The NWSL kicked off its third season on Friday with the Houston Dash beating the Washington Spirit. Prior to the game there had been concerns about the number of tickets sold for the game. In the end attendance was announced as 6,012 a few thousand less than the 8,097 that had come to the inaugural Dash game last season. It wasn't the 10,000 tickets that the team had hoped to sell but it was still more than the 2,500 that has been the reported sales number as of March 27th.
Concerns about ticket sales aren't just about the Houston Dash, but of concern league wide. Last season average home attendance across the NWSL was 2,986 tickets per game if you take out the Portland Thorns who are the outliers in ticket sales averaging 13,362 tickets each home game; if you factor them in the average jumps to 4,139.
In the league's first year, Kansas City FC was number two in ticket averages behind the Portland Thorns with attendance averaging 4,626 for home games. In 2014, that number dropped to 2,018 and the only team with worse average attendance was Sky Blue F.C. While Sky Blue has been last in ticket averages both seasons averaging 10 tickets less in 2014 than in 2013.
The third year has been the year that has spelled the end of a number of professional soccer leagues for women in the US. The WPS was the latest to fold back in 2011.
In 2001, Women's United Soccer Association kicked off its inaugural season with eight teams. The league averaged 8,103 tickets per game. Washington Freedom was the top drawing team with an average of 14,421 tickets at each game, while the Carolina Courage was the smallest draw with an average of 5,256 tickets per game. Teams played either 10 or 11 games that first season.
In 2009, Women's Professional Soccer got started with seven teams. Attendance wasn't as great this time around with a league average of 4,684 per game. This time the Los Angeles Sol was the top draw averaging 6,298 tickets per game. Sky Blue FC was at the bottom of the attendance chart with an average of 3,651.
The National Women's Soccer League kicked things off in 2013 with average league attendance at 4,271 across eight teams. The Portland Thorns were an outlier drawing in three times as many attendees as the next closest team, Kansas City FC. However, the bottom two teams the Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC averaged just 1,711 and 1,664 tickets per game.
In their second year of operation the WUSA saw average attendance drop to 6,969. Washington Freedom was still the top drawing team, but their average dropped to 9,297 a game. The lower end of the attendance averages saw their numbers improve by a few hundred. The New York Power had the lowest average at 5,575 which was about two hundred tickets less than what they sold in 2001.
Both the WPS and NWSL expanded during their second year of operation by one team. The LA Sol were not a part of WPS in 2010 so the league added two teams, the Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence.
In 2010, WPS saw their average attendance drop by 1,000. The Boston Breakers saw a decrease in average attendance yet found themselves the top draw averaging 4,490 tickets per game. Newcomer, Philadelphia Independence was at the bottom of the league averaging 2,938 tickets.
The NWSL saw a decrease in their ticket averages by only 100 in their second year. The Portland Thorns increased their average by forty tickets. Expansion team, the Houston Dash, were second in ticket sales averaging 4,539 for the season.
WUSA saw a slight drop in attendance in 2003 despite Washington Freedom seeing an increase in their average attendance. However, the New York Power saw their average drop to 4,259. They suspended league operations on September 3, 2003 soon after the season ended.
Downsizing to six teams the WPS saw only a slight decrease, less than 100 tickets, in their league average attendance in 2011. Despite downsizing their overall numbers the league had two new teams, Western New York Flash and magicJack. MagicJack wasn't an entirely new team, but rather the relocated Washington Freedom whose owner Dan Borislow had moved to Florida. The Flash averaged the top number of 4,881 tickets per game while magicJack was at the bottom of league attendance with 2,033 per game.
The NWSL kicked off its third season over the weekend.
What the hell does it mean?
Certainly the low attendance numbers for the NWSL when compared to those of the WUSA mean that the league is doom to fail right? Well not really. When you take a closer look at the WUSA you quickly find out that the league was mismanaged blowing its five year budget in the first year. The business model they attempted to follow just didn't work as the league lost $87 million in three years.
WPS tried a different grass roots approach instead of WUSA's top-down approach. The plan had been to keep operating costs low so that they didn't encounter the financial problems that doomed the WUSA. Once again financial problems began to plague the league as player salaries were too high for the money the league had coming in. A mess and lawsuit with Dan Borislow appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for the league.
So here we are with the third league entering its third year. With a salary cap set at $200,000 the league is determined to avoid the sins of leagues past. Allocated players fall outside of this cap to help bring in larger name players. It's not much for players to live on and those who fall at the low end of the pay scale often have to work second jobs to make ends meet, but so far the league is surviving.
The NWSL has made it to year three now we just have to wait and see if it makes it to year four.