Following the U.S. team's Women's World Cup victory at the beginning of the month, owners of professional women’s teams, including the one in Boston, are hoping to cash in on those players’ popularity.
Most national team members also play on clubs in the National Women’s Soccer League, now in its third season. The Boston Breakers homestand Saturday against the Seattle Reign is the team’s first sellout this year.
The challenge for the Breakers, who play on the grounds of Harvard University in Allston, and the eight other teams in the league is translating this month’s excitement about women’s soccer into long-term stability.
An Attendance Spike
The match against the Reign is the Breakers’ second home game since players from the U.S. National Team returned to the NWSL. The first, last week, drew more than 3,400 fans, a record for the club this season.
The crowd included Paul Gregory, a girls’ soccer coach and a Breakers season ticket holder. He knew why some of his players from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School wanted to tag along.
"The players who are sitting in front of me, they’re just here to see Julie Johnston," he said.
"That is so true," one of his players said.
"That's a bit true," said another.
Johnston, who plays for the Chicago club, was a starting defender on the U.S. team that topped Japan in the World Cup Final. More than 25 million people tuned in to watch that game. (That’s more than watched Game 7 of last year’s World Series or the deciding Game 6 of June’s NBA Finals.)
With the World Cup champs back with their professional clubs, the NWSL has seen attendance rise dramatically.
But can interest in women’s soccer remain after memories of Carli Lloyd’s title-game hat-trick fade?
Winning New Fans — Or A Temporary Bump?
Boston Breakers general manager Lee Billiard is optimistic.
"We’re just pleased that the World Cup platform and what the U.S. did in winning the World Cup has opened up a broader audience that we’re trying to capture," he said.
But history is not on Billiard’s or the Breakers’ side. Post-World Cup spikes in popularity are nothing new for women’s soccer.
"We Americans love our patriotism. We love to root for the Americans. We love to chant 'USA, USA,' " said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at Holy Cross who studies the impact of sporting events. "We’ve seen this story before: big, temporary increase. But whether the women have the staying power to keep drawing those fans is another question."
For the past two iterations of pro women’s soccer leagues, the answer to that question has been no.
Momentum from the U.S. win at the ‘99 World Cup helped spur the creation of the first pro women’s soccer league. The Women’s United Soccer Association lost $100 million and folded after three seasons.
A second league — Women’s Professional Soccer — took the field in 2009 and lasted three seasons.
So will this time be any different?
Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and a co-author of “Soccernomics,” doubts the spike in attendance will last.
"Something like the World Cup can bring an extra shine to the competition," he said. "In the end, the competition has to support itself, as it were, so I think it’s likely only going to be temporary."
The First League With 4 Seasons
Still, professors Szymanski and Matheson are both optimistic about the league’s immediate future.
For one thing, unlike the previous women’s leagues, the NWSL has reined in costs by imposing a strict salary cap. And the U.S. Soccer Federation is helping cut costs even further by paying the full salaries of the national team players scattered throughout the league.
That financial backing, Billiard believes, is a major reason why this league will succeed.
Matheson agrees. He says it’s encouraging that the NWSL will set a record by becoming the first pro women’s soccer league in the country to survive for a fourth season.
"It’s not necessarily about becoming Major League Baseball," he said. "It’s about survival year to year, and survival for this professional women’s soccer league looks much better than any of the previous iterations we’ve seen so far."
Room For Growth?
And beyond survival, Szymanski believes the league has potential for significant growth. In fact, he’s more optimistic about the future of pro women’s soccer in the U.S. than he is about the future of MLS — the country's professional men’s league.
“One of the problems for Major League Soccer is that they can’t attract top [international] players unless they’re approaching retirement. And, moreover, they lose their best players who want to go play in Europe because that’s where the best soccer is,” he explained. “Potentially the NWSL benefits from the dynamic in the opposite way. … They’re ahead and they have the opportunity to go out and shop around the world and bring all the best players in the world and make sure this is really the very best that women’s soccer can be.”
With the top talent from around the world concentrated in a U.S. league, Szymanski can imagine a scenario where a women’s soccer's popularity — and financial stability — could approach that of women’s tennis or golf.
“[Americans] will always be the core of the NWSL, and people want to see Americans being successful, but it’s that context of Americans playing in the context of the best in the world," he said. "I think that really, really makes for an attractive proposition for fans."
But realizing such a vision, as longtime women's soccer writer Laura Vecsey points out, is easier said than done.
"I'd love to see one league that could exploit the best talent in the world in one place," she said. "That would be good, but how do you do it?"
For the time being, Vecsey believes the league should focus on promoting rivalries between teams in nearby cities. Szymanski thinks the next major step is getting more games on national television. And Matheson thinks increased partnership with local MLS clubs could help sell more tickets.
But, at least for now, the Breakers don't have to worry about that — Saturday's home game against the Seattle Reign has been sold out for more than a week.
This segment aired on July 31, 2015.