The pandemic has been long and difficult for all of us, and sports leagues are no exception. Leagues across all spectrums have suffered financially, from decreased revenue without being able to host fans and increased costs to implement new protocols, not to mention the period when all sports had shut down completely. But though we aren’t in the clear yet, there have been silver linings, and I could argue none have been greater than for the National Women’s Soccer League.
The NWSL, with new Commissioner Lisa Baird having just been hired in February 2020, was the first American sports league to implement a quarantined “bubble” to enable them to actually come back to playing games: a tournament held in Utah called the Challenge Cup. Although the Orlando Pride were unable to participate in the tournament due to a number of positive Covid tests among the team and staff, the tournament was a smashing success. The social media storylines were amazing: from the Orlando Pride seemingly cursing teams by rooting for them to win, a playground visible beside one of the fields that ended up with its own Twitter account (@nwslplayground), the enduring image of Kristie Mewis holding as many Budweiser bottles as she possibly could in the post-championship celebrations (“I never win anything, just let me live” she said), and the Houston Dash defying all expectations and winning their first trophy, led by captain and English international Rachel Daly, who was also named MVP and Golden Boot winner. But perhaps even more incredibly, the eight teams that participated returned a total of zero positive Covid tests for the duration of the tournament in the bubble.
As exciting as the play in that tournament was, what happened off the field for the NWSL during that time is just as exciting. The league picked up several high-profile sponsors, Secret Deodorant, Verizon, Google, Nationwide Insurance, and Ally Bank, in addition to the continued support of Budweiser. Additionally, the games were shown in the United States on CBS All-Access (now Paramount+), a paid subscription service that just prior had acquired the rights to the men’s UEFA Champions’ League, with the Challenge Cup final televised on CBS’s main channel. The games were also streamed internationally on Twitch. Excitingly, this year’s Challenge Cup can also be viewed on these same platforms with the hopes of reaching a broad audience. The NWSL can only benefit from big-name sponsors and well-known platforms to showcase their players, teams, and the league as a whole.
But a final piece that could really skyrocket the general public’s awareness of the NWSL is celebrity investment in the teams, and that is coming in spades. Within the past year, a number of exciting personalities have recognized the importance of investing in women’s soccer and created buzz around the league. Tennis star Naomi Osaka invested in the North Carolina Courage, one of the most successful teams in the NWSL. Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager, daughters of former U.S. presidents, are involved in a group that invested in the Washington Spirit, and ESPN’s Sarah Spain joined the ownership group of the Chicago Red Stars. But the pièce de résistance was the announcement of the majority-female ownership group for a brand new NWSL team in Los Angeles: Angel City FC. The star-studded group is led in part by Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman and includes actresses Jennifer Garner and Eva Longoria, tennis greats Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, TV host James Corden, several other high-profile celebrities, and a whole host of former U.S. Women’s National Team players, such as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Abby Wambach.
📸: NWSL Fans
This new investment in teams, broadcasts, and sponsorship of the NWSL has the potential to exponentially increase the awareness and interest in the league, which can only help it grow. It’s exciting to think about where the league can go from here with the added resources that these opportunities bring, whether that’s expanding into other markets with new teams, building world-class facilities for all its players to train and play in, setting the standard for women’s soccer leagues, and continuing to demonstrate to the country and the world that they are a league worth watching. This league has come a long way in its short eight-year existence and still the only way to go is up.
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