NWSL: Fans bases grow and players given a voice as league gets stronger

Megan Cleary discusses the growing attendance rate in the National Women’s Soccer League and how the NWSL Players’ Association and supporters groups are contributing to an stronger league.

On a surprisingly hot Saturday for the Northwest, over 18,000 fans packed into Providence Park to watch the match between the Portland Thorns and the Boston Breakers. Some of them had just come from the MLS derby match in Seattle, nearly 200 miles north, between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders. Changing in the car, they went straight from stadium to stadium, determined to be a presence for both of their teams. In a dominating performance for the Thorns, the fans left sunburnt, but not disappointed.

NWSL Portland Thorns

The Portland Thorns took on the Boston Breakers in front of a crowd of over 18,000 (Photo Credit: Jeff Wong).

Attendance will always be a marker for a healthy league and in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the highest attendance numbers come from Portland. The Thorns’ average more attendance than Bournemouth’s and just a few thousand shy of the 20,000 average for several other Premier League clubs. Providence Park has become a bastion of some of the fiercest fans in soccer, but also arguably the best supported women’s team in the world. The Rose City Riveters acting as a hallmark of what support for women’s soccer should and can look like.

The Rose City Riveters formed immediately after hearing Portland were going to field a women’s soccer team. Since the inaugural season, their numbers have made the headlines more than once, however they do more than just show up for games. The RCR has developed chants for individual players, have dedicated Capo’s to lead the crowds, and sell merchandise that goes directly into making tifos for home games. Along with this, they have become a charitable force in the community, organising events that give directly to people in need in the area.

However, as much of a force the Riveters are, the league’s success cannot rest on one team alone. While attendance for NWSL clubs varies, the fierceness of their fans – no matter how many – can only help the league to grow. Another one of these fan bases rests in the Heartland of America.

Over 1,700 miles east of the bastion sits FC Kansas City, one of the most successful teams in the NWSL. Averaging around 3,000 spectators last season (with a stadium capacity of only 4,000) FC KC holds the record for most titles, winning two consecutive championships and making the play-offs every season. Here, the dedication of the KC Blue Crew, FC Kansas City’s supporter group, rivals any fan base in the league.

NWSL KC Blue Crew with FC Kansas City Players

Members of the KC Blue Crew pose with FC Kansas City players, Erika Tymrak, Katie Bowen and Shea Groom (Photo Courtesy Danielle Russell).

Danielle Russell, media director of the Blue Crew, believes their supporter group is something special, “I like to say that we probably have the most fun out of any supporter group in the league.

“We’re out there every game yelling, chanting, and laughing. We tailgate before every game to help bring in new fans to the group and we do events outside of game day.

“We also work hard to bring friends and family to games to try to get new fans for the team and the league. Organised in 2012, membership has only increased each season.”

Another marker of the Blue Crew’s dedication is that several of their members don’t actually live in Kansas City. Danielle lives in Des Moines, over 200 miles from Swope Soccer Village, while others live as far away as Dallas, Texas. Danielle herself has yet to miss a game since 2014, “I met some Blue Crew members at the first game and decided to come to all the games because I had a blast. I quickly fell head over heels with FCKC and knew I didn’t want to miss a game.”

Drawing new fans remains an important part of continuing the league’s success. Supporter Groups like the Riveters and the Blue Crew bring in potential new fans almost every game, lending organic growth to the NWSL fan base. Along with this, the NWSL is beginning to change their marketing, appealing to the older fans. Danielle noticed the change, “Most teams have a beer garden or sell beer at the stadium. Almost every team has a pride night. A lot of the sponsors and partnerships have been aimed more at adults.” With younger kids and families being a traditional target of women’s soccer leagues, changing focus to the adults has the potential to draw more consistent, larger crowds.

Alongside the growing fan base, a healthy league must include opportunities for all athletes to give input. The National Women’s Soccer League Players’ Association was recently created with that goal in mind.

“Basically, we are here to support progress,” said Meghann Burke, acting contact for the NWSL Players’ Association, said on the formation of the PA.

“We will continue to forge very strong and productive communication channels with the other facets of the league to discuss continued progress and address future issues.”

With a highly positive response from the athletes, this is the first time that non-allocated players or amateur players have been represented by an organisation with the power to negotiate on their behalf. Currently the NWSL Players’ Association functions with two non-allocated players from each team serving as representatives for the association. From these, representatives officers are expected to be elected soon.

NWSL Boston Breakers vs Portland Thorns

While allocated athletes like Christine Sinclair have been represented by their national team’s players unions, athletes like Arin Gilliland and Hayley Raso have had no representation in the league. (Photo Credit: Jeff Wong).

The association not only serves to give unrepresented players a voice, but also creates opportunities for professional growth off the field.

“The concept of creative ways to add value to the on-field experience is a prime area of focus, added Meghann.

“Last year, the players worked with the league to start the process of coaching courses, which will continue. Part of the plan for the NSWL Players’ Association is actually to come up with more ideas like this to present to the league.”

The NWSL has also become a beacon for international stars with athletes from 17 different countries playing throughout the league. Top talent continues to seek out opportunities in the United States, including Brazilian international Marta. Widely considered the best female soccer player in the world, Marta joined Orlando Pride just this season. Japanese international Yuki Nagasato signed with the Chicago Red Stars only a few weeks ago. NWSL matches continue to be showcases for some of the greatest athletes in the world.

Looking ahead, there is still room for the NWSL to grow. Some star athletes have left the league to play in Europe, including several members of the United States Women’s National Team. Facilities and pay have been repeatedly highlighted as issues. Beyond players, there is still no media association that represents all persons who consistently cover the NWSL. If left too long, these could all become very problematic matters for the league. However, for now, the positives outweigh the negatives and all signs point to a healthy league just getting stronger.

Follow Megan on Twitter at @mcmbegs

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