After a resounding 6-0 win over Jamaica on Sunday night, the United States women’s national team clinched a spot in next summer’s World Cup in France, the program’s ninth straight berth since the inaugural tournament in 1991. On the thin surface layer of international competition, the three-time world champions are thriving, but beneath that glamorous front is a suffering domestic league.
Carli Lloyd, who amazed a worldwide audience with a magical 16-minute hat-trick in the 2015 World Cup final against Japan, is a personification of the juxtaposition between club and country. In the stars and stripes, she is a goddess for a team of footballing titans that asserts its strength on the world. Wearing the colors of Sky Blue FC, a National Women’s Soccer League club based out of Central Jersey, the native of Delran Township, N.J. is part of the last place, lowest-attended organization in the NWSL.
In July, two reports surfaced, one from Once A Metro, detailing the indefensible conditions that players of the money-bleeding New Jersey operation were dealing with. The NWSL salary cap in 2018 was $350,000, with non-national team players making a salary in the neighborhood of $15,000. Many players live with host families, and the situation specific to Sky Blue has been a particular mess: with an inattentive general manager and absent owners.
Seton Hall women’s soccer head coach Rick Stainton was the head coach for Sky Blue FC in 2009 and confirmed many of the conditions that were described in the story, including a home stadium of Rutgers’ Yurcak Field that features no showers or air conditioning, and the lack of a regular training facility, which causes late nights of wondering where practice will be held. The end result is many times practice on high school grade fields in the area.
Sky Blue FC’s average attendance is 2,533; understandably, with all these factors, it’s the lowest number in the league.
Boosted by a passionate Rose City supporter base and an affiliation with Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers, the NWSL’s Portland Thorns carry the league in terms of attendance, with an average attendance of 16,959. When combined with newcomer Utah Royals FC, who are affiliated with MLS’ Real Salt Lake and ranked second in attendance, the number almost usurps the other seven clubs in the league.
The league signed a television deal with Lifetime to broadcast an NWSL Game of the Week, but the money from that deal is pennies to one-hundred dollar bills, when compared to television contracts for men’s leagues around the world.
The issue with the NWSL and women’s soccer in the United States mirrors an earlier stage of the WNBA and women’s basketball, but the latter is beginning to register on the national sports landscape. In 2017, a decisive Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on ESPN2 drew 902,000 viewers – a number the NWSL is a universe away from garnering for its final.
While the model of NBA ownership may not be entirely embraced by all WNBA supporters, the partnership has largely aided a league that still consists of teams that are bleeding money. In the NWSL, teams without MLS or USL ownership ranked fifth, seventh, eighth and ninth in attendance this year.
National team forwards Alex Morgan and Sydney Dwyer Leroux, both of the Orlando Pride, have a combined 5.82 million combined followers on Twitter and 6.4 million followers on Instagram. The Pride averaged 4,837 fans last year – something does not add up.
The United States had a head start in the women’s game, but a domestic league sets the tone, and one that fails to garner a national pulse could soon end America’s monopoly on female soccer success. The country had to wait from 1999 to 2015 to win its third World Cup, and if things in the NWSL remain constant while the rest of the world invests in women’s soccer, the wait for number four may be even longer.
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.