As NWSL embarks on a new year, can it ride the women's soccer wave?

Yahoo Sports
Alex Morgan, a forward for the Orlando Pride, is one of the biggest stars of the National Women's Soccer League. (Getty)
Alex Morgan, a forward for the Orlando Pride, is one of the biggest stars of the National Women's Soccer League. (Getty)

LOS ANGELES – Women's soccer seems to be on the brink of exploding.

Just last month, 60,739 fans packed a stadium in Madrid to watch Atlético Madrid face rival Barcelona, a new record in women's club soccer. That comes on the heels of other big turnouts around the globe. Last year, the FA Women's Cup final in England last year brought in 45,423 spectators, a record for the league, and the Liga MX Femenil final attracted 51,211 fans in Mexico, also a record.

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As crowds have ballooned, corporate entities are taking notice, too. Barclays, the sponsor of the English Premier League, recently announced a multimillion-dollar deal to sponsor the equivalent women's league in England, the Women's Super League, which will add £500,000 in prize money. The International Champions Cup, the summer tournament for powerhouse clubs, is expanding its women's tournament as well.

There's a lot of excitement around women's soccer. And now, it's up to the National Women's Soccer League to keep up.

The NWSL embarks on its seventh season with games starting this weekend, and it could be a transformative year for the young league. With the Women's World Cup to be played this summer, many of the league's stars will be center stage in the NWSL, including everyone on the world No. 1 United States women's national team. The NWSL is already arguably the most competitive women's league in the world, and its top talent could again hoist a World Cup trophy in front of millions of viewers.

The lingering question, however, is whether the NWSL can turn the momentum of a major world tournament into new interest in the top-flight American league.

All the games will be streamed here on Yahoo Sports and accessible for fans to watch, which checks one important box. But other key components – like securing new sponsors, drumming up media attention and expanding the league's national footprint – remain open questions.

The league has been in transition for some time now. Franchises that have failed to meet standards, like the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City, have folded or been replaced by more committed owners, like the Utah Royals. The league recently named a new president, Amanda Duffy, who has kept operations going, but it still lacks a growth-oriented, future-focused commissioner. And the NWSL recently ended a partnership with the Lifetime Channel, which had been a strange place for broadcasting soccer games anyway, as it moves to Yahoo Sports’ app and desktop streaming.

Samantha Kerr of the Chicago Red Stars led the NWSL in scoring last season. (Getty)
Samantha Kerr of the Chicago Red Stars led the NWSL in scoring last season. (Getty)

It's not unusual for a young league to face growing pains and changes along the way. But as women's soccer explodes around the world, the NWSL can't be caught flatfooted as opportunities arise. The window to capitalize after the Women's World Cup will be finite, and given the league's top-level quality, it should be in prime position to do so.

When asked whether the success of women's leagues abroad would add pressure on the NWSL to make similar strides, USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn said it should.

"I hope so. I hope it puts a lot of pressure on," Sauerbrunn said. "It's good we have Yahoo Sports coming in to stream all the games, but we need to be out there – we need to be finding sponsors, injecting money into this league and investing. That's going to create the longevity for the league that it needs."

The players themselves can only do so much. They can talk about the league and promote it, which they already do, but ultimately the greatest impact will come from their performances in France.

After the U.S. won the World Cup in 2015, the NWSL saw a major boost – a so-called World Cup bump. Markets that had typically struggled to draw large crowds started selling out games and setting new club attendance records. Interest from investors led to the addition of franchises like the Orlando Pride, which is owned by Major League soccer club Orlando City SC. And the league attracted new national sponsors, like Coppertone.

That momentum, four years removed, has cooled off. Now, this summer's World Cup is a chance for a fresh jolt, but winning back-to-back World Cups is historically rare. Only Germany has done it on the women’s side, in 2003 and 2007, and it hasn’t happened on the men’s side since Brazil doubled up in 1958 and 1962. The NWSL shouldn't count on the U.S. doing it again.

But the U.S. doesn't need to win the World Cup again for the NWSL to reap the rewards of the marquee event in France. The NWSL's best players – from the USA's Alex Morgan of the Orlando Pride to Australia's Samantha Kerr of the Chicago Red Stars – will be putting on a show for the massive audiences that are expected to tune in throughout the tournament. The NWSL just has to be ready for the attention, no matter how big it is.

Duffy has said that expansion conversations remain ongoing, and this year ought to be the time to turn up the heat on ownership groups. The league must expand its footprint, including into California, so that sponsors see the national appeal of the NWSL.

Mia Hamm, a part owner of Los Angeles FC, said last week that she is committed to adding an NWSL side to LAFC, which joined MLS as an expansion team two seasons ago. But the expansion doesn't sound imminent as LAFC is still getting a handle on its existing operations, and discussions to partner with FC Barcelona fell apart. Meanwhile, Hamm's former USWNT teammate and Northern California native Brandi Chastain said that bringing an NWSL team to the Golden State is vital for the league.

"California rules in soccer. Sorry to anyone who's not from California, but we need soccer in California," Chastain said last week. "We have millions of kids who play here and it's absolutely necessary."

Jill Ellis, coach of the USWNT, is also on board.

"It's such a hotbed of soccer," Ellis said last week. "I want to continue to see the NWSL grow and that means investment and new teams. This is obviously a really good market."

They are right, but the league needs to lead the way on these discussions and it's unclear how that will happen. Duffy, who came into the league as an operations manager, became de facto commissioner after Jeff Plush's exit but has seemingly focused on day-to-day matters. Actual commissioner authority belongs to U.S. Soccer, the league manager – but the federation isn't set up to run a professional league and is looking to transition its role elsewhere, such as to the United Soccer League, according to reports.

Where that leaves the NWSL in a big World Cup year is anyone's guess. Right now, there are more questions than answers when it comes to how the league can capitalize on the World Cup.

The league does have many of the best players in the world, and it does offer exciting parity. That's at least a start. But that's not enough on its own. A World Cup bump only comes around every four years, and the NWSL needs to be ready – some way, somehow.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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