What is the state of the NWSL after their fourth season?

In a penalty shootout, the Western New York Flash defeated the Washington Spirit to win their first NWSL Championship. Completing their fourth season, the NWSL has lasted longer than any previous women’s pro soccer league in the United States. Like the NWSL Championship this past weekend, the league had its moments and some setbacks but overall appears to be here for the long haul.

The state of the NWSL isn’t perfect and there are definitely areas of improvement throughout the league. But one great thing NWSL did from the very beginning was to partner with U.S. Soccer and MLS from the beginning. That was one thing leagues like WUSA and WPS didn’t seem to do and thus lost so much money that they folded. This at least set up a sense of stability for NWSL to get through those tough first years as a league and stay long term.

[link_box id=”23227″ site_id=”158″ layout=”link-box-third” alignment=”alignright”]Another positive for NWSL has been their TV deal. Fox Sports 1 has rights to show games and while I would like to see them show more games than the five or six games per year (including playoffs), it’s at least a good start. The rest of the games are streamed on the NWSL’s YouTube page and are done with minimal expense.

Despite stability within the league and TV, the NWSL have had their share of PR issues that paint the picture that it’s a more “amateur” league than it really is. From playing on an incredibly skinny field crunched into the outfield of a minor league baseball stadium to poor playing surfaces and horrible living conditions for away teams in some cities, including multiple reports of mold and bedbugs at a hotel in Kansas City that lodged away teams to accusations to owners being accused of sending sexually explicit emails or accused of being homophobic, there have been a lot of issues within NWSL and everything I have mentioned have all taken place in the past year. It’s things like that which has put a dark cloud over the great things happening in the NWSL and makes the league appear worse than it really is.

So what can the NWSL do to make the league better? First, if the NWSL is truly a professional league, they need to show that they are by improving basic things like playing surfaces and away team conditions. Also, the NWSL needs to stop depending on unpaid amateurs and actually pay everyone who plays. It also should be mentioned that even players who do get paid, the league minimum is $6,482 a season. By comparison, if you were to work at the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour for 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year, that equals to just a little over $15,000 a year. I get that players cannot be paid much in the NWSL because of the amount of revenue generated but this doesn’t help improve the player pool for the U.S. Women’s National Team.

If I’m a female player who just graduated from college and have the choice of getting a job with my degree and have a solid income for the foreseeable future or go play soccer for below minimum wage, would retire in my mid-30’s (best case scenario) and if I wanted to, would have to put off having a family until after my soccer career, I would go for the high paying job. And many people who make that same decision makes it more likely that the next Abby Wambach or Carli Lloyd or Hope Solo decided to want to get paid more than minimum wage in a career field that they can do into the next five or so decades. More power to those who still choose to play regardless of the money but that should at least be a topic of discussion. It may result in more financial losses if all players are paid a living wage to be able to fully devote their time and energy to playing soccer but it ensures that the USWNT and NWSL has the highest quality of players as possible.

Another thing the NWSL needs to do is stop putting the NWSL Championship at a neutral site. While it may guarantee going to a stadium that’s equipped for broadcast and an opportunity for maximum capacity but the 8,000 plus crowd just looked minuscule in Houston. That looks terrible on TV and results in no atmosphere and a bit of an embarrassment that that’s the scene of the championship game. It also is a bit of a slap in the face of the team and those fans with the better record not to be able to host the game. Even MLS stopped doing neutral site games for the MLS Cup Final. The NWSL should follow suit.

Finally, if the NWSL is to expand, it’s recommended that NWSL look toward MLS owners to also own teams to strengthen the MLS/NWSL partnership. With Houston and Orlando now in as expansion teams and Real Salt Lake, NYCFC and MLS expansion team LAFC reportedly interested in having NWSL teams of their own, that would be best long-term. While things have worked out in Rochester for the WNY Flash, it has been a bit tougher for Sky Blue FC in Piscataway, New Jersey to gain a foothold in the league. If NYCFC were to get into NWSL, maybe it would be best to buy Sky Blue FC, rebrand and move them closer to NYC instead of having another expansion team.

While it appears the NWSL is struggling for success after four years, they should feel great that they are the most successful women’s league in the United States. Is the NWSL perfect? No. Is the NWSL an ideal league? No. Are there things to improve within NWSL? Yes. But with a framework that’s built for long-term success, there is more confidence than ever that we will not see another women’s soccer league fold. And that is the ultimate victory.


About Phillip Bupp

News editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, highlight consultant for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them. Follow me on Twitter @phillipbupp