Can the Utah Royals prove large-scale NWSL success is possible outside of Portland?
Now in the sixth season of the National Women’s Soccer League’s existence, there's still only one club that can call itself an unmitigated success. In 2017, the Portland Thorns averaged 17,678 fans per game, an order of magnitude higher than what any other NWSL team has averaged in any year — and one that, so far, has grown each season, another statistic unmatched in the league.
Other franchises that have tried to step in and rival Portland's support have missed the mark. In 2016, the expansion Orlando Pride's inaugural home game drew 23,403 fans — an all-time NWSL record that still stands — but by season's end, Orlando was averaging just under 9,000 per game. The Pride’s average fell to 6,186 in 2017. The Houston Dash, the next-best-attended team and another MLS-affiliated side, saw its average drop by about a thousand fans between 2016 and 2017.
Attendance is not the lone barometer on which teams are judged, but it’s a clear measuring stick of relevance in a market. Portland remains the only team in the league to have solved the puzzle of how to fill a stadium each week, but the arrival of Utah Royals FC could change that in the long run. That's the team's hope, anyway.
Royals and Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen “wants this to be the No. 1 professional women’s sports team in the world," according to Real Salt Lake chief business officer Andy Carroll. Orlando in particular entered the NWSL with similar lofty ambitions. That franchise is hardly failing (and that there’s criticism at all is indicative of increasing expectations league-wide), but the Pride has fallen well short in taking on Portland head-to-head in any department, suggesting there’s a fallacy in trying to replicate such a unique scenario. Can Utah be the team to buck the trend and prove that Portland's success can be equaled elsewhere?
Time, obviously, will tell, but for now, there's reason for optimism. The club's much-lauded facilities, the investment in player relocation and housing expenses, and the acquisition of one of the most respected coaches in the women's game in Laura Harvey, all speak to Hansen's willingness to put his money where his mouth is and give this team what it needs to succeed on and off the field.
Utah sold out its home opener in front of an announced crowd of 19,203. There was a sense that something special was happening, but, Hansen's vision won't happen overnight. The Royals expect a crowd of around 10,000 fans this weekend for their second home game; appropriately, the Thorns are the opponent. What can Utah learn from Portland's example — and, likewise, what can't be learned?
Studying Portland’s model
The Thorns, inevitably, are in any discussion around leading women's soccer clubs globally. Why has the NWSL worked in Portland in a way it hasn't anywhere else? What's the special sauce drawing over 17,000 people to every game?
The frustrating reality for other clubs is that there is no single, secret ingredient. The Thorns' success comes down not to a single thing they are doing right, nor a single characteristic of the community, but to a confluence of factors, only some of which can be duplicated by other front offices.
Sitting in Providence Park at a Thorns game, the chicken-or-egg nature of the whole issue is obvious: on one hand, why are all these people here, swilling beer and dressed head to toe in red, when other NWSL teams struggle to attract 5,000 fans and only wish those in attendance brought the same level of passion?
On the other hand, when Christine Sinclair steps up to take a penalty kick, and the air crackles as the entire stadium erupts in a thunderous chant of "PT! FC!" you think: Who wouldn't want to come back to this again and again? In other words, the attendance is great because the atmosphere is great, but the atmosphere is special, in part, because of the size of the crowd.
Some of the factors that have coincided to shape this reality can be seen from a distance. Providence Park is in the city center, easy to get to on public transit. Portland is basically a two-sport town, with only one other top-tier team, the NBA's Trailblazers, competing for market share with the Thorns and Timbers. Finally, there's that nebulous notion that Portland is a "weird" city, that its liberal (if very white) populace, large queer population, and long history as a haven for hippies, DIYers, and artists, make it a natural place for soccer to thrive.
To really understand how this reality came about, though, you have to dig below the surface.
Soccer has deep roots in the Rose City, dating back to the original NASL Timbers in the 1970s. By the time the NWSL kicked off in 2013, there was already a culture of support for soccer in general, and women's soccer in particular, unlike many places in the country.
WHAT ABOUT SMALL CLUBS?
The University of Portland, where Sinclair won two NCAA championships, sits on a bluff on the northern edge of town overlooking the Willamette River. Look south from U.P., and you can see downtown, with Providence Park — where 40-some years ago, two of Sinclair's uncles used to play for the original NASL Timbers — at its western edge. Just around the corner is the warehouse where both the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army, once a couple dozen people banging on pickle buckets instead of an army of thousands, design and paint the massive tifos they hoist before home games. It was a few blocks to the east, at City Hall, where Timbers Army leaders learned to organize as they lobbied for the team to join MLS, a learning experience that helped turn them into the biggest and most impressive supporters group in the country.
The Thorns and their fans inherited all that history, and the culture that came with it. When you look at this club, you're looking at something that took not six years, but four decades, to build. In other words, any club that would come into the NWSL and try to duplicate what happened in Portland is on a fool's errand. This environment — this very specific, unique soccer culture — can't be duplicated. You can’t fake history.
Given that, what exactly should Utah do to best position itself as the NWSL's second juggernaut? Success for the Royals could further lay the blueprint for other interested MLS teams who still seem to need their NWSL interest piqued.
Treating the NWSL team like priority No. 1
Portland owner Merritt Paulson and his staff made a commitment from day one to treat the Thorns like the Timbers, both in providing players a professional on-field environment and in giving the Thorns top billing alongside the MLS team — signage, marketing, resources, you name it. Those factors can be controlled by the Royals — and any team, for that matter. For the most part, Utah seems to be on the right track.
Paulson famously met with the RSL front office in November 2017 to walk them through the financial and logistical aspects of running an NWSL team. Utah’s entry into the league had to happen quickly, with a pair of franchises teetering on collapse. RSL staff’s trip to Portland helped seal the deal for an NWSL team — and set Utah on a more ambitious, equal path for its women’s team.
"Portland has showed us the way, so they made it, not easy, but simple for us, to a certain extent," Carroll tells FourFourTwo. "If we continue to market the women like we do RSL, we know we have a platform for success, we just need to keep executing and making sure that we're priced right, we're marketed correctly, that we're top of mind, that we have our [away] games available to the fan base, which we do... we're over the air [locally] for all our games and over the top."
Carroll points out the similarities in the two markets: both Portland and Salt Lake City are smaller cities, each with only an MLS team and an NBA team (among major leagues) when their NWSL teams started. Both have young populations; Utah is the youngest state in the country by average age. Utah also has the highest per-capita participation rate in youth soccer, which the Royals hope to capitalize on heavily. "We know if we can be good there," said Carroll, "with soccer moms and young soccer players, whether male or female, that the community will get around it and will build a lot of connectivity and passion about the players in the game."
That last point, though, is one that observers of the league have long flagged as being an untenable foundation to build a team's fan base on. Kids don't get engaged with a sports team the same way adults do. They don't decide where to spend their money. They don't, as Chioma Ubogagu put it after the Pride's recent home game drew a dismal 3,890 fans, buy beer and get "a little rowdy."
That's not to say youth clubs can't form part of a viable business model; and to be clear, Carroll says that Utah’s front office sees the Royals as "relevant to the entire community." The balance, though, between a "family-friendly" environment and a loud, exciting one, tips too far toward the former almost everywhere else in the NWSL, something Utah has to be wary of if it wants to set this team up for long-term success.
The business principles and commitment laid out by Portland are possible elsewhere, and it could be argued that Utah is better positioned than any of its predecessors to rival the Thorns' success. Even for a team with the resources and stated ambitions the Royals have, though, that's going to take sustained commitment over a period of years.
Utah’s crowd when it hosts Portland will be a substantial drop from the home opener, but still very good by NWSL standards. Whether the Royals can maintain or grow their 5,000-person season-ticket base over the course of 12 games this season, and into 2019 and beyond, is the open question. "Pro sports isn't easy," says Carroll. "We're not going to snap our fingers and see another 20,000 show up at Rio Tinto stadium. We've got a lot of work to do. But we have a plan and we'll execute that plan."
If it happens, Utah would prove that ‘another Portland’ is indeed attainable for the NWSL. And with league expansion interest rumored to be increasing among other MLS teams, that ambition could prove positively infectious.