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The temperature last Saturday night hovered in the 90s at the Maryland SoccerPlex, forcing the Washington Spirit to push back the kickoff time by an hour to 8 p.m. The team’s opponent, the Houston Dash, lacked a star player that would attract fans.
Still, the Spirit played its first match after the conclusion of the Women’s World Cup in front of a sold-out crowd—its first of the 2019 season. 5,500 people at Maureen Hendricks Field packed the stadium to welcome back two tournament stars, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh.
The Spirit, along with every team in the National Women’s Soccer League, enjoyed an increase in attendance over the weekend due to the excitement around the World Cup. But with the next World Cup four years in the future, the Spirit and the NWSL must figure out how to make this momentum and attention last.
“Hopefully it’s not just a first-weekend thing. Hopefully it continues the rest of the season,” says Lavelle, “because I think this league is very deserving of attention.”
The World Cup brings an increased wave of interest that teams look to ride after the tournament ends. From the Spirit’s perspective, this summer’s competition could not have gone better. The U.S. women’s national team won the whole thing, ensuring that the public would remain engaged throughout the tournament and interest would build organically as the outcomes grew more important. Fans also got to see Lavelle come into her own. Her dynamic performances and solo goal in the final against the Netherlands attracted plenty of attention in print and social media.
The Spirit had five players in total at the World Cup (a sixth, Australia’s Elise Kellond-Knight, joined the Spirit via trade after the tournament), but the team knows Lavelle’s popularity could be its most important asset moving forward.
“We’ve seen that attendance and engagement with our league has shot up,” Spirit captain Andi Sullivan says. “For us, having Rose score in the final, that’s huge.”
With star players and increased attention, the Spirit believes it has a chance to break through in the D.C. market this summer. It’s added four new sponsors in just the last few weeks and Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin is expecting more to come aboard.
“As I came into this and I looked at the business model at both the Spirit level and the NWSL level, the thing that stood out to me more than anything was that we lacked the requisite corporate sponsorships with us as a club and with us as a league,” Baldwin says.
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Though Baldwin is looking to address that issue at the club level, there is also plenty of work to be done within the league in order to sustain the momentum beyond the World Cup. Heading into the tournament, the NWSL had no national television deal and just one sponsor, Nike, committed to the league beyond this season. The league’s lack of a television agreement in particular has been baffling for many players.
“It has been frustrating that sometimes you turn on ESPN and there’s like cornhole or cricket … nothing against those sports,” Pugh says with a laugh. “But seriously, I want people to see what we can do and just how great each and every one of these players is.”
“It’s honestly mind blowing to think we have incredible players that just aren’t getting the exposure that they need to,” adds midfielder Chloe Logarzo, who competed for Australia in the World Cup.
During the tournament, ESPN announced it would be the league’s TV partner for the rest of the 2019 season. But that deal will only last through October, after which the league’s TV future is again murky. Budweiser also recently signed on as the NWSL’s first official beer sponsor.
These are steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done to ensure sustainability.
“We need a title sponsor of the league, we need a presenting sponsor of the league, we need all types of participating sponsors,” Baldwin told City Paper last month. “There is no reason this league shouldn’t be doing $30 to $50 million a year in national sponsor deals.”
With the league faltering, much of the onus to build support has fallen to the teams themselves. For the Spirit, that means boosting the profiles of some of their biggest stars by getting them more face time in the community.
Baldwin says that was another part of his plan when he took over.
“Our club has done more events and activities in the community this year than perhaps all of the other years of the Spirit combined,” he says.
Getting players out into the community is helpful, but getting the community to come out and see the players is one of the biggest challenges that the Spirit currently faces.
The Spirit averaged 3,892 fans last season at Maureen Hendricks Field at the Maryland SoccerPlex, their modestly sized home near Germantown.
The SoccerPlex provides a unique set of benefits and challenges. Though it’s a family-friendly venue located in an area relatively convenient for suburban Marylanders, the stadium is far from the urban center of D.C. Public transportation from the city to the stadium is a virtual non-starter.
For many fans in D.C., the Spirit can feel distant. The team is planning on playing two of its home games this season at D.C. United’s Audi Field, giving them access to an entirely different fan base.
“Audi Field is a world-class soccer venue and has a different type of experience than what is at the SoccerPlex,” Baldwin says. “I think one of the unique things about our area is we have an opportunity to utilize both and be able to address the entirety of our fan base.”
But Baldwin stops short of saying he wants to see more games at Audi Field in the future. The Spirit will end up playing 10 of its 12 home games at the SoccerPlex this year. He says the two matches at Audi Field will be a “learning experience” for him.
Success for professional women’s soccer is far from a guarantee in the D.C. area. There have been false dawns before, notably after the U.S. won the 2015 World Cup, and that success didn’t translate into a meaningful boost for NWSL.
“It’s almost been frustrating because you have those same players that you saw in the World Cup,” Sullivan says. “A large majority are here so it’s like, ‘Why are people not engaging with it?’”
There is hope, though, that this time around could be different.
“I see us as being in a unique moment of opportunity,” Baldwin says. “My role as an owner is to make sure we capitalize on this opportunity for the women. That goes across the ownership group in the league … I think it requires all of us to think bigger about really understanding the quality of the product that we have and marketing that product differently so it has the stickiness with our fans that we haven’t sustained in the past, and shame on us if we don’t get it done.”
Kelyn Soong contributed to this story.