I found a good article from The Guardian about Jeff Plush, the commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and his quest to grow the league. There are several very interesting points, and a few things I think the NPF can use in its attempts at growth.
For those who don’t know, the NWSL is a 10-team league (teams in Boston, Chicago, KC, Orlando, Portland, Seattle, NJ, DC and Western NY). The season spans from early April to September, with a four-team playoff culminating in a championship game. The Western New York Flash are the reigning champs! The league is HQ’d in Chicago and is supported by the US Soccer Federation, Federation of Mexican Football, and Canadian Soccer Association. All the major stars from the US National Team play in the league.
On to the article: there are three major areas that are explored, and I think the NPF can learn from each. First, the league’s positive relationship with US Soccer and the MLS (men’s Major League Soccer). Second, the league’s approach to marketing and its success with expansion. Finally, the league’s forward-thinking use of new media to gain exposure.
Let’s start with the NWSL’s relationship with US Soccer. The NWSL works closely with US Soccer (the governing body for all levels of National Teams–men, women, and youth). This is so important because all of the stars on the National Team also play in the NWSL, and the league works closely with the Federation to insure there are no major conflicts when players are “called up” from a club to play for their country. It really has been a seamless relationship, and both sides know they need each other to both be successful: a strong professional league helps develop talent for the National Team, and a strong National Team brings attention to the pro league.
It is no surprise that not only is the US Federation behind the NWSL, but Canada's and Mexico’s National Federations as well. The NPF needs to learn from this! They should be working overtime to create a strong working relationship with US Softball; mutual support means the growth of the sport. So far, it seems that the NPF has a bit of an adversarial relationship with US Softball, especially surrounding National Team players having to take time off for tournaments, etc.
The NWSL also has a good working relationship with Major League Soccer. Even though there is no formal relationship between leagues, three teams—the Portland Thorns, Houston Dash and Orlando Pride—are all affiliated with MLS teams. The article also states that several other MLS teams are actively looking to create NWSL arms.
The league commissioners talk frequently about what is/isn’t working in different markets. Why? The NWSL can be a worthwhile investment. For example, the Portland Thorns generated a profit in their very first year. The Orlando Pride, an expansion team, had 23,403 attend its home opener. Those are eye-popping numbers for the NWSL and even the MLS. The fact that the men’s league is eager to work with NWSL is proof that women’s soccer is a legitimate moneymaker. It gives me hope for the potential for women’s sports in general.
What can the NPF lean from this? I looked through the Chicago Bandits’ website and saw that “Major League Baseball is the Official Development Partner of National Pro Fastpitch,” but the partnership was created in a “league-wide effort to help Major League Baseball and the 30 Major League clubs build stronger relationships with female audiences.” Huh. Seems like a one-way street, and a partnership in name only that has no tangible benefits for the NPF. Certainly not anything close to what the MLS and NWSL do for each other.
Now, obviously, MLB needs nothing from the NPF in order to be successful, so there is no reason for them to play a more active role in the development of women’s softball. I am wondering: IS there a men’s equivalent that the NPF can work with in order for mutual growth? Can the NPF work with local minor league teams? I’m not trying to say the NPF needs the help of men in order to be successful, but if you look at how such a relationship has been beneficial for the NWSL (and MLS), it’s worth looking into.
Finally, the NWSL has used forward-thinking marketing strategies to grow the league. The article states the NWSL’s marketing committee meets every week with the goal of finding a marketing strategy for each city. Plush acknowledged that each market is different, and it takes some effort to figure out the “ideal women’s soccer fan.” Plush’s goal for expansion is to make the league and its clubs work hand-in-hand to help all teams grow.
The article also mentions the TV contracts that the NWSL has garnered. Some games are broadcast on Fox Sports, but the league will make games available to ESPN3 and other online forums. Most importantly, the NWSL has allowed for the expansion into new media platforms. For instance, National Team and Orlando Pride superstar Alex Morgan streamed a Pride game on Facebook Live. The stream of the game “garnered more than 361,000 views”!! It was also the first time a pro sports event was streamed on Facebook Live. These are incredible numbers, and the NWSL is wise in allowing her to stream the game. This is how you grow a league in the 21st century!!!
The NPF needs to learn a lot from the way the NWSL has marketed its teams. I read an interview with NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf wherein she discusses the growth of pro softball. She consistently talks about how popular NCAA softball is, but says nothing tangible about how that can be converted to popularity for the NPF. The whole article borders on wishful thinking about how sponsors will “discover” the NPF is a good investment. But what is the league DOING to market its teams? How will it work with each team to figure out the best way to navigate each individual market? It all seems very unorganized.
The NPF can grow, but it will need to learn some lessons from its soccer counterparts. First, it needs to have a better working relationship with US Softball. Second, it needs to seek out partnerships (informal are fine!) with men’s leagues. Finally, it needs to be much more organized and effective with its marketing, and it needs to find new ways to get its product out there.