New Pro Women's Soccer League Learns From Past Mistakes
The Portland Thorns women's soccer team drew 17,000 screaming fans to its recent home opener. That's a huge number and one that dwarfed turnout for the other seven teams in the new National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). The NWSL is the latest attempt to bring sustainable women's pro soccer to the U.S. Soccer federations in the U.S., Mexico and Canada help fund it. NPR's Tom Goldman examines how the Thorns and the NWSL have done so far.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Melissa Block. Women's pro soccer is back. The National Women's Soccer League is one month into its inaugural season, eight teams with funding and support from three national soccer federations. Two previous U.S. women's pro leagues came and went in the last dozen years. But officials with the NWSL say they have learned from past mistakes. And as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, they point to one of the new teams as an example of how the league could thrive.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: What you're about to hear is the dream.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: F-C P-T, F-C P-T.
GOLDMAN: Oh, it was real enough - 11,000 delirious fans bellowing F-C P-T last night, trying to will their Portland Thorns football club to victory. Cheryl Bailey watched the scene at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon, and beamed. Bailey is the National Women's Soccer League executive director but sounded more like a parent trying to be impartial.
CHERYL BAILEY: We never have favorites when we have children. We love them all for what they bring to the table. And clearly, Portland brings something special to the table.
GOLDMAN: Portland is one of eight NWSL teams and the only one connected to this country's men's pro league, Major League Soccer. The Thorns and the successful Portland Timbers of MLS have the same owner. The Thorns play in a world-class soccer stadium in a soccer-crazed city where nearly 17,000 showed up for the Thorns' home opener. Cheryl Bailey...
BAILEY: Absolutely. This is the model that we want to get to.
GOLDMAN: The journey will include days like last week, when a game in Piscataway, New Jersey, between the home Sky Blue FC and the visiting Chicago Red Stars drew a reported 688 people. Other teams are drawing less than 2,000. But no alarm bells yet because there's a lot of faith, league-wide, in the NWSL's business plan.
CINDY PARLOW CONE: I think this third time around I think the model is the correct model.
GOLDMAN: Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone was a player the first time around in the WUSA. That women's pro league lasted from 2001 to 2003. WPS came six years later. Both leagues flamed out basically for the same reason: Low revenues couldn't cover high expenses. So the NWSL has set out to keep expenses down with a huge assist from the U.S., Mexican and Canadian soccer federations. Those federations are paying salaries for about a half dozen high-priced national team players on each NWSL team.
CONE: Which makes it a much more viable league and much more attractive to the owners because they're not having to put in as - near as much money as they were before in the previous two leagues.
GOLDMAN: Those national team players - the stars of the league - may be off the books, but they're all in with the experience.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alex, you are so awesome.
ALEX MORGAN: Thank you. Thanks for coming.
GOLDMAN: Portland forward Alex Morgan, women soccer's it girl, worked an autograph line with her teammates after last night's game. There were smiles and thank yous despite the Thorns' fist loss of the season. But not in the locker room. Karina LeBlanc is Portland's starting goalkeeper.
KARINA LEBLANC: I think we're angry. We're upset. Again, we're so happy we're at home on Sunday because we want to show the fans that we love them, and we want to get the result for them.
GOLDMAN: Players to fans, fans to players, women's pro soccer always has been fueled by heart but not sustained. The NWSL hopes its dispassionate look at economic reality ensures the love lasts this time around. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.View this story on npr.org