Carli Lloyd’s goal from midfield against France. Brandi Chastain’s winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final. Women’s soccer captured the national spotlight in America at those two moments, which will live on as two of the greatest in the history of the sport. Both times, fans were drawn to the sport because the players were representing the United States on the world stage. Yet, in between Olympics and World Cup cycles, women’s soccer struggles to gain popular attention in America. What can women’s soccer do to gain more publicity and grow in future years?
There is currently one professional women’s soccer league in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The league was founded in 2012 after the previous league folded. The 10 teams are spread across the United States, in such major cities as Chicago, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Attendance varies widely, with anywhere from a few thousand to 20,000 people attending games, with the average around 4,000 per game.
One way for the league to gain more coverage is through an improved TV rights deal. Currently, a few NWSL games each season are broadcast on Fox Sports One, which is a national television channel, but only in some American households. Television rights deals have been in the spotlight ever since the world’s most popular men’s soccer league, the English Premier League, signed a three-year TV rights deal with Sky Sports worth £5.14 billion. This fiscal windfall has given that league a chance to invest in grassroots efforts to grow the game, as well as provide more revenue for individual teams. Obviously, TV rights deals for the NWSL will be nowhere near as lucrative, but for a league that is still in an expansion stage like the NWSL, any extra cash will go a long way. Plus, the increased exposure will bring the league more revenue and publicity, continuing long-term growth.
A discussion of U.S. women’s soccer is incomplete without mentioning player salaries. The salary cap for an entire NWSL franchise is $278,000 in 2016. Several professional men’s players make more than that paltry sum in a single week. So $278,000 can buy you one of the world’s best men’s soccer players for seven days, or an entire professional women’s soccer team for a full year. Aside from the obvious inequality here, the average NWSL salary works out to around $17,000 per year. This is clearly not a sufficient living wage. While salaries are rising each year in the NWSL, they are barely keeping up with inflation. Women’s soccer players are certainly justified in asking for increased wages.
If women’s soccer could draw more interest in between the World Cup and the Olympics, it would create a cycle that would continuously expand the league fan base. Fans of the local NWSL team would watch the World Cup and Olympics to see their favorite NWSL players represent their countries, and fans who just watch the tournaments to cheer on the USA might pick some favorite players and follow their progress in the NWSL. At the moment, audiences for the tournaments vastly outweigh audiences for NWSL games, both in the stadium and on television. Women’s soccer can grow as a sport if they increase their players’ wages, increase publicity through a better television deal and ultimately build a long-term following for the National Women’s Soccer League.