Jessica Berman, the commissioner of the National Women's Soccer League, understands that one key metric will drive success in every other area.
"I think we know, all of us who have worked in the sports industry for decades: The rocket fuel behind the growth of any sport league is attendance," Berman recently told ESPN.
This year, the NWSL finally began filling the proverbial tank (and stadia) in earnest. A decade into its existence, the league surpassed 1 million fans in a season for the first time in 2022, marking 70% year-over-year growth. The final week of the regular season, which saw attendance leaders Angel City FC and the Portland Thorns each play twice at home, marked the first time the NWSL attracted more than 100,000 total fans in one match week.
This momentum has continued into the playoffs, which will culminate in the NWSL Championship on Saturday between the Kansas City Current and the Thorns. The four largest NWSL playoff crowds on record were all recorded over the past two weeks -- first in Houston and then in San Diego, Portland and Seattle. The crowd of 26,215 for the first-round playoff game in San Diego on Oct. 16 is the new bar for a postseason game.
By any attendance metric at a league level, the NWSL is trending upward. That is a positive development in obvious ways, but it is also significant for teams whose bottom lines are still dependent upon ticket revenue, and for a league attempting to garner expansion fees and franchise valuations that are exponentially higher than even two years ago.
Exact percentages vary by team, but ticket sales still account for roughly half of an NWSL franchise's annual revenue. That reality brings different consequences for NWSL teams figuring out how to attract fans, and for those that continue to struggle at the gate.
The NWSL's California gold rush
Expansion changed the game for the NWSL in a lot of ways, including attendance. Los Angeles-based Angel City FC led the league in attendance in 2022, its first year in the league, drawing a per-game average of 19,105 fans over 11 regular-season games at Banc of California Stadium.
Angel City treats itself like a brand and markets women's soccer as a desirable event to attend, one that even the rich and famous of L.A. cannot miss (even if, for dozens of them, that is because they invested in the team).
Data is at the core of Angel City's ticketing operation, but the club also did something really obvious that most other NWSL owners have not been willing to do: invest in a robust, experienced staff. The payoff came in the form of a season-ticket membership of 15,000 fans before their first regular-season game, with that number eclipsing 16,000 by season's end.
Banc of California Stadium is also a modern, soccer-specific gem with multiple luxury seating options. The L.A. market has higher-than-average price points -- an average ticket price of $42 per game -- but exclusive suites run in the tens of thousands for the season, meaning a higher potential revenue from games. Angel City's largest single-game gate revenue was over $1 million, a club spokesperson told ESPN.
"Attendance is the biggest indicator that you are succeeding in building a community and identity for your club," Angel City president and co-founder Julie Uhrman said. "The ability to drive fans to a game and have them come back, regardless of whether they are winning or losing, shows your ability to create that connection."
Fellow expansion side San Diego Wave FC also contributed to the attendance bump after moving to Snapdragon Stadium late in the season once that stadium was built. The sellout crowd of 32,000 fans for the team's first game at the stadium during the regular season set a league attendance record.
Why attendance drives everything else
In many ways, attendance is the most overt measurement of the health and popularity of a team or league. A full stadium evokes the image of an important event, something that strikes FOMO, or fear of missing out, in those absent from it. That impression that the NWSL is something lots of people wants to be a part of -- attendance as the key metric -- helps drive other business interests that the NWSL is trying to grow.
The league's international media rights deal with streaming service Twitch expires at the end of this season, and the domestic media rights deal with CBS ends at the conclusion of 2023. Several sources around the NWSL expect the next media rights deal to increase exponentially from the $4.5 million committed by CBS in 2020. Sports media rights trends support that bet: MLS, the NWSL's counterpart on the men's side that has struggled to attract a consistent broadcast audience, recently announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with Apple.
Better attendance creates a more appealing broadcast and streaming product, while greater media visibility drives more sponsorship dollars. For the NWSL, it means that growing attendance is at the core of everything the league wants to achieve.
"Everything is related and interconnected, so you can't really create goals from a business perspective without understanding the relative dependencies between each of these areas of the business," Berman said. "And I would argue that attendance drives viewership, but viewership and distribution from a media perspective will also drive attendance. And all of that will drive engagement from sponsors and brands."
The NWSL can't reach its potential otherwise, and Berman & Co. have set lofty goals.
Two expansion teams -- one of which will be located in Utah in the greater Salt Lake City area, as first reported by ESPN in June -- are expected to be announced in the coming months. Utah's return price, in the $2 million range, was locked in by a December 2020 agreement made by previous league leadership (much to the chagrin of the current board) when the Utah Royals dissolved and were replaced by the Kansas City Current.
Berman said there are "dozens of groups who have signed NDAs" (non-disclosure agreements) to enter the formal bidding process for expansion. Multiple sources expect that winning group's expansion fee to be above $20 million due to the demand for only one spot.
Existing teams are seeing valuations swell, too. The Washington Spirit sold for $35 million earlier this year, 10 times the amount Seattle-based OL Reign sold for in December 2019. NJ/NY Gotham FC recently raised funding at a $40 million valuation. Berman declined to confirm specific valuations or possible expansion fees.
Investors arrive at those numbers by the subjectivity of making a bet on the future growth potential of the NWSL, but they also need to see signs that the league is heading in the right direction. Attendance is one of those key performance indicators, and the interdependence of it, media rights and sponsorship means continued growth at the gates is crucial.
Dependency goes beyond those major buckets, too, and into some of the smaller revenue streams that become more important as attendance scales up.
"Attendance drives significant revenue for the clubs, not only in your ticket revenue, but the additional revenue streams of merchandise, concessions, parking," Uhrman said. "But to be able to see a full stadium will encourage other people to want to go to those games, because they create a sense of belonging and create a sense of community.
"And then it's more exciting to watch it on television, it's more exciting for potential media rights partners who want to get these rights, because you are seeing the level of attachment to these games. Not to mention what it does for these players on the pitch, to inspire them to play at their highest level."
The NWSL's attendance winners and losers
Angel City, and even the San Diego Wave, might feel like anomalies, but there is plenty for other clubs to learn from the expansion sides' immediate success.
Kansas City went from the worst stadium situation in 2021 -- a converted baseball field that drew the ire of players from home and away teams alike -- to announcing plans to build a privately funded stadium of their own, a first for an NWSL team. It is expected to open in 2024.
In the interim, the Current moved to Children's Mercy Park, home of MLS' Sporting Kansas City, this season and averaged over 7,600 fans, a 63% increase from 2021.
Right now, ticket revenue accounts for roughly 35% of the Current's total revenue, club president Allison Howard told ESPN. Opening their own stadium will increase revenue streams for the Current and create a destination they hope is a sellout for each home game, but the expectation is that the move will skew revenue even more toward sponsorship. Why? Because the club expects a major sponsorship deal for naming rights to the stadium in addition to a handful of founding partners.
The Houston Dash, who have historically struggled to draw fans, made strides in attendance in the team's first full season under majority owner Ted Segal and team president Jessica O'Neill in 2022.
Even removing Angel City and San Diego from the equation, NWSL attendance grew 28% year-over-year. Still, the gulf is wide between those success stories and the teams struggling at the gate. Four of the league's 12 teams averaged fewer than 5,000 fans per game in 2022, including the Chicago Red Stars and not counting their doubleheader with the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field.
There are serious questions about the viability of some of those situations, chiefly in Chicago, where the team plays well outside of the city, in Bridgeview, Illinois. That market's future will be further tested soon as longtime owner Arnim Whisler gets pushed out of decision-making power. The club's board removed him as chairman, and players demanded he sell the team following details published in Sally Yates' report on systemic abuse in the NWSL. Whisler, the report details, received and dismissed repeated complaints about former head coach Rory Dames, who is accused of mental and physical abuse of players throughout his coaching career.
Among the lows of the Red Stars' 2022 season at the gate were a couple of Wednesday night games at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview that barely cleared the 2,000 mark for attendance. Those are objectively bad numbers, although just how bad depends on several factors. SeatGeek Stadium is widely assumed to be cheap to open -- especially after the Fire left for Soldier Field -- which means that while poor ticket sales mean low revenue, it might not necessarily mean a major loss. Multiple teams in the NWSL who play at bigger and newer venues pay six figures per game in expenses just to open the stadium, between rent and staffing.
In an interview prior to the Yates report and her subsequent resignation, former Red Stars chief business officer Vicky Lynch told ESPN that SeatGeek Stadium was "a very economical situation for us," quoting an average ticket price of $25-27. A crowd of 5,000 could "translate to a good day for us," she said.
Similarly, NJ/NY Gotham FC games continue to look like a ghost town at Red Bull Arena, even if the club's break-even number on tickets averaging $37 each is below 5,000, which the team averaged just below in 2022.
A rising tide in the NWSL to lift all clubs?
That two of the three largest media markets in the country -- Chicago and New York -- are among the worst-attended in the NWSL is a problem not just for the clubs locally but for the league as a whole in its quest to grow and attract more investment.
One solution is sharing best practices. The league office -- which recently moved from Chicago to New York -- will act as a consulting practice to support teams in specific business areas. Best practices will be shared, and the league will identify where it can achieve economies of scale and sell leaguewide partnerships on behalf of teams. This is already happening on an informal level, from the circulation of an internal league document in which clubs share their attendances and gate revenues, to phone calls between club executives.
Alex Morgan's late goal sends the San Diego Wave into the NWSL semifinals after a 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars.
"All of us that are in women's sports right now are locked arms, together," Howard said. "So, some of the markets that are really struggling, we have league calls, we have sidebar calls. We're getting together on our own to help each other out. Gosh, you're only getting 3,000, 4,000, here's some ideas that might work in your market to get you up another 500, a thousand. You try to be really methodical."
Berman said she helped launch a similar program in her previous job as deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League. Teams shared strategies on a weekly call and met in person at an annual business summit. Something similar could be in the cards for the NWSL.
New chief marketing officer Julie Haddon is specifically focused on fan engagement and conversion. Carlin Hudson, one of the league's newest hires and a former NWSL player, is the new director of strategy who will lead efforts around those team services. She will report to Berman.
Much of this centralization of strategy will be about getting the stragglers -- whether in attendance, sponsorship or other categories -- up to speed with the rest of the league. Berman argues that it goes deeper -- that it is a way for the league to look specifically at how each team sells and how others could learn from it.
"There will always be discrepancies in how much an ownership group in one market might invest relative to another market," Berman said. "Even some of our teams who are successful in various metrics, each of them invests in different areas.
"The key to this strategy from a league perspective is going a layer deeper and really understanding specifically what they are doing, what they've chosen to invest in, how they are measuring the successes of those investments, and then us analyzing all of that data and bringing it to particular markets where we know they might be not performing well in that particular area of the business and demonstrating to them how an investment strategy might change the revenue model."
"Investment" is the operative word right now in the NWSL. As valuations rise, and teams and the league ask sponsors for more money, there is an urgent need to continue proving an upward trajectory.
Strong television viewership and social-media engagement are positive, but ultimately there needs to be more butts in seats.
"COVID really proved to all of us in this industry that, at the end of the day, the foundation of professional sports is that we are a live events business," Berman said, "and that you can do made-for-TV events, but the enthusiasm that you feel when you are in the stadium or watching on TV, when you have a full stadium, is what gets everybody interested, no matter how you are consuming the content. I really view that piece as the base of the pyramid."