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July 14, 2015 — Avoiding a third meltdown won’t be easy

Last Friday, hundreds of thousands of people lined the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan to give a ticker-tape parade to the U.S. women’s soccer team after winning the World Cup.

Saturday, however, a crowd of some 3,014 people went to see the New York/New Jersey entry into the National Women’s Soccer League, Sky Blue FC. Compare that to the sellout or near-sellout crowds for the World Cup, and it’s a major comedown.

Since the 1999 World Cup, four USSF-sanctioned Division I professional women’s soccer leagues have sprung up. One, the National Soccer Alliance, died on the vine despite reported funding from Reebok. Another, the Women’s United Soccer Association, collapsed after spending $40 million of operating capital from AOL Time Warner in one year. A third, Women’s Professional Soccer, saw its entire Western presence collapse after the outsized salary Marta commanded bankrupted teams in San Jose and Los Angeles.

We can go all day about whether there will be a post-World Cup bump for the NWSL, but there is a combination of factors contributing to the lack of support for a top professional women’s soccer league league.

First of all, the lack of financial savvy. While the current league seems to be on a much better financial footing than in the past, the teams that do not have MLS parent backing are at a significant disadvantage. The sponsorship across the league is meager; the kit sponsors for the current teams do not include many household names except for Borden. At least two of the jersey sponsors are “house” ads for the owners of the team.

Second, the league has meager media exposure. Most NWSL games are on YouTube, with varying production values. Some of the broadcasts are professional, others done with a very amateurish setup. This is not helped by the oligopoly of television networks. ESPN, which has been criticized for not covering women’s sports on an equal basis, has doubled down on its policies recently, airing all manner of events involving men’s team sports such as college football media days, baseball’s winter meetings, and even the NBA’s summer league, without even mentioning the word “Serena.”

Third, the front offices of the current NWSL teams have yet to hit on the correct marketing formula to making the “tween” soccer fan into a supporter of women’s soccer as an adult fan.

Fourth, none of the American pro leagues have been able to tap into female investors who have made it big in finance and industry, such as Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon, and Meg Whitman. These three wealthy women could have funded the NWSL until the turn of the next century. Instead, they spent more than a half-billion dollars on failed campaigns for the U.S. Senate.

Fifth. the NWSL has had a lack of marketing savvy. The league does not have its own promotional commercials to run in its target markets. Indeed, none of the pro leagues have been able to tap into the knowledge that Marla Messing, the chair of Women’s World Cup organizing committee, garnered in the years leading up to 1999. Furthermore, it is befuddling that, at no time during the open-air events in Los Angeles and New York last week, did any of the players on the World Cup team make a pitch to come see an NWSL match. Indeed, NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush didn’t utter a word after the Canyon of Heroes parade last Friday.

Instead, it was the commissioner of Major League Soccer, Don Garber, who said, “This Saturday, Sky Blue will have a game at Rutgers, and those same players that are sitting behind us will be playing in the NWSL – every single one of them. Go out and be a fan, watch those games on television, paint your face, wave a flag, and be a fan of the professional game. We will commit to you that all of our fans will be deeply committed to our communities, and bottle up all of that passion and be great role models.”

Makes you wonder who is really running the show when it comes to pro soccer in the U.S.

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