Once the Women’s World Cup had ended, there was always going to be a follow up question of how the National Women’s Soccer League would capitalize on the momentum gained from the tournament. While some teams have captured the interest of new fans better than others, the ‘World Cup bump’ has a leaguewide effect. Here’s the thing though. How does the league grow once that bump is over? 2015 showed that NWSL is still not quite sure of how to retain those new fans once they have learned where their favourite players play week-in, week-out. If the league is to grow to where fans, and ownership want it to be, what should the league be doing next to take that next step forward?
This is where NWSL may need to take on a new angle, one different from Major League Soccer and how U.S. Soccer has tried to grow the game in the United States. Instead of constantly targeting the same demographic - usually white and affluent - why not go after people of colour in the U.S.?
I come from Zimbabwe, where pay-to-play is a foreign concept, and although we have not had many star players on the world stage, we have had a few that showed that if you are talented enough, you do not need money to make it. Discussions about soccer and its demographics in the United States and in Canada usually center around pay-to-play and how that system isn’t reaching people of colour. That is factually true, but we also need to focus on how the professional game is marketed in North America (excluding Mexico).
MLS has found a way to move forward from marketing to little boys and families but the United States women’s national team and NWSL are still stuck on the idea that little girls will make or break women’s soccer in this country. There is nothing wrong with showing girls all over the world that they can achieve their dreams too but when they become the most prominent people in your fan pictures, it gives the impression that they are the majority at your games too. The USWNT’s performance during the World Cup has sparked conversation with adults who see the team as a representation of this generation of Americans: unapologetic, diverse, talented and driven. Now NWSL needs to bring those adults into its fold and keep them there.
This is where people of colour come in. The NBA did a masterful job of changing its perception of being a white-dominated sport by bringing in more people of colour, predominantly black people, and then allowing those athletes to be who they truly are, such as allowing protests during the national anthem from its black players. When the league first started in the 1940s, there were no black players which is a far cry from now, when almost 75% of the NBA is black. What started the shift for the NBA was a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948 which was initially framed as a publicity stunt, but when the Globetrotters “showed up and showed out,” they not only drew an integrated and large audience, but their future match ups paved the way for more black people to engage with the NBA. The 80s and the 90s brought hip-hop and the NBA together in a way that had not been seen in other sports before. By embracing the fame and audience that came with engaging with rap artist and hip-hop artists of that time (see: the Charlotte Hornets inviting Master P to training camp in 1999), the NBA capitalized on a movement that had taken over the country and especially in the black community. The move to make the NBA appeal to the black community gave a younger generation searching for heroes who look like them the opportunity to see how even they could make it to the ‘big time’ if they had the talent. As more people of colour veered towards the NBA, the league found an untapped market that had been left behind by the NFL, NHL and MLB. People of colour have always been at the forefront of what becomes regarded as “cool” whether it be in fashion or in pop culture. The NBA is now one of the most highly attractive leagues globally and boasts having athletes who are well-known all over the world. NWSL can do the same if they can grasp the opportunity that has presented itself through the interest the USWNT has sparked in marginalized communities at higher levels than ever before. Let people of color in and allow them to make women’s soccer a major cultural force from here on out.
Consider that Megan Rapinoe has entered the black consciousness by protesting police brutality and the racial discrimination black people face in the US the same way Colin Kaepernick did, by kneeling during the national anthem. She then furthered her foray into the minds of many black Americans by steadfastly refusing to accept any invitation to the White House, and then won a World Cup to back up her talk leading up to the final.
This has led to a press tour for Rapinoe that has seen her visiting the usual haunts of ESPN, late night television, Rachel Maddow and now, pop culture phenoms Desus and Mero. Alex Morgan and Ali Krieger have publicly backed Rapinoe’s stance on the White House and although they may not have said anything that openly, the team has given the impression that as of right now, they have no plans of going to the White House. Some have called the USWNT’s overall demeanor as arrogant, classless or even “un-American” but those of us on the other side of the divide see this team as one that not only knows how to win, but that is also unafraid to be who they are. Rapinoe’s presence on a show as unapologetic as Desus and Mero and her refusal to go to the White House are examples of that.
As a black person who lives in North America, the USWNT showed this year exactly what I want to see in my players and teams. This type of attention is something NWSL must use now as they look to become a league that can not only keep their best talents in the league, but also prevent any upcoming talents from going to Europe in search of better salaries.
To be blunt, NWSL should be actively courting people of colour of all ages to pay attention to their league. It’s sound business, as the NBA has shown. The NWSL does not need to become another MLS by catering to one part of the demographic; it can become its own product with a unique identity. With the changing demographics in the United States, now is the time to reach out to people of colour and entice them to watch NWSL.
Encourage them to grab a Portland Thorns FC Adrianna Franch jersey, a Christen Press Utah Royals FC jersey or a Crystal Dunn North Carolina Courage jersey and show them how to follow their favourite players when they’re not wearing the red, white and blue. It may not be an immediate reward, but with enough work and with enough care, the NWSL could create a haven for people who even now, are still not seen often enough in women’s soccer in this country. For example, NWSL teams could advertise more heavily in local areas with large POC demographics, or reach out to local soccer clubs who work predominantly with people of colour to encourage them to come to NWSL games. The question is, will NWSL take the path that has opened up? I hope to see both more fans and players like me in the league and the USWNT, and I hope players of the future are allowed to let their true personalities shine.
Note: The publication reached out to each team in the NWSL about how they have directed their marketing strategies to people of colour and if they have put together structural initiatives within their academies geared towards helping people of colour play in them, but received no response from any team’s representatives.