nwsl

The National Women's Soccer League Isn't Going Anywhere. Now What?

The NWSL has already gotten further than any American women's soccer league has. The next step—growing into an institution—is the most important one.

by Howard Megdal
Jan 22 2016, 11:37pm

Photo by Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

For the young women joining the ranks of professional soccer at last week's National Women's Soccer League draft, even the act of dreaming about a career in the sport was more fraught than it is for their MLS counterparts. "I had many frustrations growing up—I just did not see how the dreams that I had were going to come true," Raquel Rodriguez said shortly after Sky Blue FC officially made her the second overall pick in the draft. "But things change in 10 years, five years."

As the NWSL prepares for its fourth year of operation, it's already done something that the two previous attempts at top-flight women's professional soccer in this country, the WUSA and the WPS, didn't. Those leagues lasted only three years. NWSL is still figuring things out; its pay scale, for example, has upsides (longer-term viability) and downsides (mass retirements each offseason by women who can't afford to work for so little money deep into their twenties). Still, the project of a permanent, stable women's professional soccer league in the United States is showing many signs of progress.

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Those signs were everywhere you looked at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's annual convention, which served as home for the draft on Friday. There was Rachel Daly, the English standout and goal-scoring machine for St. John's. She had the opportunity to return home and play in the FAWSL but chose instead to stay in the United States. She was chosen sixth overall by the Houston Dash. Fellow Englishwoman Leah Galton went 13th to Sky Blue.

"It's huge," Houston Dash head coach Randy Waldrum said, standing near Daly. He was referring not to the enormous ballroom packed with teams, the league's livestream of the draft, or the crowd of assembled media and a few hundred fans but to Daly's decision to stay stateside. "Anybody who's been around the international game knows it's been a different level. I think anytime you can find a player who can bring that international experience, you do it. I think it says volumes about the league. She had that opportunity, and she wanted to come back. So when we get the Rachels, the Rodriguezes, who can play anywhere in the world, it speaks volumes about where we are."

There are other indications that the league has moved beyond the question of survival. Sky Blue's acquisition of Rodriguez came in a draft day trade: the team traded forward Nadia Nadim, a mid-career star, to move into the second overall slot to pick Rodriguez. The move was part of what the team acknowledged is a longer-term effort to build around a younger core. That the franchise at the low end of the success range for NWSL so far—Sky Blue's attendance lags far behind the rest of the league, and is a fraction of what the Portland Thorns draw, for instance—is thinking about something beyond just getting through 2016 says a great deal about how stable the league has become.

NWSL No. 1 pick Emily Sonnett does what she does. Photo by Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Just as the draft was set to begin, a press release was sent out to media about a new allocation process for players exempt from the draft (this was also news to at least one team). The ostensible reason for this was 17-year-old Mallory Pugh, a UCLA-committed high school senior who's already logged some time with the senior national team. The just-created rules served largely as a means to get Pugh to Portland, her preferred destination, though she is reportedly having second thoughts.

That such a rule had to be set up on the fly is not encouraging, but the bigger truth it reflects is: Pugh wanted to come to NWSL. Just a few years earlier, a player in a similar situation, Lindsay Horan, chose to go to Paris St. German to play; there was no NWSL at the time she signed. Guess who made the decision to leave PSG and return to the NWSL this season. Right, Lindsay Horan.

The delayed, and then rushed, press release served as an unfortunate throwback to past NWSL media flubs, like when the league put out a press release about its 2015 TV deal, after months of delay, halfway through last season, on the afternoon that the U.S. faced Germany in the World Cup semifinals, essentially guaranteeing a lack of coverage. Then there was last year's date and venue for the league final, which leaked out via a tweet by Thorns owner Merritt Paulson. These incidents reflected the league's skeleton crew staff, and that problem has not yet been solved: the league's lone PR person, overwhelmed with other work, left the coordination of interviews with draftees to the individual teams, which led to a series of post-pick free-for-alls that were only as organized as each team could make them.

"Look, we don't endeavor to give late information to people, but there's a reality of where we are in our evolution," NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said after the draft. "We're just starting our fourth year, which we're excited about. Some of these things happen late because there are opportunities that come up and we want to take advantage of them. If you're talking about the TV announcement, that's my mistake, for giving you guys the wrong indications early on, which we won't be doing this year."

Television is the most important avenue to keep building on last year's growth, which Plush said amounted to 29 percent year-over-year in revenue. The NWSL's inability to conclude a TV deal in time to take advantage of the massive publicity that came from the U.S. Women's World Cup win and Fox Sports' wall-to-wall coverage is a mistake Plush doesn't intend to repeat when the Rio Olympics put the NWSL's best players back in the public eye.

"Finding a consistent, high-profile TV home will make the league more powerful and will also draw players and fans from around the world," said Sarah Gorden, the 22nd overall pick of the draft (and a grad student in DePaul's journalism program). "It is the most important aspect in the permanence of the league."

Brianne Reed is the person making an insane full-extension defensive play in this photo. Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone, from NWSL's newest players to its long-tenured coaches, agreed that television, and the exposure and the money that comes with it, will determine how much the league can capitalize on the rise of women's soccer in this country. "Almost everybody has a TV," Sky Blue draft pick Caroline Casey said. "I watched almost all the World Cup games on TV with my family and friends. So that's the most universal way."

For now, the NWSL's main goal is growth, both in terms of endorsement and television deals and in making sure that players can afford to play in a league where salaries are sometimes punishingly low. "If we're all being honest," Plush told me, "there were as many conversations last year about whether we were going to be around for a fourth season. So we're often held to an odd standard: why haven't you sold sponsorships when we don't even think you're going to be around. I think we've hopefully pushed through that.... Our primary responsibility is making sure we're open for business, year after year."

Tautology of tautologies, the best way for the NWSL to prove that it's for real—better than a bigger national TV footprint or greater media coverage—is simply to stick around. And as long as the NWSL exists—as long as there's a women's soccer league in which salaries are going up each year, insurance coverage is getting more comprehensive, venues are getting more player- and fan-friendly, and new teams are expanding its reach—young players can dream bigger dreams.

"I was just going to graduate and see where life took me," said Brianne Reed, a senior at Rutgers who does this on throw-ins and who was selected 18th overall by FC Kansas City. "After the season that we had, I wasn't ready to stop playing soccer. And when I was given this opportunity, I wasn't going to pass this up, to be able to say I'm going to be a women's soccer player. Four or five years ago, there wasn't a league!"

"When you're little, you're like, 'I want to be a pro soccer player.' And it was always up in the air," Erica Skorski, Reed's teammate at Rutgers and the 23rd overall pick by Sky Blue, said. "But once the NWSL really settled in and was going to be successful, that's when it hit me that this is something I could really do."