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Larry Best knows that he has a challenge on his hands.
In January, the Washington Spirit named Best its first-ever chief executive officer. The longtime women’s soccer coach and executive has been charged with leading the Spirit into a new era of prosperity, as the club looks to gain relevance in the Washington area.
With the team’s season kicking off April 13 at the Maryland SoccerPlex, Best admits that his team is starting from the ground floor with a lot of local fans.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t know who the Spirit are, but also don’t even realize there’s a women’s professional league,” Best tells City Paper.
The Spirit launched in 2013 along with the National Women’s Soccer League, the latest iteration of top-level professional women’s soccer in the United States. The fledgling league—and the Spirit—have successfully reached their seventh year of existence, and are now looking to make a breakthrough in a big year for the women’s game.
The Spirit has struggled on the field in recent seasons, with the team posting a miserable 2-17-5 record in 2018 one year after it finished in last place with a 5-15-4 mark.
The Spirit’s location can also be challenging. Playing home games at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, the team is at least a 35 to 40-minute drive from most of D.C. and its nearest suburbs (the Spirit will play two games this year at D.C. United’s home Audi Field).
Best knows there is plenty of work to do in his remit to help the Spirit gain more recognition in the D.C. area.
“This is year seven in the league and year seven for the Washington Spirit. We still look at this as a start-up business in a lot of ways,” Best says.
The Spirit did get a welcome boost in January, just weeks after Best took the helm as CEO, when they announced that they had secured their first local television deal by partnering with NBC Sports Washington.
For the 2019 season, NBC Sports Washington will broadcast all but one of the team’s 24 regular-season matches. Monumental Sports Network, a subscription streaming carrier, will carry every Spirit match.
“We think the timing is right for this,” Best says. “We looked at it as just a greater platform for promoting the game and really promoting these amazing women … So that’s where we started with the brand building and we said, ‘What’s one of the best platforms for promoting the game?’ And that’s through TV.”
Breaking through might be made easier by Washington’s other pro soccer team deciding to exit the local television market at the same time the Spirit are jumping in.
Just weeks before the Spirit announced their TV deal, D.C. United confirmed that FloSports would be its new broadcast partner.
United opted to pull its games from linear television and move them to a subscription streaming service. For a local fan to watch every D.C. United match in 2019, they’d need to have a cable subscription for the team’s 13 nationally televised games, then subscribe to FloFC for $71 per year for season-ticket holders or $108 per year for everyone else.
This could, in theory, create an opening for the Spirit.
Many of D.C. United’s games occur at the same time as the Spirit’s. If only one game is on local television, it could clear the path for more DMV sports fans to be exposed to the professional women’s team they may not have even known they had.
Best, however, bats away suggestions that he was looking at the local soccer TV landscape as a zero-sum game.
“We really didn’t look at D.C. United or the men’s game that way,” Best says. “We just said, ‘Let’s focus on what we need to do and what we want to do to help build this brand.’ How can we build a platform in the DMV to promote the women’s game? We think this is going to be a great avenue for it, regardless of what anyone else is doing.”
But in a World Cup year, any additional boost could be huge for the Spirit, who will have several of their top players representing their countries at the Women’s World Cup in France this summer.
Most notably, Spirit stars Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh are set to play major roles for the United States as they look to defend their title from 2015.
Lavelle and Pugh, along with Andi Sullivan, Chloe Logarzo (Australia), Amy Harrison (Australia), and CheynaMatthews (Jamaica) are set to miss a portion of the season while away at the World Cup, but the more exposure those players get in France, the better it will be for the Spirit when they eventually return.
Before they head to France and when they return, Washington fans will be able to watch their exploits on local television for the first time. It could be the boost the Spirit need to take the next step in 2019.