One of the first floats in the U.S. women’s soccer team’s World Cup victory parade in New York carried staff and representatives of the National Women’s Soccer League. It got barely any attention.

That is an unfortunate but true metaphor for the league, which in its seventh season is the strongest and most successful pro women’s soccer circuit in American history.

It’s there, but it’s often unnoticed. It’s key to the infrastructure that fuels the U.S. women’s national team’s success. But its crowds, financial means and media exposure are all a fraction of what the national team commands.

This summer is far from the first in which the league has found itself at a crossroads. Something feels different this time, though, from public demand for more women’s soccer to the social charge for gender equity in sports. What will it take for the NWSL to capitalize?

This summer has given the league an unprecedented chance to do so.

Commercial sponsorship

It was no surprise that attendance spiked across the NWSL this past weekend as the U.S. team’s stars played their first club games after the World Cup. The Utah Royals drew 15,931 fans, the fourth-largest crowd in team history, hosting the star-studded Portland Thorns. The Orlando Pride drew 9,415, their largest crowd in over two years. The Washington Spirit sold out the Maryland SoccerPlex’s 5,500-seat stadium, and have surpassed that number for a game next month at D.C. United’s Audi Field.

The biggest headline was in Chicago, where the Red Stars moved 17,388 tickets for a nationally-televised game that featured eight U.S. World Cup players. Some of the tickets were free, and some of the fans didn’t show up because a rainstorm socked the region in the hours before kickoff. But the crowd on hand was still huge, obliterating by thousands a decade-old record for a stand-alone club women’s soccer game attendance in the Chicago market (7,959).

The Red Stars drew the largest crowd for a stand-alone women's soccer game in the Chicago region's history when they hosted the North Carolina Courage in the first game after U.S. national team stars returned from the World Cup.
Courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars
The Red Stars drew the largest crowd for a stand-alone women's soccer game in the Chicago region's history when they hosted the North Carolina Courage in the first game after U.S. national team stars returned from the World Cup.

These are the fans that Budweiser aimed at when the beer behemoth became the first brand to sign a sponsorship deal with the NWSL on account of the World Cup. And as it announced with a full-page ad in the New York Times on the day of the final, the aim wasn’t just to profit from the spotlight.

“We will support the game and these deserving athletes every single day, not just every four years,” the ad proclaimed. The brewery also hired U.S. legend Brandi Chastain to narrate a video that went viral on social media.

That message resonated with Alyse LaHue, the interim general manager of Sky Blue FC and former GM of the Chicago Red Stars. So did the message of an adult brand backing a sport that has long marketed first to kids and families.

“I think historically, some leagues have focused too much on the children factor of our games,” LaHue said. “By all means, we’re grateful for the low-hanging fruit, which is of course youth soccer. They’re so important to us. But that’s not our only fan. We attract other demographics as well.”

The Budweiser deal also made headlines for the involvement of Soccer United Marketing, the commercial arm of Major League Soccer. SUM handles deals for MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation but not the NWSL, even though U.S. Soccer runs the NWSL. This fact has long been lamented by the women’s soccer community.

Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, the league’s most influential club executive, said SUM did the deal “pro bono.” NWSL president Amanda Duffy explained that SUM did not take a commission or fee. The web of relationships is tangled, but it’s clear that SUM offered to do something it didn’t have to do.

“Our relationship with SUM and with Major League Soccer is a growing relationship,” Duffy said. “It’s important to them and it was important in that specific dialogue related to Budweiser [that] they wanted to express their support and show that support in a tangible way.”

As part of its new sponsorship deal with the NWSL, Budweiser gave placards to fans at the U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup victory parade that read "WE WON'T STOP WATCHING."
Craig Ruttle / AP
As part of its new sponsorship deal with the NWSL, Budweiser gave placards to fans at the U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup victory parade that read "WE WON'T STOP WATCHING."

Could the growth turn into something formal? Duffy indicated it won’t happen in the short term. The main deal-makers will remain the staff at NWSL headquarters.

“How that relationship evolves is going to be important, and I think there’s certainly an appetite to see it evolve,” she said. “But doing it in the right way at the right time is also important to that process. So we remain engaged, and they are extremely supportive of being a part of, and assisting in, our success as a league as we move forward."

As big as the Budweiser deal was, it won’t look as great if the league doesn’t bring in more major sponsors. Asked if there are more deals coming, Duffy gave a less-than-precise answer.

“There has been a lot of outreach that’s happened over the last few weeks, and we feel confident and strong in those opportunities,” she said. “We’re in a good position to be able to engage with more partners in a way that the league hasn’t done previously.”

Expansion and facilities

No single word gets American soccer fans’ hearts racing faster than expansion, and there’s a lot of racing in the NWSL right now.

Rumors of potential new markets were flying before the World Cup, and have only grown stronger since then. Three MLS teams are reportedly thinking about it: Los Angeles FC (part-owned by Mia Hamm), Atlanta United (with its big money and big fan base) and FC Cincinnati (whose fans include city native Rose Lavelle). There’s also a group led by U.S. legend Kristine Lilly that aims to bring a team to the Hartford, Conn., area.

Paulson has played a big role in past NWSL expansion efforts, and continues to lead the way.

“We’ve had three prospective ownership groups at three different Portland Thorns games this year, and they’ve visited Salt Lake and [were] talking to North Carolina as well,” he said. “We’re very well-versed in the pitch, and we’re not trying to paint an overly rosy picture either. Our goal is to not just get people to commit to the league, but have people commit and be able to succeed.”

Of course, Paulson was asked to name the three cities. He politely declined, though he did acknowledge that he has seen candidates from cities in MLS and the men’s second-division USL.

“I think it puts too much pressure on a club to get their name out there in the media,” he said. “There’s been some speculation about certain markets that are interested, and some of it’s right and some of it’s not. There’s two markets in particular that I think would be Portland-esque in the type of support and relevance they could potentially have.”

Duffy also declined to name the cities, but said they “include for expansion during the 2020 season and as far out as the 2022 season.”

There are no signs that Philadelphia is one of them. Yet Duffy dropped a surprising hint about her view of this city’s potential.

“From a stadium, market size and potential ownership opportunity, I think there are possibilities there,” she said.

Philadelphia hasn't had a professional women's soccer team since the Independence in 2010 and 2011.
Clem Murray / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia hasn't had a professional women's soccer team since the Independence in 2010 and 2011.

Any discussion of NWSL infrastructure must also include the weakest links in the chain — and that means New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC.

Sky Blue will likely be forced to leave its longtime home, Rutgers’ Yurcak Field, after this year because of its lack of amenities. LaHue has been working for a while on finding a new venue.

“My job now is to make sure that we’re providing the best possible environment we can for players moving forward, and we have to be in the best professional, world-class space we can find. The players deserve that,” LaHue said. “Rutgers has been a great partner to us through the years, but it just doesn’t have some of the amenities that other professional venues have. So we want to seek out a space that has [them].”

There’s also the matter of U.S. Soccer’s formal management agreement to oversee the NWSL ending at the close of this year. That oversight has included direct financial support estimated at $15 million since 2013, according to longtime women’s soccer news website The Equalizer.

It’s a dramatic headline, as was Sports Illustrated’s recent report that players’ agents are worried about the NWSL’s future. But Paulson isn’t.

“I expect our league to not only be in existence, but be better positioned next year,” he said. “Whether or not U.S. Soccer is the manager of the league, it’s critical to our success that they continue to be a financial partner and investor. I don’t see the league continuing to stabilize and grow if that’s not the case.”

The Portland Thorns draw the NWSL's largest crowds to Providence Park.
Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Thorns
The Portland Thorns draw the NWSL's largest crowds to Providence Park.

Player salaries

On Sept. 7, Manchester City will host Manchester United at the 55,097-seat Etihad Stadium. The next day, Chelsea will host Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge in fashionable West London.

That is nothing new in the Premier League, of course. But this time, we’re talking about these powerhouse clubs’ women’s teams. On the heels of reaching back-to-back World Cup semifinals, England’s soccer establishment is finally pouring big money into the women’s game. Clubs in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy are also increasing spending, and using their big-name brands to attract fans and players.

Meanwhile, the NWSL’s salaries for everyone except U.S. national team stars max out at $46,200, with a minimum of $16,538.

Tightly controlled spending is the biggest reason why the NWSL still exists. Competitive balance is the biggest reason why it’s attractive to players around the world. Sky Blue defender Gina Lewandowski, a Lehigh Valley native who spent 12 years in Germany, said many of her former Bayern Munich teammates are "very interested” in playing here someday.

French national team captain Amandine Henry played for the Portland Thorns in 2016 and 2017. She is arguably the most prominent European star to come to the NWSL.
Anne M. Petersen / AP
French national team captain Amandine Henry played for the Portland Thorns in 2016 and 2017. She is arguably the most prominent European star to come to the NWSL.

But if the NWSL keeps getting outspent by European clubs, the attraction will fade — and it could affect American players. too. Those who aren’t national team-caliber may decide to seek fortunes abroad instead of at home.

“Everyone in the league — not just the players — thinks the players should get paid more, including the team owners,” NWSL Players Association executive director Yael Averbuch West said. “When there is that money coming in, we will make sure that we’re getting our fair share of it.”

Duffy backed up West’s claim about the owners.

“In the NWSL over its history, part of what has allowed it to sustain its operation for this time was controlling those player-related expenses and allowing the league to elevate those levels at a pace that the league [and] the ownership could support,” Duffy said. “[The league] has shown a strong history and positive trajectory in increasing the player compensation levels year over year, and will continue to do so.”

Outsiders will question the strength of the history, but at least the promise of more improvement was made.

One way to raise the bar for attracting foreign talent would be a Designated Player rule like what MLS has. It could help keep players like Australian scoring phenom Sam Kerr from leaving for Europe, for example — English power Chelsea reportedly has pursued her — and it could attract some of the stars who lit up this summer’s World Cup.

Sam Kerr, the NWSL's leading scorer in 2017 and 2018, in action for the Chicago Red Stars this past weekend against Abby Dahlkemper of the North Carolina Courage.
Courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars
Sam Kerr, the NWSL's leading scorer in 2017 and 2018, in action for the Chicago Red Stars this past weekend against Abby Dahlkemper of the North Carolina Courage.

Would the Netherlands and Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema or Spain and Barcelona’s Jennifer Hermoso, for example, take a taste of American life if the money was right? France and Lyon’s Wendie Renard would surely be a star here, already having plenty of name recognition among American fans. And if a NWSL expansion team wants to make a big splash, could it try for the biggest star of all, Lyon’s Norway-boycotting Ada Hegerberg? The four-time European champion’s quest for gender equality in soccer would get a huge spotlight in America.

Among those who’d like to see a Designated Player rule in the NWSL is Spanish midfielder Verónica Boquete, currently of the Utah Royals and formerly of the Philadelphia Independence in 2011. She has played for a raft of clubs in her career, including Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, and the Thorns.

“The leagues in Europe are growing and the contracts are getting better there,” she said. “If the U.S. league, they can’t compete with that, then it will be hard for really good international players to come to the U.S., because you have better conditions in Europe. … If the league wants to be the best in the world and have the best players, to keep the stands full and the stadiums full, then it’s obviously something that they have to do.”

Duffy has heard the calls, and said the idea has gained some traction.

“I think that’s a natural part of the evolution of the league … to look at policies such as a Designated Player policy or a Homegrown Player policy,” she said, the latter reference being to developing youth prospects through clubs’ academies. “I think it’s more about timing than it is about whether it’s right or wrong.”