October 3, 2016

LINSEY | Women’s Soccer: Growing the Sport Proves Challenging

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Ask American sports fans to name their favorite sport. Odds are, the top responses will be football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. There would be some less common answers too, like car racing, horse racing or poker. However, soccer — and women’s soccer in particular — would likely be a less frequent response.

In this space two weeks ago, I wrote about how women’s soccer could increase its following in the United States, and I received several interesting responses from readers. Drawing from some of these responses, this column will provide some counterpoints to what I wrote last week, exploring why women’s soccer is limited in its growth efforts and explaining why some of the solutions I advocated for last week are not easy to achieve.

The “name your favorite sport” example highlights a key reason that limits the sport’s development — the saturation of the national sports market. The 1980s was arguably the last time the sports media market majorly shifted, as the NFL took over the “most popular American sport” mantle from baseball.
Forty years later, all four leagues have only grown in popularity. Even basketball and hockey are expanding. NBA teams have bid crazy amounts to lure free agents because of their increased salary cap, and the NHL is planning on adding new teams in Las Vegas and Canada.

Given the saturation of the sports market, one could conclude that men’s or women’s soccer has nowhere to go in the U.S. market. This theory suggests that since the established giants of the market can wield so much influence, soccer will never be able to reach or surpass them in terms of media attention. Because women’s soccer is not one of the most followed sports in America, there is a general lack of respect for women’s soccer in this country.

For example, the past Women’s World Cup was played on a turf surface, despite the fact that soccer is traditionally played on grass and with evidence showing that turf is linked to more player injuries than grass. The men’s World Cup has never been played on turf, which reflects poorly on FIFA’s equality efforts. The argument could be made that it is the fact that there is no room in the market for women’s soccer to expand that gives the sport such little respect.

I also suggested last week that the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the flagship women’s professional soccer league in America, try to sign a larger TV rights deal. While doing so would clearly help the league invest in its long-term future through grassroots efforts, signing a larger TV rights deal is easier said than done. There has to be interest on both sides, of course; a TV network needs to be willing to pay significant money to show games.

This year, several NWSL games per season are televised on Fox Sports One, a national TV channel, yet this channel reaches a very limited market. Given the aforementioned state of the sports media market in the U.S., one could argue that the lack of nationally televised games accurately reflects the current state of both men’s and women’s soccer as a secondary sport in the market.

Lastly, the NWSL does not have the money to address the pay equality issue I brought up last week. Salaries in the league are very low because the league does not have the revenue to pay more. If the league had more money to pay higher salaries, they could attract better players and draw more fan interest, which would lead to more TV and gameday revenue, eventually resulting in higher salaries.

This is a continuous cycle of growth that takes place in many of the biggest sports leagues. In women’s soccer, though, this is a classic catch-22 situation; without the money, the league cannot start this circle of success. If women’s soccer suddenly got a large cash windfall or significantly increased fan interest, it is possible to imagine this cycle starting, but in its current state, it’s hard to see that happening in the near future.

Synthesizing my past column and this week’s set of counterpoints, women’s soccer has an unclear future in the U.S. There are clear ways that the game could grow through increased fan interest or TV rights deals, but there are also roadblocks in the way. The American sports market is saturated, and the NWSL lacks the financial muscle to draw more fan interest. In my opinion, both sides will cancel out; women’s soccer will continue to be a popular sport in Olympic and World Cup cycles, but largely fall out of the national conversation in between.