NWSL vs. WUSA – Looking Back And Looking Ahead


Popular players, well-known to even casual fans, and part of the highly successful national team.

One of the sports greatest all-time scorers, with the opportunity to play in her old backyard.

The potential to groom the next generation of USNT players in a professional environment.


Try the WUSA – the first women’s professional soccer league, and a case study that should be examined by those affiliated with the NWSL to guide the league through it first year and beyond.  How do the leagues compare?  Let’s take a look at three factors:

Players –

The WUSA relied on the huge surge of popularity of the USWNT in the wake of their World Cup win.  The 99ers – among them Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm – were the standard-bearers for the fledgling league, and the idols of countless young soccer players across the country.  Having won the WC in theUSin such startling fashion, making the cover of Sports Illustrated and embarking on a 12 city “Victory Tour” the players were at their media peak, and the WUSA emerged from their glow.

Today’s USWNT contains some of the best-known women in sports – Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach – as has amassed a tremendous record of success in international competition.

Structure –

The WUSA granted equity stakes to the 20 founding players, and placed the expansion teams in strong soccer markets.  Cash flow issues would eventually doom the league, as even salary cuts of 20-30% for the star players was not enough to keep the league afloat after its third and final year.

The NWSL has been able to get off the ground with teams or team management that were already established in their market;  some that were part of WPS and even one franchise – Boston – who date back to the original WUSA.

More importantly, while the USWNT players were integral to the WUSA, it is the backing (organizationally and financially) of the three national federations that is the biggest difference.  By getting their best players AND their salaries covered, the NWSL teams can devote more resources to building their product on and off the field.

Media coverage –

The WUSA had national TV contracts with TNT, ESPN2, and PAX TV.  While the NWSL has yet to announce any national television agreements, most if not all games will apparently be streamed online, giving fans around the country and beyond the ability to see the games.

In addition, soccer as a whole has become much more prevalent on American television, with ESPN carrying both US men’s and women’s national games along with the Mexican National team, NCAA games, the MLS and the Premier League (until NBC picks up that deal beginning next season).  In addition, Fox Soccer Channel is now an exclusive home of soccer programming, and CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network also carry soccer programming.

Jan 7, 2013; Newtown, CT, USA; US soccer legend Mia Hamm poses for a picture with Newtown , CT soccer player Luke Sansonetti while participating in soccer games and activities at the Newtown Youth Academy Sports

Some other advantages the NWSL enjoys:

  • The shelf life of its stars:  the best-known 99ers were for the most part at or beyond 30 years old, while today’s players such as Morgan (23 years old), Sydney Leroux (22) and Lauren Cheney (25) will be at the peak for years to come in the NWSL.
  • Social media:  As Chastain hit her knees in the Rose Bowl in victory, social media platforms did not exist.  The NWSL has already taken advantage of social media in the run up to the league opener (see my earlier column on the subject) and based on the passion apparent for its most ardent followers it will continue to grow its fan base and widen its impact in the weeks ahead when the games finally begin.
  • Soccer’s growth in the US:  Every few years someone in the media touts soccer as the ‘next big sport’ and offers evidence to prove it will match the big four (baseball, football, basketball, hockey) in popularity.  I will not be that someone, except to say this:  much of the 99ers popularity was rooted in young girls who looked up to the team as role models (indeed, many of today’s players were yesterday’s fans), and the WUSA struggled to connect with older fans of the game (as Sports Illustrated described it, the league “had trouble finding fans who weren’t under 18 and play[ed] on a soccer team”).  Those fans that were in pigtails and cheered for Mia Hamm are now 14 years older, and no longer need to drag Mom or Dad to see FC Kansas City orWestern NY.  They can attend themselves or with friends, and quite possible bring their own kids to the games, thus continuing to grow the game and its fans.

This is not a declaration of which league has the better player pool – although just as I would take Michael Jordan over LeBron James in the NBA, in my opinion Mia Hamm remains the greatest women’s player I have seen, and I was fortunate to see her score at the WC99 opener in Giants Stadium.  Rather, it is the opinion that the NWSL has some intrinsic advantages that their predecessor did not enjoy, and chief among them was the WUSA itself.