Women's Summer of Soccer

Post by @dodd7

It seems we have reached the point where every summer will now be a "Summer of Soccer", and we couldn't be happier. World Cups, International Friendlies, Regional Championships, Olympics, Youth tournaments, and both MLS and the NWSL ensure there is essentially must see soccer every week during the warmer months. Add to that schedule the lovely bookends that are the end and the beginning of the European seasons and it is most certainly the best time of the year. 

This summer has been particularly exciting for Women's soccer in North America. Canada hosted the 2015 FIFA World Cup and record numbers watched as the United States grabbed their third World Cup Championship. The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is thriving with strong crowds, nationally televised games, and rumors of expansion. The NWSL is in its third year of existence, a year that its two predecessors, WUSA and WPS, did not pass. Moving on to year four does not appear to be a problem for the new, more robust, NWSL. 

2015 FIFA World Cup

The 2015 World Cup hosted by Canada June 5-July 6 lived up to expectations. Speculation swirled in the months preceding the tournament about whether Jill Ellis was right to coach the U.S. Women's National Team (USWNT) as the team struggled to find its identity. Even throughout the tournament Ellis faced substantial criticism from former USWNT member Michelle Akers and from the former USWNT coach, Tony DiCicco. Questions were also being asked of the players, "Why isn't Abby Wambach playing for her club team?", "Will Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux have the impact we expected?", "Is the inexperienced Julie Johnston ready to lead the defense?".

All of those questions wound up being answered loud and clear as the US gained momentum when the tournament reached its later rounds and ended up handily beating #1 ranked Germany 2-0, and bulldozing the defending champion Japanese team 5-2 in the final. Within 16 minutes into the final the USWNT was up 4-0 due in large part to a Carli Lloyd hat trick which included an audacious strike from midfield. 

Excitement for the World Cup reached new heights as the Final became the most watched soccer game of all time in the United States. According to Nielsen the match garnered an impressive 15.2 metered market rating. To put that in perspective, the clinching game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals received a 15.9 rating and the 2014 Men's World Cup Final received a 9.1 rating. Following their World Cup victory, the USWNT debuted new jerseys featuring three stars representing the three titles the team has claimed and a World Cup patch. The new look has treated them well as they began their Victory Tour with thumping wins over Costa Rica, 8-0 and 7-2.

From the #USWNT locker room... #ThreeStars make their debut today in front of the #BestFansInTheWorld! #VictoryTour

A photo posted by U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) on

However, despite the resounding success of the tournament and the fanfare that followed, the comparison in prize money between the Men's and Women's World Cup showed the lack of respect that FIFA seemingly has for the Women's game. In the 2014 Men's World Cup, the prize pool was a whopping $358 Million. In this year's Women's edition of the tournament, the prize pool totaled a meager $15 Million. While this was an increase from the previous edition it actually led to a decrease in average payout due to the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams. The image below from the Financial Times provides a great visualization of the discrepancy.

To make matters even worse, FIFA recently released their new film "United Passions" which cost the organization $29 million to create. The New York Times wrote: "United Passions is one of the most unwatchable films in recent memory, a dishonest bit of corporate-suite sanitizing that's no good even for laughs." The return on this enormous investment has been horrible reviews like the one from the New York Times and less than $200,000 worldwide. Perhaps there is somewhere else that $29 Million could be invested? Equal pay for Men's and Women's athletes is not some unbroken glass ceiling either. Every Grand Slam tournament in Tennis offers equal pay to Men and Women and has done so since 2007. 

National Women's Soccer League

If history was to repeat itself this was to be a tough year for the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). Both the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) folded after their third season due to a loss of teams and crushing debt. WUSA was the world's first fully professional women's soccer league and ran from 2001-03. WPS was founded in 2009 and ended operations in 2012. The NWSL quickly stepped in and began operation in 2013 with eight teams, four of which were from the old WPS. Unlike its troubled predecessors, the NWSL looks stronger than ever and fans and players are looking forward to the future. 

The four NWSL playoff teams have all clinched their place after the Washington Spirt secured the final spot with a draw against FC Kansas City earlier this week. Joining the Spirit in the playoffs are the Chicago Red Stars, the Seattle Reign, and FC Kansas City. The Reign sit comfortably at the top of the table with 39 points while the other three contenders all sit on 29 points as they battle for playoff seeding. With only one or two games remaining for teams, the stakes are high going into the final weeks. 

One thing the playoff contenders are not playing for is the right to host the NWSL Final. Commissioner Jeff Plush announced earlier this month that the Final would be held at the home of the Portland Thorns, Providence Park. While disappointing for a team like Seattle that certainly would have hoped to host the Final due to its league standing, the decision does make sense for displaying and marketing the game across the country. Providence Park in Portland is an excellent venue that can seat roughly 21,000 and is set up to televise games due to it also being the home of the Portland Timbers. 

Despite losing the vast majority of its star players earlier this summer due to the World Cup, the tournament can only be seen as a positive for the league as Women's Soccer gains incredible exposure during both the World Cup and the Olympics, which occur next summer. It also allowed for World Cup snubs like Crystal Dunn with the Washington Spirit (Pictured to the right) to grab the limelight and keep attention on the league. Dunn currently leads the league in goals scored with 13.

As the World Cup reached its zenith good news began trickling down to the NWSL. First, on June 30 Fox Sports announced an agreement to air seven of the remaining regular season games and all three of the playoff games for the 2015 season. A huge announcement for the league as the rest of its games are broadcast on YouTube. Also, ticket sales appear to be picking up. Immediately following the World Cup NWSL teams began announcing sell outs and record ticket sales marks. The Houston Dash drew a club record 13,025 fans and the Portland Thorns set the NWSL record not long after with over 21,000 fans in a sellout at Providence Park. The Red Stars sold out their two games following the World Cup and almost every team across the league has seen a positive uptick in sales. Below are the current average attendances for each team according to equalizersoccer.com.

2015 NWSL ATTENDANCE AVERAGE
ATTENDANCE  |  ATTENDANCE AFTER WORLD CUP
1. Portland Thorns FC — 15,027 (17,542)
2. Houston Dash — 6,365 (8,799)
3. Chicago Red Stars — 4,053 (2,911)-a
4. Seattle Reign FC — 3,921 (6,034)
5. Washington Spirit — 3,906 (5,008)
6. FC Kansas City — 3,158 (2,987)-b
7. Boston Breakers — 2,863 (3,598)
8. Western New York Flash — 2,616 (3,417)
9. Sky Blue FC — 2,252 (3,445)

NWSL TOTALS — 4,922 (5,614)

a-includes one doubleheader with the Chicago Fire (16,017) at Toyota Park; Benedictine average is 2,558
b-includes one match at Sporting Park; Swope average is 2,491

With all the attention the league has been receiving in the last several months instead of the traditional contraction of teams, cities are lining up to become the next NWSL expansion franchise. In early August, Orlando became the latest group to make completely clear their intentions to become an NWSL expansion team. They join Atlanta, Salt Lake, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh as leading contenders for expansion.

As previous leagues and MLS have shown, expansion is a delicate process that must be done carefully in order to succeed. There has been debate over whether or not a new team will join the league in 2016. Originally the NWSL had not planned on having any new teams during the World Cup or Olympic years but Plush has not yet completely ended the possibility of a 2016 expansion club. Regardless of when teams join, it seems inevitable that the league will continue to grow in the next several years. 

The 2015 Summer of Soccer has been excellent for fans of the Women's game and with the NWSL playoffs looming, and rumors of expansion swirling, the fall and winter look to be exciting as well. For the USWNT, Olympic qualifying is approaching and the Victory Tour continues across the country in the next several weeks. Women's soccer has not yet reached the level of respect and recognition it deserves but yet another successful summer has brought the game one step closer. 

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