The Portland Thorns, champions of the National Women’s Soccer League’s first-ever season, have a lot to be proud of. Most obviously, of course, is the title of champions: if the NWSL can mature into a stable entity in the long term, the Thorns will have a glowing asterisk next to their name. They won the league before anyone else.
However, the title itself, won via playoff like in the MLS, may not be their greatest achievement. The team brought in on average almost triple the attendance of their closest peers, Kansas City and Western New York. The opening game attendance of 16,479 beat the record set by Women’s Professional Soccer, the previous (and failed) women’s US league. This stat was then subsequently topped by the season’s last home game. The excitement surrounding the team, and the support they enjoy when they play at home, is a great omen for the future of women’s soccer in the region and a tribute to the local sporting community. Vibrant support is the lifeblood of a successful team and a fundamental ingredient to longevity in a league.
It’s not so rosy everywhere, though: several of the eight participating teams struggled to attract sizeable audiences. In New Jersey, Sky Blue FC averaged about 1,600 in attendance per game. So while there was parity talent-wise in the league, the ability to bring in crowds varied widely. While it’s great to have such a robust following in Portland, the league will struggle for inertia if the fanbase remains so uneven. I watched, via live stream, the Thorns away at Sky Blue FC, and the scene outside of the pitch reminded me a little of a high school tournament. It was a small crowd on short bleachers on just one side of the field.
An advantage the Thorns have enjoyed this season is their ownership by Merritt Paulson, owner and president of the Portland Timbers. They’re the only NWSL team owned by a MLS franchise, and as such the only team playing in an MLS soccer-specific stadium. They’ve taken good advantage of the built-in Timbers fanbase and grown organically, and quite quickly, into the established Portland soccer scene. This isn’t only due to Paulson, of course, as the city has a long history of women’s soccer success in the University of Portland Pilots. The partnership with the Timbers makes a lot of sense, though, and has yielded immediate dividends for both the team and its owner.
The model is heartening, I think, and unique in its potential for gender equity in sporting. The Timbers are a bigger team in a firmly established league, and there’s the basic, widespread precedent of men’s professional soccer being a successful spectator sport. Women’s pro soccer doesn’t have that precedent, and it’s only recently been set for women’s national team soccer. However! Look at the two teams’ rosters. Who are the stars here? I mean the real stars. The stars people outside of Portland have heard of. The stars are Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. There’s no real competition here: Morgan has been all over Sports Illustrated and is on posters on the walls of teenage girls’ rooms across the country. (Probably teenage boys’ room as well, though sometimes in a different sort of capacity- but what’s wrong with that? Lord knows the image of David Beckham has graced the bedroom walls of a million girls). Christine Sinclair is the captain of the Canadian national team and has been nominated for FIFA World Player of the Year six times. If the NWSL takes root, there is no reason for it to be a stepchild to the MLS. It can be equal or better.
The catch, of course, is in “if it takes root.” The league is maintaining its commitment to a conservative well-measured start, and there will be no expansion teams in its second year. Sky Blue FC is reportedly in talks with the NY Red Bulls for ownership rights and the opportunity to play in Red Bull Stadium. If the league plays its cards right, if teams are smart, and if fans continue to show up, the NWSL will be around for a while. Maybe, let’s hope, for a very long time.