It’s that time of the World Cup cycle when a league’s thoughts turn towards expansion. Currently, NWSL is sitting at nine teams, although they certainly vary in their overall health and future growth potential. At the moment, 10 teams is probably the league’s main goal, both in terms of adding another ownership group and in simply rounding out the schedule, which is much harder to construct with an odd number of teams.
But what are the criteria the league should consider when vetting potential new teams? Simply looking at areas that have very successful men’s teams is not a guarantee of success for a women’s team; audience crossover is not guaranteed, nor is a team’s actual dedication to making their women a success on and off the pitch. What’s most important is probably an owner who is really into the idea of buying in to women’s soccer for it’s own sake and not as an add-on for their men’s team. The attitude that both the men’s and women’s teams are senior in the club’s structure, and that the women aren’t some sort of auxiliary or an expendable arm to lop off if times get tough for the club, is probably one of the foremost requirements.
But logistically, what else should the league be looking for?
Solid minimum buy-in
Any new owner needs to be able to reassure the league that they’re in it for the moderately long haul. That means someone capable of promising to stay in for at least four or five years, which also makes sense from a business perspective - building a new business is hard, and requires a lot of money, as well as someone who’s willing to accept the possibility of losing that money. It offers the league and the club’s employees some stability, and allows them the time they need to establish a brand and a local presence, assuming an adequate amount of time and money is spent on marketing them.
Location, location, location
On a macro level, continuing to build NWSL into a truly national product that has teams in healthy soccer and TV markets is crucial, particularly for attracting leaguewide sponsors by being able to point to consistently solid ratings. The league’s ability to sell itself, and to ask for better and better sponsorship deals, both is fed by and feeds into their ability to gain greater exposure.
On a micro level, teams need locations that have the population and infrastructure to support the growth of women’s soccer. That means an accessible stadium, particularly by public transportation. It’s probable that not every market the NWSL considers will have good public transpo, or even any public transpo at all. What matters is the ability of the local population to get to the stadium in an easy fashion; if everyone already drives, then a stadium that’s not off the beaten path and has a good parking lot could be a balancing factor.
The venue itself should be something with realistic capacity (aka not 80,000 seats) but with room for growth. Does that mean soccer-specific stadiums that max out around 20k seats? That would be nice, although the Reign are an example of getting creative about venue with their Cheney Stadium location in Tacoma, which converts from a baseball field and seats 6,500. A stable 5-6k average attendance would be nice at this point for several teams, while also allowing them to make their case for eventually moving to bigger venues and getting bigger sponsors.
Stadiums also need to be TV-friendly in order to help facilitate the league getting a better broadcast and streaming deal. Production values matter, and being able to watch games in good resolution with nice sound quality makes a difference to how audiences perceive a product.
And at its core, this home base needs to truly be a home for the women’s team. That means dedicated spaces for them at their facilities, like a locker room, and good regular training grounds.
This is the hardest part to vet for - prospective new owners have to truly buy in, which will set the tone for how they staff positions for the women’s teams. That means either a dedicated women’s team GM or at least someone high in the chain of command whose sole care is the women’s team, instead of splitting duties between the men and the women, if the new owner is coming in with an established men’s team already. It also means staff who understand the history of women’s soccer and the contexts around how it’s traditionally been marketed so that they can make informed decisions about not only traditional marketing, but innovative new approaches to reaching audiences, as well as who those audiences can be. Having a staff that doesn’t aim solely to ape whatever a team is doing with the men but instead understands where a best practice is applicable and where they might find a different need or desire from their customer base will allow them to be flexible, creative, and responsive.
Expansion is an important part of league growth. With interest high post-World Cup and due to spike again with the Olympics, we’ll see how NWSL approaches adding more teams. There’s obviously concerns in tournament years that expansion can be hampered by having international stars in and out of teams, but the league has to balance that against capitalizing on fan, sponsor, and investor interest, and the rash of NWSL teams posting record audiences and sellout games post World Cup are good arguments for making moves now, rather than in off-tournament years.