Orlando's grand NWSL introduction begs questions about league's growing divide

Photo Credit: Roy Miller/ISI Photos (Courtesy NWSL)

Orlando announced its arrival with an NWSL record crowd. As more MLS teams look toward NWSL, what is the future for the smaller, independent clubs? Dan Lauletta explores.

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Saturday night in Orlando was everything NWSL and women’s soccer could have hoped for.  The Orlando Pride staged their first-ever home match in front of a league-record crowd of 23,403 fans. The night was replete with tailgating, autograph seekers, and even an Alex Morgan goal.

“It’s exactly what we anticipated, frankly,” NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said from the Citrus Bowl press box about an hour before kickoff. “When I was out here in October we had so much excitement about it in the city.  There is a lot of excitement around this market.”

The two other NWSL matches that night, in a total Chicago and Kansas City, attracted of 5,551 fans. The two matches the next night drew an aggregate 6,314 to New Jersey and Boston. The final math leaves the Pride attendance covering 66.3 percent of the total number of people who attended NWSL matches on Week 2. And still it is feasible to put a positive spin on the other four numbers if comparing them to previous years and trends for those clubs.

It all begs the question: Is there too much of a divide in the resources of NWSL clubs to move all 10 of them forward at a pace that will drive the league to legitimate sustainability?

“Certainly when you have an Orlando coming into a market and showing everyone what can be achieved in a very short period of time, that’s really exciting,” Plush said. “But we have to keep that in contact.  Not everyone can do what Orlando did overnight. So we have to balance those things.”

Photo Credit: Roy Miller/ISI Photos (Courtesy NWSL)

NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush (Photo Credit: Roy Miller/ISI Photos, Courtesy NWSL)

During a conference call to preview the season, Plush spoke about plans at the league level that have already extended out a decade or more into the future. Balancing that weight of certain teams against the pull of others is part of that plan, he said, adding that it is organic in nature and still taking hold.

“We have a stable, committed, well-capitalized group of owners,” Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler said. Others have privately complained that the league is slowly moving toward a model that will ace out the non-affiliated clubs, many of which did the grunt work to keep women’s professional soccer alive and get NWSL off the ground.

When NWSL kicked off its first season in 2013, the Portland Thorns quickly became the model franchise, boosted by being the sister club to Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers as well as living in perhaps the most rabid soccer community in North America. Later that year, the Houston Dynamo ostensibly willed their way into the league as 2014 expansion club Houston Dash, partly due to discussions between president Chris Canetti and the Timbers/Thorns organization.

The present model is still not capable of turning enough of a profit to make NWSL a standalone business entity.

The Pride became the third MLS-backed club in NWSL and over a short sample size, Orlando has proven to be every bit the soccer market as Portland. That is not only good for NWSL, which is subsidized by U.S. Soccer, but it moves to erase the notion that the Portland market is a standalone anomaly incapable of being replicated. Perhaps moved by the success of the Orlando launch, MLS commissioner Don Garber recently went on record as saying he believes about half of the clubs in his league would eventually operate a women’s team. No specifics, including timeframes were given.

The present model, while certainly in a better place than the ones that drove WUSA and WPS into the ground, is still not capable of turning enough of a profit to make NWSL a standalone business entity. Even if revenues continue to move forward in the short-term, they are likely to be funneled entirely into player and staff salaries. Every club, it seems, is eventually going to need additional partners to move through to the next level. To this much, Whisler agrees.

Simply latching on to the nearest Major League Soccer club, though, could turn out to be a dangerous and narrow tactic for the women’s game. NWSL might want to enter markets not covered by MLS, and even in some markets that are, said MLS team may or may not be in position to start up a women’s team and throw the proper resources its way.

One alternative is trying to find a non-soccer sports franchise to partner with, perhaps one with more of a mirrored schedule to better divvy up resources. At least one NWSL club has had discussions with such partners about joining up for purposes of investing, sponsorships, and ticket sales.

There is little doubt there is more appetite than ever for women’s professional soccer in the United States, both as a business opportunity and as a spectator sport. Nights like Saturday in Orlando highlight the very best of that appetite. But as the landscape continues to evolve, will the divide between clubs become too much to handle? Or is there a path to sustainability that can carry everyone forward with Plush’s long-term game plan?

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