How to Fix Female Sports Leagues in US

Team USA galvanized the entire country during the 2015 Women's World Cup (Photo Credit: Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

Team USA galvanized the entire country during the 2015 Women’s World Cup (Photo Credit: Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

For multiple decades, Team USA women’s teams have dominated international competitions, especially in soccer and basketball, which are arguably the two largest female team sports in this country. The women’s basketball team has won the past five Olympic gold medals and won all eight matches in the 2012 Olympics by an average of 34.4 points per game. In soccer, Team USA just went 6-0-1 in the 2015 FIFA World Cup, en route to their first championship since 1999.

Yet, despite the run of international success, professional female team sports leagues in the US have done very poorly. While college female team sports, particularly the two listed above, receive sufficient national exposure, professional female sports barely suffice. Two different US women’s soccer leagues have folded this millennium, while the WNBA has reached a stalemate. Millions of viewers have tuned in to high-profile international women’s soccer matches and collegiate basketball games, yet professional female team sports have not received sustained interest. Let’s detail the issues with women’s soccer and basketball and how to get them running in the US:

SOCCER

26.7 million viewers domestically watched the US defeat Japan in the 2015 FIFA World Cup Final. Let that number sink in for a minute. 26.7 million people. That amounts to more than ANY game in the highest-rated NBA Finals this century; more people watched the WWC Final than the World Series Game 7; the three-most watched Stanley Cup Final Games combined still could not match 26.7 million viewers.

In addition, more people in the US watched the Women’s World Cup Final than any single soccer match ever recorded. The 2014 Men’s World Cup Final attracted just fewer than 18 million viewers, while 18.2 million watched the USA/Portugal match, peaking at 22.961 million viewers. The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final peaked at 31 million viewers.

Sure, nationalism has sparked the entire phenomenon of the Women’s World Cup, as the top NBA, NHL, and MLB games match up two cities that make up just a fraction of the entire country. The game aired at a time, Sunday afternoon in July, when nothing on TV competed with this match. Nonetheless, when a group of individuals puts on an incredible display in front of that many people, as US did by scoring four goals in the first 15 minutes of the game, people take notice.

Carli Lloyd became a household name from her breakthrough performance at the World Cup (Photo Credit: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press/AP)

Carli Lloyd became a household name from her breakthrough performance at the World Cup (Photo Credit: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press/AP)

Now that the World Cup is in the rear-view mirror, though, the US soccer stars must capitalize on this opportunity to grow the sport domestically. Otherwise, women’s soccer will fade and this entire spectacle will just be remembered for the event itself, without a lasting legacy.

Following the aftermath of the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final, when 18 million people watched US defeat China on Brandi Chastain’s dramatic penalty kick, the women’s soccer association waited too long to start a league. They started the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) in 2001; they folded in 2003 after a decline in attendance, lack of TV deals, and little sponsorship money. They collectively lost over $85 million.

Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) started in 2008 and began league play in 2009. The league continued through the 2011 World Cup and initially experienced a spike in interest. Nothing lasted though, as the WPS folded in 2012; only five teams existed at the time of the termination, as people blamed a massive organizational failure to the collapse of the league.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) began play in 2013. One notable difference is that the United States, Canadian, and Mexican soccer federations subsidize the NWSL. In the past, private investors and sponsors funded the entire operation. 22 out of the 23 members from the 2015 US World Cup team will play in the NWSL. Can the league last?

Early numbers suggest that the league has plenty of work to do. Outside of the Portland Thorns, who average a strong 13,000 fans per game and have identified a brand within the community, other NWSL teams have posted low attendance numbers. Average attendance in 2014 was less than 3,000 fans per game, and most people had not even heard of this league. These numbers have stayed flat in 2015, even after the World Cup breakthrough.

One aspect, though, that can separate the NWSL from past failures in American women’s soccer is the presence of social media. 13 out of the 23 players on the US National Team, all of whom have an association with the NWSL, have over 100,000 followers on Twitter, led by Alex Morgan (1.98 Million), Hope Solo (995,000), and Abby Wambach (560,000). The US Women’s National Team’s official account has nearly 500,000 Twitter Followers. These players have an equally strong presence on Facebook, as many players, including Morgan and Carli Lloyd (400,000+), have an equal ratio of Twitter Followers to Facebook fans.

For the first time, these athletes can legitimately market themselves and their respective teams to a mass audience. They have a strong nationwide presence, and people can directly relate to the National Team’s stars.

Like past women’s soccer leagues, though, the NWSL has not secured a consistent TV deal with a single network – Fox in 2013, ESPN in 2014, Fox in 2015. Fox Sports will televise 10 NWSL games between now and the conclusion of the season on October 1. While the MLS has a $120 million annual TV deal that runs through this decade, the NWSL, despite having more popular individual soccer players, has not sniffed any TV agreements past this October. Therefore, the final few months of the 2015 NWSL season mark a critical juncture in the state of women’s soccer in the US.

If the league can significantly attract a respectable audience, both in-stadium and on TV, they will undoubtedly secure a multi-year TV agreement. Too many major TV networks exist and starve for quality live content, so networks would be more than willing to dish out millions of dollars annually if they garner an audience. Nothing spurs interest more than live events.

A new TV contract would help them expand outward and focus their attention on gaining sponsorships and ultimately paying more to their players, many of whom earn under $20,000 annually. The low pay has forced many talented female soccer players out of the sport in the past, since they simply could not make a living playing soccer. For the NWSL to have a chance at survival two years from now, they must show immediate improvement in overall viewership.

BASKETBALL

Unlike soccer, professional women’s basketball in the US has lasted for nearly two decades. Since its inception in 1997, the WNBA has designed their season from the end of May until the finale of the WNBA Finals in the beginning of September. The start of the season overlaps with the NBA Finals, in an attempt to gain recognition, and the season ends right before the beginning of football season. That timing, when the sport has relatively little competition compared to fall, winter, and spring seasons, has certainly helped the WNBA survive throughout this century.

Women’s basketball players receive very sufficient exposure in college, as multiple networks broadcast several games. With independent 24/7 collegiate networks, such as Pac-12 Networks, SEC Network, and Big Ten Network, along with national collegiate networks ESPNU and CBS Sports Network, college sports has never been telecasted on more platforms. Even the bottom-feeders from major conferences play more than a handful times on national television, while the best teams, such as UConn, Tennessee, and Stanford, play nearly all of their games on TV.

In addition, since every NCAA Tournament women’s basketball game is played on ESPN or ESPN2, the top teams can have up to six nationally televised games in a three-week span on the world’s most-watched sports network. The national presence provides awareness to the top female basketball players, from Tamika Catchings to Diana Taurasi to Brittney Griner and so on. Even the lowest-rated national championship games attract nearly 3 million viewers on TV and almost 20,000 fans in attendance, an impressive mark compared to professional female team sporting events.

Therein lies the problem. Maya Moore, a 2-time champion at UConn and the reigning WNBA MVP, has noticed the difference and wrote a lengthy public letter chronicling the WNBA’s lack of visibility. Similar to soccer, Team USA receives great publicity, especially during the Olympics, and Moore acknowledges the tremendous presence of women’s college basketball, where top players are “seen”. That visibility wipes away the moment WNBA teams draft the best players, a large reason why almost all female players play all four years in college. On the other hand, many of the best men’s players leave school the moment they believe they can get drafted.

2014 WNBA MVP Maya Moore has been outspoken about the league's lack of visibility (Photo Credit: David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

2014 WNBA MVP Maya Moore has been outspoken about the league’s lack of visibility (Photo Credit: David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Moore makes some extremely valid points. The 2014 WNBA Finals, the most watched Finals on record, averaged fewer than 700,000 TV viewers, or four times less than the amount of people who watch NCAA Women’s basketball championship games. In-game attendance has dramatically dropped since 1998, when it averaged 10,894 fans per game. The league has averaged fewer than 8,000 fans per game in eight out of the past nine seasons. No single team averaged over 10,000 fans per game in 2014.

This has resulted in a horrendous salary cap structure, which caps the maximum salary at $107,000 per season. Yes, that number represents an exponential increase compared to what female soccer players earn, but the superstars should deserve far more than what the other players make. The league’s current stars, Moore, Elena Delle Donne, and Skylar Diggins among others, keep the brand alive, as fans directly relate to the league’s best players. The WNBA must embrace its stars.

If not, situations like Diana Taurasi, who decided to sit out the 2015 WNBA season after her Russian team offered more than her current WNBA salary to sit out the summer, will continue to occur. Taurasi makes 15 times the amount annually from her Russian than she does here in America. She is one of the most recognizable women’s basketball players in the world, and she has had a wildly successful career across all platforms. Taurasi won three national championships at UConn, amassing a 139-8 career record in college, and has won three Olympic gold medals, three WNBA championships, and been named a WNBA All-Star seven times.

Who can honestly blame Taurasi, after spending several years consecutively playing basketball year-round, for taking an offer that would pay her more NOT to play? After all, nearly 40 players make the same amount of money as Taurasi, who has had a far greater impact on her team and the overall league than arguably every other player. Some coaches earn up to $300,000 annually, almost three times that of the best players. Who goes to the games to watch the coaches? The WNBA needs to fix the salary cap structure quickly, or it will risk losing more players, such as Candace Parker.

Diana Taurasi, who earns 15 times as much playing for her Russian team than she does domestically, decided to sit out the 2015 WNBA season (Photo Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

Diana Taurasi, who earns 15 times as much playing for her Russian team than she does domestically, decided to sit out the 2015 WNBA season (Photo Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

Furthermore, far too many off-court stories, such as Brittney Griner’s domestic abuse case and Isiah Thomas’ role with the New York Liberty, have taken precedence over the on-court accomplishments. The league should embrace topics such as Elena Delle Donne’s unprecedented scoring spree to open the season or the 1-2 punch of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus to lead the Minnesota Lynx to the league’s best record at the All-Star break. How many people are really aware of those on-court storylines?

Despite some issues, however, the league does have some building blocks. The WNBA signed a lucrative $12 million per year deal with ESPN through 2022. With only 12 teams in the league, each team would receive $1 million annually for the next seven seasons. The best players in the world also come from the US, and basketball remains wildly popular in this country.

Now, the WNBA must take the next steps of avoiding becoming a “secondary league”, where players use this as a tune-up to their basketball seasons overseas. To take the next step, the league must reduce/limit the amount of travel and put teams in markets that embrace women’s sports (Search: Portland, Oregon). A true distinction between the Western Conference and Eastern Conference teams, where teams play the overwhelming majority of their games against the conference like they currently do in the NHL, would alleviate costs and promote “rivalry” games, something greatly lacking in the league.

Keeping five teams within the Pacific Coast – one each in Seattle, Portland, Sacramento/Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Phoenix – and the other in San Antonio would comprise of the Western Conference. Having a team in Minnesota, Chicago, New York, New England, Washington D.C., and Indiana would make up the East. This would remove the Atlanta Dream and Tulsa Shock (and possibly the Connecticut Sun), which have the least fan-support in the league. Atlanta and Tulsa reside far away from both the proposed Eastern and Western Conference teams. Since these two cities have not proven to support their local women’s teams at a passionate level, the league should not spend this much money travelling to and from isolated areas that do not have rabid fan bases.

Transportation within a conference would become extremely reasonable, and teams can have one or two “cross-country” trips each season to play teams from opposing conferences. This would significantly reduce travel costs and wear-and-tear on players’ bodies and most importantly, would feature teams in cities that have shown admirable support for their local teams. For the WNBA to take the next step, it must begin with a strong foundation, one that targets a group of fans that care about this product.

GOING FORWARD

Growing female team sports leagues in the US will not come without crossing some major obstacles. Naturally, female sports face a never-ending inferiority complex battle against the male sports. Outside of Brittney Griner, almost nobody dunks in the WNBA, and the women play at a far slower pace in any sport than the men.

For women, the harsh truth is that the men control the sporting world, which is evident in the massive disparity in pay between the genders. NBA players earn a minimum salary of over $500,000 on the court, meaning the worst players who receive only garbage time minutes earn five times more than what the best WNBA players make. Granted, WNBA’s season is approximately a third of the NBA season, but even if you include overseas pay to the top players, such as Griner’s $600,000 salary in China or Taurasi’s $1.5 million in Russia, that total salary adds to only a fraction of what even the most mediocre players in the NBA earn.

In American soccer, the pay disparity appears even larger, considering over half of NWSL players earn below minimum wage. The MLS, a middling team sports league in the US and well behind the likes of the big four team sports, players earn a minimum of $50,000, as at least six players on each team earn well over $100,000. Some even earn $1,000,000, with Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley earning a combined $11 million in 2015 from Toronto F.C. Each NWSL team plays with a TOTAL salary cap of $265,000.

These massive pay differences point to consumers’ lack of interest in watching female team sports as a whole. Some of that points to a fewer percentage of girls who participate in team sports’ activities on a regular basis, regardless of pick-up or organized team competition, than males. When you enter a recreational college gym, or any public basketball court for that matter, an overwhelming majority of boys make up the participants on the court. The same holds true for other team sports such as soccer and football.

Most of the disparity in recreational sports’ action comes from the physical superiority of males over females, especially from ages 16 and older. Lesser reasons include females’ lack of interest in sports participation and the fear of girls getting hurt or abused in competition.

Rules like Title IX, which mandate Division I universities to offer equal college scholarships and participation among NCAA male and female athletes, have significantly aided interest in women’s sports. In addition to providing elite female athletes nationwide exposure, Title IX has motivated younger women to actively participate in sports.

Young girls, especially from underprivileged backgrounds, have a strong incentive to gain competency in a particular sport, which can increase their likelihood of receiving a full athletic scholarship. Since 1972, Title IX has reportedly increased girls’ participation in high school sports by 80%.

Youth participation in team sports will play a significant role in increasing fan engagement in women's sports leagues (Photo Credit: Western New England University)

Youth participation in team sports will play a significant role in increasing fan engagement in women’s sports leagues (Photo Credit: Western New England University)

Advancements in medicine and health can hopefully reduce the risk of female injuries while playing sports. Currently, girls have a 28% higher chance of attaining a non-contact physical injury than boys, which has undoubtedly prevented many girls from pursuing further athletic competition.

Regardless, if girls can acquire sustained passion towards a particular sport, especially on the team side, they will be more inclined to follow some of the world’s premier female athletes. According to the census, over 150 million females lived in the US as of 2010, more than their male counterparts.

Playing sports will have a stronger impact on people watching professional sports than any amount of marketing can achieve. People naturally will connect with sports they can directly relate to more than any sport they have never played.

While youth participation serves a major building block to the growth of female professional team leagues, the survival of leagues such as the NWSL and WNBA will greatly hinge on their uniqueness and separateness from the male leagues. Otherwise, neither league can truly make a durable imprint.

The WNBA needs to distinctly show that the females play a completely different brand of basketball, one that involves more skill and a combination of shooting and passing than how the men play. If the best players can embrace a pass-first style that involves less one-on-one play, they can help create a brand that many great basketball aficionados can appreciate. An individual-style play in women’s basketball simply cannot compete with the likes of the NBA, which is filled with arguably the best athletes in the world. Watching women blow by their defenders and make an ordinary layup will not create a distinct brand. NBA Summer League would garner 100 times the attention of WNBA if women played like the men.

Likewise, the NWSL must establish their own identity if they desire to show marked progress by the end of the season. They must build off of their best players’ popularity, which exceed the top American male players, and create a product that displays the players’ best skill sets. The American women had five consecutive shutouts in the World Cup and sparked nationalism with their display of teamwork, dominance, and lovable personalities. Carrying over this momentum into the NWSL will determine the fate of the league.

Ultimately, women’s female team sports in American have building blocks to work with. The establishment of Title IX to encourage youth female participation, international dominance from US women in multiple team sports, historically strong World Cup viewership, and a star-studded group in the WNBA serve as the biggest positives in female team sports. Now, these leagues must develop a product that negates misogynist perceptions and establishes a unique identity to develop a core fan base. While female team sports will likely never compete with the men in popularity or financial power, generating a sustained league in basketball and soccer can help pave the way for more girls live out their dreams of playing professional sports.