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Making the Draft important: How can NWSL better engage fans in offseason?

NWSL teams rely on the Draft to build their rosters for the future, but there's a disconnect amongst fans who don't follow the college game.

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How do you make fans care about the draft? NFL fans do. So do NBA fans. Major League Baseball fans? Not so much, and only those who follow junior hockey care about the NHL’s draft.

It’s hard to give any draft significance, but it’s no secret how: Get the viewers to care about the players. For 21 years, Major League Soccer has been unable to. Only now, as team loyalties become strong enough on its own, has the SuperDraft grown beyond pure insignificance. Still, it’d be a stretch to say a significant number of care about it.

If you’re the National Women’s Soccer League and you see MLS’ long road, what do you do? For the foreseeable future, you’re going to have college drafts, and if you’re going to stage any events, you might as well try to make them must-sees – at least for your fans. But seeing the slight traction MLS has gained with its annual event speaks to the new, five-year-old league’s challenge. Where can the NWSL succeed where MLS has failed?

Perhaps the most important thing to note are the differences. Major League Soccer development has evolved into a multi-pronged process, with college talent representing one of a few significant routes into the league. Academies are becoming more important, the lower divisions are producing talent, and as MLS’ influence grows, it gets easier to convince younger players to finish their formative stage in North America. Teams could skip the draft and, with good work elsewhere, still be competitive in Major League Soccer.

The NWSL is completely different. Though there is a significant international presence in the league, a dominant majority of the league’s talent comes through the NCAA ranks. To put it on a spectrum, the league is less dependent than the NFL on college talent, but it’s more dependent than the NBA, and far away from the diminished needs baseball, hockey, and MLS have for collegiate talent.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the NBA and NFL drafts are, by far, the most popular among major sports, but the causation isn’t quite clear. Do people care about those drafts more because they’re fanatical about those leagues? Or do they care more about those college sports, and thus more likely to be interested in where some of their favorite athletes end up?

The answer, likely, is both, and thankfully, there’s a line that connects each side. Whatever the motive, people are invested in those players, and between massive coverage on television and online, they have every means to follow them.

If the NWSL is ever going to get people invested in the draft – invested in a way Major League Soccer has never done – that seems to be the solution. With no games between the league’s October final and January draft, the NWSL has three months to build interest. Indelibly linked to college soccer in a way MLS has never been, the NWSL has a chance to make its draft more important to its fans than it’s ever been on the men’s side of the ball.

Filling the gap

The NWSL played it’s final game last season on Oct. 9 in Houston.  Ninety-five days will pass between that game’s final shootout save and Boston’s first pick on Thursday in Los Angeles.

What has the NWSL been doing in that span? Taking a well-deserved break, for sure, but as fan as outreach to fans is concerned, we’ve seen a lot of Australia W-League updates, some great .gifs from 2014, and little else. Some news on signings here, a season ticket renewal plea there. Otherwise? Filler.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Between early October and mid-January, there is little more important than preparing for the league’s next big showcase: the College Draft. As commissioner Jeff Plush has stated, the NWSL needs tent-pole events. And between the league offices and the 10 clubs, it should not be difficult to come up with a collection of content that can both fill the space and get people interested in the draft.

Interesting player in the Northwest? Go do something, Seattle. College Cup going back to Cary? You’re on it, North Carolina. Share the content across sites, as wanted. Retweets all around.

No meaningful prospects in your area? Guess what: You get to post the mock draft! Cut a check to a freelancer and … retweets all around!

What’s more, there’s every reason to believe fans who largely overlap between the U.S. women’s national team and the NWSL would be interested in knowing who’s competing with Rose Lavelle, Andi Sullivan and, next year, Mallory Pugh.

It’s about exploring more ways to be relevant to your fans, and with the NWSL Draft in no danger of going anywhere soon, it’s also about promoting your most important product between October and April.

Making the connection

Of course, if it was as easy as saying “here are players who are good,” the draft would already be big. But for some reason, the thousands who follow the NWSL each weekend aren’t clamoring for draft news. As with so many things in a five-year-old league, much remains to be figured out.

That’s not to say it’s not worth trying. Those ridiculous .gifs being recycled across NWSL social media accounts? They represent people trying to connect. Some work, most don’t, but the underlying theme is the same: Teams are trying new ways to communicate with fans. Establish enough things that connect, and hopefully, you have something resembling a voice.

The NWSL needs to have a voice when it comes to its future stars. As Morgan Andrews is carrying USC to a title, or Andi Sullivan’s steering Stanford to the nation’s top seed, the league should have a way of keeping them on their fans’ radars, be it written text, video or mock drafts. Then, when the draft comes along, fans will already have context on who’s about to come to their club.

In the same way NFL.com and NBA.com run mock drafts during their offseason, so to can the NWSL shift focus. The league can try to make the players into something fans care about.

Preaching to the converted

Then there are the actual college fans, once who have strong allegiances to the North Carolina, Virginia, Stanford and UCL, to name a few. If they’re not already converted to the NWSL, it’s unlikely they’ll become devotees anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get them interested in the draft. It seems highly unlikely that a Stanford fan will, after watching Jane Campbell in goal for four years in Palo Alto, suddenly not care where Campbell ends up in the NWSL.

Part of this is just a basic communications strategy. Are those people who watch college soccer not engaging with the NWSL? It’s a hard measurement to take, but it seems that way. They’re potential customers, more apt to be converted than somebody who doesn’t watch soccer at all. These people should be engaged, whether you’re promoting a draft or not.

And what of returns?

Whether you connect with those fans are not, the NWSL Draft is unlikely to be a major event any time soon, but it has made major strides from its first go in 2013, when it was a closed-door draft available only via Twitter updates...even with media right next door. But any path to creating excitement need to acknowledge a basic truth: Fans aren’t going to get excited for players they don’t know. They might be mad, in the same way Knicks fans booed when their team took a little-known Kristaps Porzingis two drafts ago (How’d that work out, Knicks fans?), but they’re not going to invest in a draft unless they have some stake in the players.

That should be goal No. 1. The draft will eventually have to up its production value -- and it has a good deal already -- and having a combine where media has access to players would help (that would be a significant expense). But the first step to making the NWSL Draft more relevant is showing you care about it. That’s what October through January is for.

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