olympics) for soccer in the US.  As stated above, the USSF – as one of the main drivers of the new league – need to use its relationships with various media outlets to get recognition and attention for the NWSL.  Too often passionate soccer fans forget that there are thousands (millions?) of casual soccer fans that for some reason or another are not tuned into the developments of the new league.  They are not on social media, not participating in the weekly soccer chats on Twitter, and not in the vicinity of the eight established league markets.  However, they are soccer fans nonetheless, and potentially have the interest (and wallets) to help build the brand name.  Expansion should not be in the near term (better to reinforce the strength of the foundation for a couple years rather than build on a shaky one now), but getting the league and its teams in the homes of those fans in non-markets in a must in building the brand.

The NWSL has come a long way in a short time, and has already shown an ability to adjust its plans on the fly when the need arises.  There is still a long way to go before the league finally kicks its first ball in anger – and then a different set of issues will begin.  However, the league must not lose the focus of the goals above, even as goals are scored on the pitch.  The most daunting leg of the journey still lays ahead – the development and long-term planning to help establish the NWSL for current and future fans of women’s professional soccer.