World Cup Victory Boo$ts Women's Pro Soccer, But For How Long?
The biggest crowd to ever watch a National Women's Soccer League match filled Providence Park in downtown Portland Wednesday evening. More than 21,000 fans saw the Seattle Reign defeat the home team Portland Thorns 1-0.
The sold-out stadium is another sign of how women’s professional soccer is getting a nice boost on the heels of the recent Women's World Cup in Canada. But for how long?
The U.S. national team broke all kinds of TV ratings records on their way to victory in the Women’s World Cup of soccer early this month. Now the stars from that World Cup are returning to the pitch with their home clubs.
Sold out Providence Park erupted in thunderous cheers during a pre-game ceremony to welcome back the World Cup veterans.
American stars Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath play for the Thorns along with a half dozen Canadian, Australian, English and German World Cup starters. U.S national team stalwarts Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo play for Seattle.
‘We’re on the cutting edge of women’s sports history’
This was the first Thorns game ever for Portland mother Catherine Lipari, who brought her daughters.
“We watched the World Cup and made an affinity for several of the players,” she said. “We’re excited to see them. I’m super excited. I feel like we’re on the cutting edge of women’s sports history.”
The afterglow of the World Cup also brought out Mirian Nava of Woodburn, Oregon. She came decked out in her youth soccer team jersey.
“I want to see Rapinoe and Hope Solo, the people that played for the U.S,” Nava said. “I’m shaking right now.”
Nava will have to wait to see Solo. The Seattle goalkeeper is on the injured list and did not appear at the match.
Women's pro soccer saw a spike in fan interest after previous World Cup campaigns, but it didn't last. Neither of the two previous U.S. women's pro soccer leagues survived past their third seasons. The NWSL is halfway through its third year.
Surge in tickets and merchandise sales
Brandon Kolp, Seattle Reign FC’s senior director of marketing, said there’s no question there will be a fourth season next year. Kolp said the World Cup boost will “solidify” the league.
“It’s changing the league’s financial stability because people are coming out in droves,” he said. “We’re seeing not just ticket sales, but we’re seeing merchandise sales (go) through the roof. People wanting to join our camps and traffic to our website as well as all of our social media.”
Kolp said the Reign FC’s most recent and the next post-World Cup home games may both sell out, which he called “unprecedented.” Attendance has long been exceptionally strong for women’s pro soccer in Portland, where the Thorns regularly sell more than three times as many tickets as the next most popular NWSL team.
The trick for the league -- and its Northwest teams -- will be to convert new-found fans into loyal followers. Kolp said families and youth soccer players are already in the fold. Now he wants to go after what he calls “young professionals.”
“We’re already seeing people that bought a single ticket to see the homecoming match are converting and purchasing three-packs,” Kolp explained. “People are already starting to inquire of us about 2016 season tickets. There’s a huge wave of energy behind this and I don’t think that wave of energy is something that is going to dissipate.”
The Seattle Reign are pursuing a local TV broadcast contract to increase their exposure. That’s apart from the deal Fox Sports struck during the World Cup to broadcast a handful of remaining NWSL regular season and playoff games on cable.
Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley predicted we won’t know for a while whether the World Cup delivered a temporary bounce or something more lasting.
“The true test of the World Cup is probably not this year,” he said. “It’s probably in the season ticket sales for next year for all the clubs.”
The Olympic effect in 2016?
Should fan interest in women's soccer flag once the glow of the World Cup subsides, the 2016 Olympics could reignite it. But that’s a double-edged sword. The clubs in the U.S. women's pro league have to figure out how to sustain fan interest while their biggest, most marketable stars go away to play with the Olympic teams.
The American World Cup stars won't be with their home clubs for long. The U.S. Women’s National Team has scheduled two friendlies in mid-August against Costa Rica and another two in mid-September against Australia.
The capacity crowd in Portland Wednesday eclipsed the previous highest attendance at a NWSL match, a record set in the same stadium. In August 2014, 19,123 fans bought tickets to see the Thorns host the Houston Dash.
"It was obviously incredible to see the turnout," said Thorns player Heath. "Especially after the World Cup, it’s not surprising. The fans here are super special."
The Wednesday night crowd was the second biggest in the all-time history of American women’s pro soccer, according to the Thorns staff. It ranks behind the inaugural match of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) between the Bay Area CyberRays and Washington Freedom on April 14, 2001, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
Seattle star Rapinoe said she expects the surge in ticket sales and interest in women’s pro soccer to last at least through the end of the current season.
"I mean people got totally attached to this World Cup in a different way than they have," Rapinoe said. "It was so close to home. That was a huge thing. American fans know that they can watch these players in their own cities for the rest of the season. So hopefully the bounce isn’t coming down. It’s just continuing to go up."