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Sporting Econ 101: NWSL Growing in Conjunction with USWNT

“I just think that we’re seeing these leagues around the world really put pressure on the NWSL. Because I firmly believe the NWSL is one of the best leagues in the world from a transitional standpoint. From a tactical standpoint, not up there yet. From a tactical standpoint, probably not up there that much,” former USWNT captain Carli Lloyd said following the U.S.’s elimination in the Round of 16 at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. This was the ladies’ worst finish in a World Cup since the women’s competition began in 1991. 

Some soccer journalists felt Lloyd was being too critical of her former teammates. Others thought she was justified in her hot takes. She holds the ladies to a higher standard because of their global success. She understands how the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has advanced American women’s soccer on and off the pitch.  

Many of the four-time world champions play in the NWSL, North America’s premier women’s soccer league. The league has been around since 2012, emerging from two failed attempts. The NWSL has prided itself on inclusion, diversity, and equality – values shared with the national team. The NWSL and USWNT are growing vicariously through each other.  

The NWSL plays its season during summer alongside the MLS. Teams such as Orlando Pride and Orlando City share venues and facilities. They have similar goals: market high-level American soccer to fans. Doing that requires top-end players, and that requires the big bucks. While MLS has its designated player rule to attract superstars, the NWSL has different policies. 

Photo courtesy NWSL

The league uses a salary cap similar to the MLS. Each team has a minimum of $1.975 million for 22 to 26 players. Around $1.3 million of that goes toward the salary cap. An additional $600,000 in Allocation Money is for purchases with defined spending limits. It can pay player transfer and loan fees and some of a player’s salary and be traded between clubs. Unused Allocation Money from previous campaigns carries over into the new season. 

Having a salary cap is important because it balances the league’s parity. Like other North American sports, media markets dictate revenue streams. Bigger cities have better media coverage. The smaller markets get a fair share of the broadcast revenue and can spend equally. While all teams generate revenue through concessions, parking, merchandise sales, sponsorships, and ticket sales, the broadcast money is the big money-maker. 

NWSL has a favorable broadcast deal. That currently belongs to CBS Sports but expires at the end of the 2023 season. This deal, worth around $4.5 million, gives CBS exclusive streaming rights to NWSL matches on Paramount+ and CBS Sports Network. They also had an international rights deal with streaming outlet Twitch. A new agreement with Apple is expected. Much like how the MLS inked a streaming deal with Apple, NWSL could cash in on the switch to internet streaming over traditional broadcasts. More direct-to-consumer broadcasting deals are using subscription services to drive revenues. 

NWSL lucks out in that regard as it has used streaming services and digital content to its advantage. The deal with CBS opened the door for new social media opportunities. Attacking Third is an admired women’s soccer show on CBS Sports and YouTube. They were also one of the first sports leagues to return to play during the height of COVID, capturing audiences locked inside. 

Without much traditional TV presence, but with the legalization of sports betting in some states, NWSL’s profile has risen significantly.   

The growth of women’s soccer shows in the expansion of the league. Twelve NWSL teams are operating, with two new clubs set to join in 2024.

Celebrity investors like former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and WNBA legend Sue Bird (both investors in Gotham FC, the NY/NJ metro area club) show the popularity of women’s soccer has serious business potential. 

Angel City FC (the Los Angeles-based team) has broken the $100 million valuation mark, a fantastic milestone. A successful Series A funding round gathered over 50 investors to put money into the club, including actress Gabrielle Union, LA Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, and singer Christina Aguilera. Angel City plays games in BMO Stadium, one of the best soccer-specific stadiums in the country and one of the biggest soccer markets. 

A new Bay Area soccer club will join in 2024, costing around $53 million in expansion fees. That’s a significant increase to the fees paid by Angel City FC and San Diego Wave, and even more from the reinstatement of the Utah Royals, which operated from 2018 to 2020 before being planned to return in 2024. The investment was led by Sixth Street, who have other investments in teams like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, and the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA.

Photo courtesy NWSL 

“There are a number of companies that are willing to invest and wanting to invest to support women’s sports, and the ratings on some of our broadcasts are showing there’s a big audience out there,” said Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Thorns, to Sports Business Journal.  

The NWSL is one of the best-paying women’s leagues, too. The players reached a historic collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to raise the minimum salary in 2022. The base salary is now $35,000 a season and will increase by 4% annually. Players also got sufficient benefits such as free housing, transportation, 401(k) contributions, various insurances, and better bonuses.

The NWSL has moved the needle for women’s soccer and U.S. soccer. They were one of the first leagues to return to play during the early pandemic, which got people’s attention.

We regularly pay attention to superstars like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Trinity Rodman, Rose Lavelle, and Sophia Smith. They are technical, skilled players. They are also vocal about female athletes’ rights and gender equality in professional sports. They get conversations started and viewers hooked. Commissioner Jessica Berman told ESPN in 2022 that she hopes attendance rates will increase thanks to this newfound awareness. 

It was one of the reasons the U.S. Soccer Federation reached its monumental equal pay structure. With the success of the women’s national team on the world stage, they have boosted U.S. Soccer’s profile. 

Photo courtesy NWSL

Lloyd was critical following their elimination to Sweden in this World Cup. European women’s pro football is starting to catch up to the NWSL’s competitiveness and professionalism. England’s Women’s Super League is attracting more viewers, media deals, and sponsorships. Barcelona Femeni and Wolfsburg Women’s Team have sold 90,000-seat stadiums in Europe. It’s growing every year. This World Cup felt like the first time there was a substantial challenger to the U.S. from Europe. The NWSL has become a symbol of equality as much as it has boosted women’s soccer’s status, even though the U.S. wasn’t as dominant. 

A typical NWSL roster includes American, Canadian, European, Asian, and South American players. Other countries can emulate its practices as women’s football continues to grow here and abroad. 

The NWSL’s high standards have opened the door for future generations of women’s soccer players in America and abroad. It’s a symbol of a changing sports landscape, where professional women’s games are romanticized spectacles in the same way men’s games are.  

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