April 17, 2024

SAN DIEGO — Change is difficult to recognize when it is in progress. The day-to-day hustle of reaching a destination can be all-consuming, blinding one to something in plain sight. Finding perspective requires an intentional effort, a momentary pause in a fast-paced world of endless scrolling.

“Look around,” OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock told reporters on Thursday, taking a breath to let the setting sink in. Fishlock and her teammates — along with players from NWSL championship opponent NJ/NY Gotham FC — sat at tables throughout an NWSL media day event in a swanky downtown San Diego venue to speak with dozens of national media members about the league’s marquee end-cap to the season.

The bright orange and purple hues of the 2023 NWSL championship branding evoked the feel of a Super Bowl-lite and popped in contrast to the venue’s modern rustic theme. Cameras from local and national outlets joined several in-house league content teams to capture moments both serious and (mostly) silly. The league’s newly redesigned trophy — a collaboration with Tiffany’s Jewelers that replaced the embarrassing spatula-shaped trophy from the past 10 years — sat at the front of the room as if it were taking record of its new place in the world.

The NWSL, a league that historically operated on a shoestring budget and could not get out of its own way, looked buttoned up — even a touch posh — under the San Diego sun.

Earlier Thursday, NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman sat beside executives from four different major media entities to announce a new, four-year media rights deal worth a combined $60 million per year. Starting next year, ESPN/ABC, CBS, Prime Sports, and ION will combine to broadcast over 100 games to national audiences. This for a league that launched 10 years ago with unreliable livestreams on YouTube that often matched high-school sports production levels. In the intervening years, the league had failed attempts at various media deals, from the mobile-only go90 app that frequently crashed to afternoon games on Lifetime that were bookended by endless romantic murder mysteries.

Saturday’s NWSL championship aired in prime time on broadcast television. It featured a two-hour pregame show and that included multiple on-site talent crews. The NWSL has certainly come a long way in its 10 seasons of existence.

“This is where we’re at now,” Fishlock continued as she looked around the crowded room two days before the final. “This is now the bare minimum. This is great. This is what it should be. This is what it should have always been, but we weren’t ready for that. Women’s football wasn’t ready for that — let’s be real here.”

Perhaps the world was not ready for women’s football. But the stories, the personalities, and the drama were always there.

Ten years ago, the first NWSL championship was played in Rochester, New York, in front of 9,129 fans in a utilitarian stadium that has since been left behind by the NWSL and its men’s soccer counterparts. Marketing and media opportunities were mostly nonexistent. The following year was even more humble, with a 5,000-seat stadium in the suburbs of Seattle serving as host. The defunct FC Kansas City defeated the Reign and celebrated at a local Buffalo Wild Wings in a strip mall.

The Reign are now winless in three finals after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to NJ/NY Gotham FC, a shortcoming that continues to haunt them. Saturday’s loss added insult to injury after winger Megan Rapinoe fell to the ground moments into game with what she thinks is a torn Achilles. Only Fishlock, Rapinoe, defender Lauren Barnes, and coach Laura Harvey remain from the inaugural team in 2013 and the squads that made it to those first two finals in 2014 and 2015.

“I don’t even remember much from the first couple [championships] and not because of how far away it was, just because I don’t think there was anything to remember,” Rapinoe said in the tunnel of Snapdragon Stadium on Saturday. Barnes agreed, saying: “We were lucky we had a locker room.” She called the progress “mind-blowing.”

On Saturday, an announced crowd of 25,011 fans turned up in San Diego to watch two teams from Seattle and New Jersey play for the championship. There were three hours of fan festivities before the match, including a concert stage for headline singer Bishop Briggs, and sponsor tents that filled a lawn the size of a football field in front of Snapdragon Stadium. There were players from other NWSL teams signing autographs, 360-degree camera booths, EA Sports gaming consoles and, yes, plenty of merchandise with long lines of people looking to spend money. Gotham and OL Reign rolled up to the stadium in limousine-style team buses, blacked out except for the purple Ally sponsor branding.

There were multiple parties in the nights preceding the game — the kind of sponsored VIP shindigs that are expected from any big-time sporting event. There was a game to be played, of course, but there’s also celebrations to be had.

The NWSL has very clearly entered a new era. Records continue to be set for attendance, TV viewership, expansion fees and media rights deals. Women’s sports are now booming investment properties, and the NWSL believes it is at the forefront of change.

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NWSL commissioner plans to expand to 16 teams by 2026

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman speaks to Seb Salazar about extending the league’s number of participating teams to 16 by 2026.

Crucially, the league and its teams are now obtaining the necessary investments to prove their worth. Women’s professional soccer has, for so long, been fueled by cautious optimism rather than hard evidence of success. Women’s soccer has been so historically underfunded that it has not been afforded an opportunity to prove its value — until now. The NWSL is doing that, drawing its largest-ever championship attendance on Saturday and striking a new standalone media deal believed to be the largest ever in women’s sports.

But as much as the league has grown, there is still more growing to do, and parts of the weekend’s events were foundations in need of refinement for the future.

The league hosted a skills challenge with players from various teams Friday afternoon, but it took place in front of a small crowd at a soccer complex over 20 miles north of San Diego (during rush hour on the infamous Interstate-5). There was no official broadcast for the event, leaving players and teams from around the league to tune into an unofficial Instagram livestream from one of the assembled media members.

Behind the scenes and publicly, there are friction points for a league that desires to be big-time but isn’t quite positioned to handle that spotlight. While the league hosts a media day exists around the final, media access at large is a regular challenge that mirrors the one playing out in the WNBA, leaving valuable stories untold.

Even the new media deal itself requires scrutiny alongside its flowers. The NWSL is still largely paying for production costs for broadcasts that will be enhanced with double the number of cameras, Berman said, and there will need to be significantly more personnel hired to fill the roles for the large increase to the number of games on TV. Those big rights fees are effectively being reinvested into the broadcast product and the league’s rapidly growing front office. Sources around the league do not expect any of that money to trickle down to teams and players. (The league’s CBA requires revenue sharing with players if the league turns a profit on media rights but determining whether there are profits will require less opaque bookkeeping than the public is privy to.)

Expansion is another golden ticket for the league. The Utah Royals return to the field next year and will be joined by Bay FC, which paid a $53 million fee to the league. A group in Boston paid the same $53 million fee to join the league for the 2026 season, marking a more than tenfold increase in the entry cost from the previous round of expansion two years ago. Berman announced that the league’s expansion process to find team No. 16 is about to officially begin, creating another opportunity for the NWSL to pull in a huge expansion fee and bring on another strong media market to boost sponsorship.

Some incumbent teams, however, are playing catch-up on improving gameday and training facilities for players. Venue availability — and the lack of priority scheduling for NWSL teams at their respective venues — is a longtime point of contention that will only be compounded in the coming years by new broadcast windows. The Kansas City Current will open a new stadium in the spring that will be the first venue built specifically for an NWSL team. Nowhere else in the league is the NWSL team explicitly the first choice-tenant — best-case scenarios are that the team shares ownership with a men’s team in the venue.

“I don’t think that there is a more important investment that is being made anywhere for the future of our game,” Berman said about Kansas City’s impending new stadium. “That is going to be a proof of concept and a case study for us to be able to share with all of our investors to be able to say when you control your venue, you control your revenue streams, and you control your schedule.”

The NWSL’s greatest challenge, though, may be maintaining the quality of its product. All the touchpoints away from the field are about business, but they are also about attracting and retaining the world’s best players. Great facilities are one solution, but so too is quality officiating, higher salaries, greater free agency and player safety, and elite coaching.

Berman will co-chair a new women’s division of the World Leagues Forum, the NWSL announced on Friday. The goal of the organization is to get top women’s leagues in the world regularly speaking to share best practices and to create a collective voice for entities that have been historically ignored by FIFA (or, in some cases, their own federations).

As Berman delivered her semiannual state-of-the-league address Friday, she rattled off another long list of successes for the league. Attendance rose 26% year-over-year, building upon the 50% climb the prior season that was largely fueled by Southern California expansion teams Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC. Before that, many of the league’s success stories came from Portland, the team that led the league in attendance every season until 2022.

Encouragingly, successful data points for the NWSL popped up in more markets this year. Kansas City broke its own attendance record on multiple occasions. OL Reign, a team that has long struggled to gain a foothold in and around Seattle, saw a gradual bump in attendance that culminated with a league-record crowd for its season finale. The NWSL has turned a corner.

“We talked a lot last year about our expansion teams and in particular Angel City and San Diego’s success off the pitch in their attendance and in their commercial growth,” Berman said. “We have scaled that to so many of our clubs. Nine of our teams drew more than 10,000 fans to a game, and importantly, we’ve doubled the number of games that we had more than 10,000 fans attending.

“This is really the proof point that these are not isolated moments of success. We have a moment in time where we can absolutely have that inflection point that across the league, we have proven that people want to watch women’s soccer and they’re willing to pay to come and that we are worth our value.”

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