The Role The FAWSL and NWSL Are Playing In The Global Charge For Women's Soccer and How They Compare
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
There's no doubt about it, following the 2019 FIFA World Cup the women's game is riding the crest of a wave right now. The world over. Leading at the forefront of this spectacular renaissance are the National Women's Soccer League and England's Football Association Women's Super League. Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a significant impact on the women's game, it's important to reflect on how far we have come. The women's game continues to fight discrimination on all fronts, and nothing so far has been able to dampen the incredible strength of spirit shown by these remarkable athletes. We will come through this, I firmly believe that. And both the FAWSL and NWSL will continue to hold the torch for women's soccer. Of that, there is no doubt.
The FAWSL on the other hand, could not be more different. European soccer, continent, wide does not operate under a single entity model. And pro/rel is as much part of the European soccer furniture as the game itself. European leagues across both the men's and women's games do not operate under salary caps, and are free to spend according to their resources. As much as the proponents of Financial Fair Play might say otherwise. So naturally, the bigger clubs are able to spend more. Which has led to a cohort of FAWSL clubs being much stronger than the rest of the league. As a result, the league has been monopolised by 4 team with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City all winning at least one title. Now Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have gotten involved, so it almost feels inevitable that they will crash the party. All of these clubs are supported financially by their mega rich counterparts in the men's game. This does provide the bigger clubs in the league with huge financial advantage, and means they are able to attract some of the world's best to the league. Sam Kerr's recent transfer to Chelsea is perhaps the best example of this.
Whilst the NWSL has been operating for a similar length of time, and has also only had 4 winners itself there are critical differences. The NWSL's system of draft picks and salary caps, like all major American sports leagues lends itself to equality as much as possible. You still get your dynasty clubs, for example the Patriots in the NFL. But the system allows for teams to challenge those dynasty's. The European system is a model that naturally lends itself to disparity.
Despite the natural gaps that develop between the rich and the poor in major European leagues, the big advantage the FAWSL has is the names of the participant clubs. They are huge for growing the popularity of the women's game, and have helped to create a huge surge in attendances. A quick glance at the FAWSL standings gives you a sense of what I mean. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are all present. All are giants of the English game. And with continued investment from banking giants Barclays you get the sense the popularity of the women's game in England will only continue to grow.
Following on from the 2019 World Cup, the FAWSL were determined to market their clubs like never before. Enthusiasm and support for the game was at an all-time high, following another very credible performance from the Lionesses in France. Premier League stadiums up and down the country were opened up for games that subsequently attracted large crowds in a series of 'Women's Football Weekends' that took place up and down the country, at the start of the 2019/20 season. 31,000 packed into the Etihad Stadium to see Manchester City take on city rivals United. 23,500 people turned up to Anfield to see local rivals Everton triumph 1-0 over Liverpool in the first FAWSL game to take place at the iconic stadium. Many of the tickets were cheaper than they would normally be, and a lot were give away for free. It was hoped this would entice people to come and see the best of the best in England and garner more support moving forward. I mention this, because English clubs are very much in their infancy in terms of attracting large supporter bases. Whilst the success of the 'Women's Football Weekends' was unqualified, generally speaking attendances of 2 or 3,000 are considered positive. This is not the case in the NWSL, quite the opposite in fact.
Women's football in the UK still faces a lot of challenges, both economic and social. The hardcore supporter base is finally starting to grow, and it's taken us a long time to get here. Fanning the flames of enthusiasm for the sport in a country already dominated by the shining lights of the Premier League and Football League is no easy task. That's been one of the FAWSL's biggest challenges. And keeping it up will be even more difficult. The league would do well to learn from one particular NWSL club, out of the great state of Oregon if it's to continue to build on its current momentum.
The Portland Thorns are undoubtedly one of the NWSL's biggest proponents of how popular women's soccer can become. The Thorns regularly play in front of 17,000 at their Providence Park home. They regularly attract more fans than many teams in the MLS. Even going back to their days as the Rain, women's soccer has always been important to the people of Portland. In an interview with The Guardian last summer Thorns owner Merritt Paulson spoke of the genuine passion the fans have for the team, and how they don't necessarily need to market the team to pull in supporters. “A buzzword which gets used a lot is ‘authenticity,’ but that’s the core of our brand – both for the Timbers and the Thorns, who have become one of the most successful women’s team in the world. It’s a DIY ethos and we provide the canvas for the fans. We know what makes it unique. But [the Thorns’ popularity] has been a nice surprise. We never envisaged having 14,000 people come to watch the Thorns, we had expectations of maybe 7,000. We don’t market them as a niche product, we are a high-calibre, professional set-up.”
“I grew up going to Chelsea games and I thought that was the pinnacle. Then I came here and sampled the matchday experience. When I returned to Chelsea afterwards, it felt less special. I became a snob. I thought the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge was horrendous in comparison.”
It's clear that the supporters are everything to the Thorns. And vice versa, no doubt. Granted, it helps that there are no MLB, NFL or NHL franchises in Portland. And support for women's soccer has historically been massively championed by the University of Portland. But you still have to understand the market, and let the fans do their own thing to a certain degree. That's how you create an identity. The Rose City Riveters are undoubtedly a huge part of that movement. As a result of their success you are seeing more and more supporters groups pop up all over the league. Our very own Black Swans Drinking Club being the perfect example. For the NWSL and it's clubs regarding supporters, the way forward is very much based on creativity and identity. The FAWSL is more focused on just amassing that support, rather than nurturing what it already has. The NWSL continues to go from strength to strength in that regard. Harnessing the support it already has, whilst simultaneously helping it to grow. The NWSL is certainly in a more privileged position in that regard.
It's clear to see that the NWSL continues to build the popularity of the women's game from a position of strength. Aided in no small part by the unequalled success of the US Women's National Team. In 2019, under the guidance of Jill Ellis, the USWNT claimed it's fourth World Cup. The continued succes and popularity of stars such as Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath has seen them become household names. Whilst the club's in the NWSL perhaps don't have as much marketing power worldwide as those in the FAWSL, the commercial and social status of some of the world's greatest players possess is unparalleled. And both the players and the league use this status to good effect, inspiring young girls to take up the sport. Without them, the sport has no future.
A photo emerged on social media a few months ago, of current Washington Spirit and USWNT star Rose Lavelle, pictured in a Mia Hamm jersey from her elementary school days. Proof of the power these athletes possess. They are an inspiration to young girls the world over, and rightly so. There have never been more widely known and accessible female role models in the sport as there are now. The shining lights of the NWSL are leading the charge in that regard. Truly inspiring athletes reaching out to girls and giving them the inspiration to shoot for the stars. Without that, the sport dies. And speaking of inspirational and impassioned stars of the soccer world, I couldn't honestly write this piece without mentioning our very own Marta. Who could forget the spine tingling speech the Brazilian maestro delivered at last summer's World Cup? Players like Marta, using their status to emplore young women to take up the sport is just as vital to the continued success of the women's game as any commercial deal Manchester City strike. Without them there is no game. I said it again, I know. But it's the truth.
There are interesting differences between both league's marketing practices, but both have a common goal. The NWSL actively promotes its individual stars. For me, there is a lesson for the FAWSL to learn here. The FAWSL seems to focus it's marketing on the clubs themselves. If you look online at the FA's promo work for it's 'Women's Football Weekends' the message is very much, 'come and watch your local team. Come and watch Arsenal. Come and watch Man City'. Not 'come and watch Beth Mead play for Arsenal', or 'come and watch Steph Houghton play for Man City'. Whereas, if you look at some of the material the Pride put out after the World Cup it played on the fact that they had 9 players at the World Cup. Even going as far as to make the admission $9 so as to reflect this. There was even a homecoming party for the returning USWNT stars. The message was 'come and support the Pride, but also watch Ashlyn Harris play'. This message speaks a lot more to the younger audience. Come and watch the Orlando Pride and you could learn how to be the next Ashlyn Harris.
One area where both leagues have done tremendously well is in grooming players for future roles in broadcast journalism. Yet another incredibly important facet in driving the women's game forward. We have seen a steady increase in the amount of current and former FAWSL and NWSL stars taking on leading roles in broadcast journalism for major television networks. Some well known examples would include former USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo, and former Arsenal defender Alex Scott. Both featuring heavily for the BBC. Scott, alongside current Lionesses captain Steph Houghton and goal Siobhan Chamberlain have become popular figures for the UK's leading sports broadcaster Sky Sports. Former Pride player Kaylyn Kyle has established herself in the world of broadcast journalism with BeIn Sports, often commenting on both the men's game and the women's. Kyle recently took up a position with the Inter Miami CF broadcast team, but we'll let her off for that. The strength shown by the likes of Alex Scott and Kaylyn Kyle to break into such a male dominated arena is commendable. Against a backdrop of appalling sexism, they will go along way to changing some of the, to be frank, dimwitted and mysognicstic views held by some in the world of soccer. And will go a long way to changing attitudes in the sport. Alex Scott has spoken to this at length, telling the BBC in 2019: "Twitter is there for everyone to see. I think I get it (sexist abuse) every single day now. I went through a stage over Christmas when it got hard to handle. At the time I was, 'right, I'm going to come off Twitter and move away from social media'.
There have been encouraging signs lately that the NWSL is becoming a bit more of a priority for some within US Soccer, and for the MLS I know, I know. It's not exactly a secret that US Soccer is quite possibly one of the most inherently sexist organisations in sport. They don't even seem to shy away from it, as can be seen in their disgusting and disgraceful defence comments made during the USWNT's lawsuit against the federation over gender discrimination. However, at least as far as Lisa Baird and her predecessor Amanda Duffy are concerned the league's development is of the highest priority. The NWSL has recently been able to secure a big money sponsorship deal with Budweiser. And we have seen more support given to NWSL teams by affiliated MLS teams. Our Pride became the first NWSL team to move into its very own training digs, Sky Blue struck up a deal with the New York Red Bulls to play their home games at Red Bull Arena. The Portland Thorns and Houston Dash continue to operate under a 'one club' model with their MLS affiliates. And this is something we are starting to see more of in the FAWSL. Manchester City being a prime example. The team are bank rolled by the men's clubs wealthy owners. Both leagues are, where possible, using the support of their male counterparts to their advantage.
Having considered all of this it's clear to see that whilst both leagues differ in their approaches, they are both dead set on continuing to drive the women's game forward. Women's soccer has never been in a better position, and I for one cannot wait to see where it takes us.