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End of the W-League: What Does it Mean to Sports Planners?

2 Dec, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The recent announcement of the closure of the W-League, the women’s pro-am soccer organization, had an air of inevitability. After all, the organization, which had started strong in 1995 and by 2008 had 48 teams, had dwindled to 18 teams by this year and sponsorship was not forthcoming.

What might be news to sports planners is what’s next.

Obviously, interest in women’s soccer in the U.S. remains strong – at least now, in the honeymoon period following the USWNT victory in the World Cup. And that can spell opportunities for sports planners, provided they know where to look.

A number of options exist in women’s soccer. According to Soccer America Daily, the USL has not ruled out the possibility that the women's league could be reintroduced in the future and said it remains committed to the promotion of women’s soccer through its partner, the Super Y League, to develop the next generation of world-class female soccer players in the U12 to U18 age groups. So therefore, youth soccer can be expected to continue to grow. (It is worth noting that US Youth Soccer says girls’ participation in the sport is up.)

In addition, the rival Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) still exists with many more teams than the W-League had, meaning another potential series of events with high-level players can also bring in teams. In addition, the top-level National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) will have 10 teams in 2016, including Seattle Reign FC.

Soccer America Daily has also reported that U.S. Soccer has talked about launching a summer college circuit for women; however, the NGB has noted that nothing has been set about this.

All those opportunities (or possible opportunities) for women to play – and for cities to host – need to be explored. Certainly, the potential is there, as is the need. Seventeen of the 23 players on the U.S. World Cup championship team played in the W-League, and a total of 43 players selected by the United States, Canada and Mexico for the 2015 Women’s World Cup had previously played in the W-League.

It’s just a matter of finding a way to capitalize on the interest and, of course, bringing in the sponsorship revenue that will keep the organizations going. It’s also a matter of creating brand awareness for women’s soccer. Last year, a Harris Poll found football to be the top sport in the U.S. Women’s soccer, meanwhile, finished pretty far out of the money (literally) at number 18. Even viewership during the Women’s World Cup dropped off precipitously.

The fact that the W-League is hardly the first women’s soccer organization to fold is also notable. Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) folded in 2013, the second women’s soccer group to do so since 1999. The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) was the world's first women's soccer league in which all the players were paid as professionals. Founded in February 2000, the league began its first season in April 2001 with eight teams in the United States. The league suspended operations in September of 2003. The Women's Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL Elite) was a women's professional soccer league created by the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) to support the sport in the United States, both from continued interest by WPSL teams in professionalism and as a response to the suspension (and ultimate demise) of the WPS. Unfortunately, it too folded in 2013.

The New York Times, in an essay entitled, “Why Is Women’s Soccer Still Fighting to Exist?” noted multiple problems with the sport, despite its shining potential. And while the victory on the World Cup stage has done much to boost the sport’s image – and with the Summer Olympics on the horizon – much still remains to be done.

According to an article in MediaPost, “women's soccer could use sponsorship dollars, and more deals like Nike’s sponsorship of the team. The good news is Clorox signed up as a U.S. Women’s Team sponsor this year, and kicked off a social campaign, #GreatAssist covering several of its brands. In May, Coppertone signed a multi-year deal with both U.S. Soccer and the Women’s National Team.”

In addition, the #SheBelieves hashtag was an example of an organic promotion.

“Women athletes are prolific in social media in terms of telling that story,” said Tom Lillig of Stone Ward advertising . The #SheBelieves hashtag was started by one player, not the agency, and turned into a rallying cry that the team used to get out a message of empowerment. “By the end of the World Cup,” notes Lillig, “that hash had registered half a million usages from fans.”

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