I was asked the other day, if I thought the new league would survive. My first answer, gut reaction really, was to say no. Then I stopped, and thought. I don’t want to see this league fail, and I certainly do not want to discourage a fan from committing to this league. So, I expanded my answer. This is basically what I said…
As it stands, I think this league is suffering at the hands of faulty allocation. I think the rules have been evolving, and are still being written, which makes trying to shuffle players in order to strengthen a team, much more difficult than it should be. The Seattle Reign are certainly a prime example of this. Their single allocated striker is sitting out this season because she is starting a family. I certainly don’t begrudge A-Rod her chance at motherhood. It’s far more important than a game. But, that being said, as soon as the league discovered that she would not be available, another striker should have been shifted over to the Reign. Perhaps one of the two strikers from the Portland Thorns? It would not have been a large adjustment for the player, since Portland and Seattle are close in proximity. Or perhaps Sydney Leroux could have stayed home. Either way, the situation should have been addressed immediately.
The draft was silly, confusing, and hard to understand. Fans were clamoring for details, a live feed, anything. Hello? Fans… people who want to embrace the new league, the people who want spend their money to support their teams. They weren’t asking for the moon, they were asking for a list of draftees. Not so hard, someone must have had one somewhere. But we’re five weeks in, so this should be fixed for next season. Fans want to know.
This is another place that this league is shooting itself in the foot. The fans, and communication between those fans and teams. As much as I don’t like Merritt Paulson because I’m a Sounder and he’s a Timber, he is doing this the right way. He is engaging his fans, he is keeping them in the loop, and making it easy to purchase gear. He’s making the Thorns part of the Timbers base. Now, I understand that he owns both teams, and the NWSL didn’t want the MLS involved, but it really should be. At least their business model. Paulson is feeding the frenzy of his fans. The Sounders hand out a game day magazine for free, the Seattle Reign FC should have been in each one. Instead, they didn’t even budget for a photographer. What did they think they were going to do, draw sketches and not advertise at all? Is this team supposed to be a secret? Most everyday Sounder fans have no idea who or what the Reign are. In fact, most don’t even know about the Sounders Women. The Reign have to feed the frenzy, and build the fan base like Merritt Paulson. Get the faces out there, and more importantly, get a striker so the team can win. Get a website going that actually informs, sells merchandise and feeds the frenzy. Don’t rely on Facebook or a fledgling supporters group that is active on Twitter, but not yet in the stands.
I understand that this is a league that was thrown together at the last-minute. I also understand that most of the teams are not new. They are not building from scratch like the Reign are, so I would certainly cut the Reign some slack on setting up a front office, getting their brand out there, etc., but the owner is a “branding expert!” His company is supposed to be responsible for building brands. Holy cow! Get to work man! Put some people on it. Budget for advertising, get the website running, spend the money and feed the frenzy. I must say that the live video was really great! Good snag on Tom Glasgow for play by play and Coach Gallimore for the color. They are the best team out there as far as broadcast talent. That’s one spot where the Reign are right up there with the Thorns.
The Reign are not the only team suffering from lack of fans. Sky Blue FC has yet to find their fans. Their last game only had 688 fans there. Their issue is more one of location than marketing. Perhaps a spot of both. They seem to be counting on the youth soccer families to spend money to watch the beautiful game. News flash here, most of those families don’t have the time to go to soccer games other than their own. Find a location for the games closer to the New York area and advertise, you might just make it. The Red Stars are having the same issue. Venues are hard to come by, for an established league, let alone one that was thrown together at the last-minute. Venues need to be accessible, soccer friendly, and small.
In the Seattle market, there are two women’s teams. The Seattle Reign FC and the Seattle Sounders Women. Someone made the mistake of thinking that there was solid support for the Sounders Women. There really wasn’t. Last season was unusual with the surprise signings of five well-known National Team players, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Stephanie Cox. They also had Keelin Winters, Veronica Perez and Kate Deines. A few more fans found out that there was actually a team, but still the sell out crowds were fickle. No Sounders FC supporter groups adopted the team. No big travel groups occurred. The Jet City Auxiliary was steadfast in their support, and they continue to be, but their numbers are small. This season, they have even less impact on the atmosphere of the Sounders Women games.
Until the large supporter groups get behind these teams, the games just can’t compare to the MLS. It’s a mistake, in my opinion, to keep the MLS and the NWSL separate. NWSL need the visibility and the chance of double headers, and cross over advertising to educate and pull in more fans.
This brings me back to the question posed to me. Do I think the league will survive? I think that the three nations supporting the teams will not allow it to fail right away. I think they will let it go for a couple more season’s if only to save face and get to the Women’s World Cup in 2015. That said, unless locations are changed, and player allotments are dealt with more realistically, the Morgan Effect will not save this league. This league will go the way of the WPS, and the players will be forced to play over seas. Man, I hope I’m wrong.