How NWSL attendance looks post-Women's World Cup — and what clubs are doing to sustain it
Once the U.S. women's national team lifted the World Cup trophy in July, the question facing the National Women's Soccer League was immediate: How will the USWNT's new surge in popularity translate?
Every player on the USWNT's winning squad in France plays in the NWSL, and fans clamoring for more of the stars they watched on TV all summer might turn up to club games in their local cities. But would that happen? And if it did, how large would that World Cup bump be?
There's still almost a month left in the NWSL season, but the early returns have been positive. Of the league's nine clubs, six have set new attendance records this season and average crowd sizes are on the rise around the league.
While conventional wisdom would say that the so-called World Cup bump should be fading the further we get from the tournament, that doesn't seem to quite be the case. The North Carolina Courage set a new attendance record over the weekend, drawing 9,563 fans. And on Monday, Sky Blue FC announced the team's final home game on Sept. 29 would be moved to Red Bull Arena, home of Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls, “due to increased ticket demand.”
In some markets, this so-called World Cup bump isn't a surprise.
The Portland Thorns set a new attendance record for the league in August, drawing a sellout crowd of 25,218 for the return of USWNT players who played at the World Cup.
It was a good sign, but as expected for the NWSL's flagship club. The Thorns averaged around 17,000 fans per game last year, which is more than many teams in MLS and the NHL, and even some MLB and NBA teams. When their home stadium was expanded by 4,074 seats before this season, the new attendance record was a "when” not “if” scenario.
But luckily for the NWSL, clubs that have traditionally needed a boost have been some of the biggest post-World Cup success stories.
The Chicago Red Stars set a club attendance record in July to welcome back USWNT players, drawing 17,388 fans. That's not just an NWSL record for the Red Stars but one that extends through when the Red Stars played in Women's Professional Soccer, the predecessor league to the NWSL.
Chicago's 2019 average attendance before the World Cup final was just 4,288, but since the USWNT lifted the trophy in France, the average has been 7,631. Even removing the record-setting game on July 21, the Red Stars' average attendance is still higher than it was before the World Cup.
Reign FC, formerly the Seattle Reign, drew a record in July of 7,479 fans for their USWNT welcome-back match in Tacoma, Washington.
The Utah Royals haven't set a new attendance record – the club's debut match last year still stands as the most well-attended match – but they have seen their average attendance jump by 1,927 since the World Cup final on July 7.
The Washington Spirit drew 19,471 fans in August for a game at Audi Field. That's a staggering number of fans considering the club average just around 4,000 per game last year.
But it actually shows that the success of each NWSL club is about more than just a World Cup bump. While the tournament can bring more awareness and attention to the still-growing NWSL, it's the responsibility of each club to take full advantage of it.
The Spirit, who normally play at the Maryland SoccerPlex, had the foresight to schedule some games at Audi Field, where D.C. United plays and which is accessible by public transportation for District of Columbia residents. That, not just the World Cup, helped facilitate the new attendance record.
“I think our league, our club, have to think so much bigger,” Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin said at the time. “In the office, there’s a list of predictions for what the attendance would be for tonight, and my prediction was a sellout. I think if we promote the league properly, if we market the league better, and I think if we bring in the types of corporate sponsors to engage with us and help unleash the incredible women of this league to impact the lives of kids, I think we can do this over and over and over again.”
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There's been perhaps no better example of "thinking bigger" than Sky Blue. Ever since the New Jersey-based club pushed out disgraced general manager Tony Novo and replaced him with longtime women's soccer advocate Alyse LaHue, Sky Blue has seemingly put fewer limits on what it can do.
A game on Aug. 18 was moved from the club's usual venue at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey – which offers a subpar game day experience with few amenities and a poor atmosphere – to Red Bull Arena. The result? Sky Blue set an attendance record, drawing nearly 10,000 fans.
That attendance record cannot all be attributed to a World Cup bump, and the numbers show that.
On July 12, Sky Blue's first game after the World Cup final, the club drew less than 2,000 fans for a Friday night game. For the return match of U.S. women's national players on July 24, the club did set an attendance record, drawing more than 5,000 fans in a sellout. But the team's attendance quickly dropped off. On Sept. 7, for instance, a Saturday, Sky Blue drew less than 3,000 fans.
But with Monday's announcement that Skye Blue FC will finish its season at Red Bull Arena to meet ticket demands, it's apparent this post-World Cup bump can continue. It's not just that more fans are interested in seeing Sky Blue after the World Cup, it's that Sky Blue is offering a better product that makes fans want to attend games.
The NWSL playoff race
The talk for much of this NWSL season was that the North Carolina Courage had regressed. The Courage were still a very, very good team, but they weren't invincible in the same way they were in 2018.
After all, the Courage lost the 2019 Women's International Champions Cup, which they won last year. The Courage have spent most of this season below the top spot on the table after winning the NWSL Shield last year. And so on.
But this week, the Courage put the league on notice. A midweek 6-0 humiliation of the Portland Thorns, who came into the game No. 1 on the NWSL table, was followed by a 6-1 demolition of the Orlando Pride on Saturday.
Now, the Courage sit first on 40 points and, with the playoffs nearing, look to be peaking at the right time.
On the flip side, the Thorns' collapse on home turf was shocking. The 6-0 loss was the team's worst in club history. The Thorns dropped from first in the standings to third in a matter of days, and it's not inconceivable that the Utah Royals or the Reign could catch them.
The Royals and Reign sit tied on points at 31 each, five away from the Thorns. But both have four games left to play to Portland's three, including one match-up against each other.
The Reign's schedule, which includes matches against bottom-dwellers Sky Blue and Orlando, looks particularly favorable. The Reign will also face Portland one more time, giving them an ample runway to overtake the Thorns.
It's worth keeping an eye on second-place Chicago, which has 38 points and can conceivably nab six more points to close out the season with home games against Utah and Washington. But the Red Stars, who have fewer games left than anyone in the league, will likely have to sit by and watch how the rest of schedule plays out.
The playoff slate is hardly set, and there will be plenty of jostling for the final month of the season.
This week’s NWSL schedule (times ET)
North Carolina Courage vs. Houston Dash, 7:30 p.m.
Reign FC vs. Utah Royals, 10 p.m.
Chicago Red Stars vs. Washington Spirit, 8 p.m.
Utah Royals vs. North Carolina Courage, 9 p.m.
Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC, 10 p.m.
Portland Thorns vs. Houston Dash, 10:30 p.m.
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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