USWNT players draw sellout NWSL crowd to Chicago Red Stars game

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. ⁠-- Nearly an hour after her Chicago Red Stars team defeated the North Carolina Courage 2-1, once she'd finished signing autographs for the hundreds of fans who stayed long after the last whistle to meet their heroes, two-time World Cup champion Morgan Brian let the media in on a little secret: Women's soccer in America is so much more than just a sport.

"It's a movement," Brian said. "Women are a force, and we're creating a movement."

Tough to argue with her on a record-breaking night at SeatGeek Stadium, where 17,388 turned up on Sunday to welcome 12 World Cup competitors back to their National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) teams, including eight members of the champion U.S. women's national team. It was the first-ever sellout for a Chicago women's professional soccer team, a bigger draw than any of the MLS Chicago Fire games this season, and it aired live on ESPN2 as part of the league's new national television deal.

"The crowd was electrifying," Red Stars defender Casey Short said. "In the 75th minute, when your legs are getting tired and you hear the crowd behind you, it's huge."

The NWSL, now in its seventh season, has historically seen a bump in attendance in Olympic and World Cup years, and the first few games post-World Cup this summer have been no different. The key, of course, is to maintain the buzz for the remainder of this season and into next year.

"I really would hope that the fan base that we got today -- 17,000 people -- I don't want that to be just a couple times a year," said Courage defender and USWNT star Crystal Dunn. "We put out good performances, we're such an intense league. People should wanna come and watch us play. It should happen every single year in the NWSL."

For Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler, Sunday night's sellout was over a decade in the making. Whisler helped establish the team in 2007 and has kept it running ever since, even as several iterations of a national professional women's soccer league folded.

"The goal now is to lock them in," Whisler said of Sunday's record crowd. "We've done all the right data capture on not just the people that came, but the people that shopped, the people that considered the ad and didn't buy. And all that marketing starts tonight to get 'em back. That's why we put everything into this game, because if we could get them here for this one, we think we can get them back two or three times. Once you've been here a couple times you really wanna be a part of it."

The NWSL game-day experience is a special one, where fans can not only watch the very best players in the world, but also take photos, get autographs and shake hands with them. That kind of connection between world-class athlete and fan is rare, and the players understand their role in fostering support and ensuring return trips to the stadium. As with most female athletes, the job isn't done when they step off the field; they're also tasked with being good role models, selling the sport and representing something powerful and aspirational for girls and women.

"I think everybody kind of embraces that," said Red Stars and USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, she of the World Cup penalty save heard 'round the world. "I've been very fortunate to be around great teammates who aren't just great athletes and great competitors, but great people. That's a testament to women's sports in general. It's part of it. It's part of what we do."

"Women fans attach for different reasons," said Whisler, who points to that decade-plus of experience studying and catering to both male and female fans. "The bravado is not as important, the quality of the human matters a great deal. We have quality humans. We have a superb, high-character team. We have a high-character front office. Men and women who care about doing the right things in society are part of what we're doing. You don't have to celebrate bad characters just 'cause they're good athletes, we've got good characters that are great athletes. We're selling something bigger than soccer."

The 2019 World Cup run certainly did see the USWNT selling something bigger than a winning soccer team. They were also women fighting for equality, LGBTQ people fighting for inclusion and representation, and well-educated, eloquent and outspoken citizens willing to speak on important issues. Their appeal transcended sport, and the evidence of that was right in front of me at Sunday's game, in the form of one particular attendee: my high school friend Kelli Hall Taylor. A bibliophile with a sesquipedalian vocabulary and more interest in Plath than Pelé, I can't remember the last time I've heard her talk about sports.

"Does Taylor Swift at Soldier Field count?" she said with a laugh when I asked the last time she went to a live sporting event. "I was in a stadium! If not, then it'd have to be a Cubs game with a season-ticket-holding friend back in 2013."

Hall Taylor might be an even more nascent soccer fan than the infant next to me in the stands on Sunday; she just started watching and appreciating the sport early on in the USWNT's World Cup run this summer.

"It felt like hope," she said of the first game she watched. "At a time when everything in the country just feels dark and heavy, the Women's World Cup shined like a bright pink light. It gave us all something inspiring to rally around. They stand for things very personal to me: equal rights, equal pay and using your voice to lift others up. Don't get me wrong, the games are fantastic, but I'm cheering on far more than just goals."

Hall Taylor attended a World Cup watch party in Chicago's Lincoln Park for the USWNT's semifinal match against England, packing a blanket, a picnic and a book in case she got bored. No need for the novel; she was hooked on the game and showed up again five days later to cheer on the U.S. in the final against the Netherlands. Now a Red Stars game, too? She almost can't believe it.

"I'm decidedly not into sports, but somehow now own two USWNT team shirts and tickets to the Rose Bowl victory game next month," she said. "As far as athletic miracles go, I'm more impressed by that than the World Cup."

Whisler knows the key to repeating Sunday's attendance is getting new fans like Hall Taylor to come out to the stadium to see the quality of play and the number of world-class players on the field at one time.

"They'll be back," Whisler said of fans who find their way to a game. "But we can't break through the clutter without a little bit of help."

There's plenty of "clutter" in the greater Chicago area, including two MLB teams, an NFL team, an NHL team, an AHL team, an NBA team, a WNBA team, an MLS team, an NPF team, college teams and about 16 or so minor league and semi-pro teams. Oh and Broadway in Chicago, concerts, museums, parks and the beach.

Whisler says the Red Stars' ability to compete will depend on more awareness in the marketplace, a bigger investment group that can vie for (and afford to pay) the world's best players, and a concerted effort from local fans to support the team. That support can come via ticket purchases, wearing merchandise, watching the games on television, following the players and sponsors on social media and keeping the NWSL top of mind for family trips, corporate outings and more. It takes effort. Unlike the NBA or NFL, fans might not see the team's ads at every subway stop or see game coverage on the front page of the sports section. Instead, they have to be ambassadors for the game themselves, sporting merchandise to grow awareness, suggesting NWSL games in place of traditional golf or baseball outings, and putting their dollars where their hearts are.

World Cup standout and team avatar Megan Rapinoe gave a moving speech at New York's City Hall during the USWNT's ticker tape parade, pointing to the power of the people watching. "You're more than a fan," Rapinoe said. "You're more than someone who just supports sport. You're more than someone who tunes in every four years. You're someone who walks these streets every single day. You interact with your community every single day. How do you make your community better?"

While she may have been talking big picture, the message applies very specifically and powerfully to the sports community. How can fans be the change they want to see in sports? How can they make the messages of Rapinoe and the USWNT last longer than one trip around the late-night talk-show circuit? Investment of time and money. And the stars of the NWSL think the investment will pay off.

"It's something that's gonna be awesome to be a part of," said Brian, pitching the NWSL to fans and sponsors. "I think this league has so much potential and room for growth. To help it to stay and to be a part of something special -- I feel like I'd wanna do the same."

"I really believe that women's soccer is more than just a good example for young girls, it's a good investment," Courage and USWNT midfielder Sam Mewis said. "If you look at the MLS 30 years ago and what a team was worth, to what it's worth now, we can do that same thing. It might take 30 years, but that's where it's going. So people who are getting in now are smart. I totally believe this is a good place to put your money."

There they go again, stepping off the pitch and into the boardroom, advocating for themselves and their sport. It's second nature for them, and for those not used to the plight of female athletes and teams, it can occasionally sound like an activist advocating for a nonprofit. While the appeal may be similar, the NWSL and women's sports in general aren't charity. When the investment and promotion is there, the bottom line shows it. See: The current USWNT jersey, now the best-selling soccer jersey, men's or women's, on Nike.com in one season. See: The 14 million viewers who tuned in to the World Cup final against the Netherlands. See: The countless empty clothing racks at SeatGeek Stadium's merchandise booth Sunday night, pillaged by passionate fans.

"We're keenly aware that we're more than a sport, but we can't become a cause," Whisler said of appealing to fans of both soccer and the larger ideals these players represent.

It's not a cause, but it is a movement. And if Sunday's game is any indication, it's growing stronger every day.