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National Women’s Soccer League Tries to Ride World Cup Momentum

Jess Fishlock leaped into the air. Her fist rose to the gray Seattle sky as rain poured down in sheets. A roar erupted from the Reign record 6,300 fans gathered at Memorial Stadium to celebrate the first goal of the match scored by the home side. This was the key moment when the balance shifted in the Reign’s National Women’s Soccer League match against the rival Portland Thorns on July 26, a 3-0 win for Seattle.

There has also been a positive shift in women’s soccer in the United States, especially following the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The final, in which the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated Japan 5–2, attracted the largest television audience of any American soccer game in history (25.4 million viewers) and sparked enthusiasm for the women's game across the nation.

The eight-team NWSL, of which the Seattle Reign is a member, was founded in 2012 with the idea of creating a women's soccer league in the U.S. after two previous leagues folded shortly after their formation. 

While experiencing some success, the growth of the NWSL, currently in its third season, has been limited. These struggles have been attributed in part to a limited fan base for women’s soccer in the U.S.

As a result of the World Cup’s success, however, attendance in the NWSL has skyrocketed. The Thorns had their first-ever sellout, against the Reign on July 22 in Portland, with more than 21,100 fans in the crowd, which set an NWSL attendance record. Other teams such as the Houston Dash have experienced greater ticket sales: A franchise record 13,025 fans attended their game against the Chicago Red Stars on July 12.

“There is no reason why women’s professional soccer cannot flourish in this country,” said Reign coach Laura Harvey. “It’s all of our responsibility to make sure that [growth] continues. People who haven’t been to a Reign game and only came today I’m sure went away thinking they want to come again...the product that’s on the field is something that people want to watch.”

“I’ve seen people’s interests definitely spike,” said longtime Reign fan William Barititch on the effects of the World Cup on the NWSL. “We’ve seen an influx of people coming [to the games].”

nwsl carli lloyd megan rapinoe
nwsl tobin heath alex morgan megan rapinoe

(Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, left, poses for a photo with Portland Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath, second from left, Seattle Reign forward Megan Rapinoe, right, and  Thorns forward Alex Morgan before an NWSL soccer match in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, July 22, 2015.)

Nearly all of the members of the USWNT also play with NWSL franchises. World Cup hero Carli Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the final, plays for the Dash, along with Meghan Klingenberg. Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe both play for the Reign, and Seattle also holds the rights to Abby Wambach. Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan both play for the Thorns. The same players soccer fans adored during international play can be found right around the corner in many cities. 

“My favorite part about women’s soccer is the high quality teams, especially in the NWSL,” said Reign fan Samantha Thomas. “I was first involved with the Reign in their 2013 season. Hope [Solo] was allocated here and she’s my favorite player, so I followed her...I got into it and stuck with them, and they’re still my favorite team.”

The NWSL is hoping to overcome the fate of previous women’s soccer leagues. The Women’s United Soccer Association kicked off in 2001, averaging more than 8,100 tickets sold a game — a large number compared to the 4,600-plus that another league, Women’s Professional Soccer, sold in 2009, and the 4,200-plus the NWSL sold in 2013. 

In their second years, the WUSA and WPS both experienced a drop of about 1,000 tickets per game, while the NWSL fared better, only losing about 100. The WUSA and WPS both saw further decreases in ticket sales their third years before folding. (The WUSA spent its five-year budget in its first year, while the WPS couldn’t generate enough revenue to pay players.) The NWSL, of course, is winding down its third season.

“I think we must assume responsibility to make sure that players want to buy in, to be a part of that,” Harvey said of the future of the league. “While we don’t have all the luxuries in the world, we provide them with something to buy into, and that’s why people like Hope [Solo] and [Megan] Rapinoe enjoy showing up to work every day.”

The NWSL faces a large hurdle on its way to becoming a successful and enduring professional sports league in the U.S. Fan interest is the key to clearing that hurdle. By capitalizing on momentum from the World Cup, the NWSL is showing that it can grow; it’s up to the teams and the league to sustain that growth.

Photos: Cal Sports Media via AP Images (Lloyd, Rapinoe), Don Ryan/AP (Heath, Morgan, Rapinoe)