Orlando, Florida — On Thursday, NWSL Managing Director of Operations Amanda Duffy sat down with NWSL Media’s Meg Linehan and Jacqueline Purdy to address a number of topics and to discuss the state of the National Women’s Soccer League ahead of the NWSL Championship between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, Lifetime).Biggest successes in 2017:
There’s a few important successes from year five. One, I think we just had a successful season five in general. I know we’re going to talk about season five being a historical year and every season that the NWSL exists after year three. It becomes just that much longer of a league, more stable of a league. So from that standpoint, just acknowledging that we’ve successfully completed a fifth season as a women’s professional league is important just to note and set that tone.
When we look at some of the attendance successes that have been here in the league, and the continued success in Portland, overall from a league perspective from an accumulative number across the season, we’re trending in a very good direction. The move and transition of ownership to North Carolina, and the launch of the North Carolina Courage, which is a historical women’s soccer brand. I think they did a wonderful job in launching and getting off the ground on very short notice. Of course, with a roster that’s very similar to last year’s Western New York Flash and then having that piece together and that continued success they’ve had on the field, and they’re back here at the Championship is an important piece to the success of this season.
I think there’s a few things that we can look at this year, but certainly with on the field and some of the records that were set, and attendance that continues to grow, a lot of our markets are key pieces that we look at.
Expectations for the 2017 NWSL Championship:
I think the really neat thing about Orlando is there’s a soccer culture here. With or without Orlando in the Championship, we always knew this was going to be a good environment, because there is a culture, there is a fan base. And as the fan base in the NWSL grows, and the support individually with our teams grows, we know that just helps the attendance and the environment at a Championship event while it’s a neutral site hosted event.
So I think when we look at the teams that are in the Championship, we’ve got the top two teams coming into it. The top two out of the regular season standings, both teams are playing well right now, which is is just going to make on the field a competitively balanced competition, an exciting competition. When a champion is named, it will truly represent the team that has comprehensively, start to finish, across the season, put together the best season in the league.
Off the field, I think we’re going to have a great attendance, anywhere from seven to ten thousand is where we’ll be. It will create a nice environment in a stadium that has a lot of neat features, a lot of cool features for the fans in that environment. The atmosphere is going to be good. I think it’s going to be a good crowd, and everyone’s excited to see this year represented.
On having players like Marta and Mallory Pugh join the NWSL, as well as Sam Kerr’s breakout season:
It took it to the next level. Having the top players globally playing in NWSL just continues to enhance and accelerate the level of play, the level of competition in NWSL. From the development of players domestically and internationally that are playing against the best, it just continues to help accelerate the development of our players. For the youth players in the United States, and those that are aspiring to play at the professional level, it just sets a great standard and such an exciting environment for a young player to really want to be a part of.
On players like Nadia Nadim and Amandine Henry leaving:
I think that’s what one of the things that we as a league will need to continue to talk about, continue to talk about, continue to grow in the off-the-field aspects of our business. They’ve certainly been — the two that you just named — two huge players that have certainly had an impact in the league and were a part of, a couple of years ago, showing that they can come into this league and they can be successful and that this is a league that globally, all players want to be a part of. We’ll continue to see that trend.
This past off-season, we more than doubled our minimum salary and made some big important increases in that piece of it. As that continues to grow, that’s going to help players want to be here and want to be a part of the NWSL. That’s going to be a key piece we continue to focus on off-the-field, but also, in the individual markets, just making sure there’s a connection with the market, that there continues to be a growth in fan bases and support at that level for those players and those clubs to thrive in their individual markets. That just helps the league overall continue to grow.
On whether the NWSL will see Designated Players or Homegrown Players, like MLS:
We’re not ready for it. There’s still some strides we have to make in other areas to really position these teams and position our ownerships to be able to take on increases, that when you talk about a Designated Player type salary or even Homegrown Player salaries that are usually different than, or at least in the MLS model, than what the minimum salary is. It impacts the overall spend. So there’s some other areas with our ownership that we really have to make sure are stable and are in the right place before we can really take on some big changes like that.
Understanding the benefit of those players in the league, we want to make those strides and we want to do it as quickly as possible. When the league was launched, the priority was, let’s do this at a pace and in a way that keeps the league around. I think that’s been done, I think that’s been executed well, which is why we’re wrapping up a season five and looking at season six. But I don’t think we’re ready to take the bigger jumps yet, to get into those type of salaries and financial requirements that increase greater spend that keep those players over here.
On players like Maddy Evans, Amanda DaCosta and Elli Reed retiring:
It’s a combination of both, but for us if you want to keep players in the league longer, more focus needs to be on the lower side right now than on the higher side, than on the upper end. If everything is growing incrementally that allows players to play an extra year, or extra couple of years, rather than these young players coming out of college and only able to do this for two or three years because they’re making $15,000, just at a certain point it doesn’t become realistic.
If we can continue to work on that and build on the lower end to get this to a threshold and a level that allows players to be able to live on a salary that they’re making while they’re still playing, think that’s certainly the goal of the league and the ownerships, and at the right time, when it makes sense to also introduce the other ancillary mechanisms that allow players to stay in at the higher level, and we feel like the league’s in that stable position as it continues to grow, then we’ll introduce it at that right time.
On the state of the markets, specifically FC Kansas City:
The spectrum of not just ownership, but environments and resources that the teams have is stark. You have Portland on one end, and you have a Sky Blue, a Kansas City, a Boston on the other. I think when you look at all of the situations, you come from a starting point of — for me at least — that we have ten owners that are committed to women’s soccer, and committed to NWSL succeeding. And it’s going to be at a certain pace for some, and certain investments at certain levels across the board, and some are going to be more capable than others.
The biggest thing for us right now is continuing to manage with the ownership that is committed in each of the markets, there are strengths and weaknesses with each of these teams and understanding the dynamics in each and what it’s going to take from a league side to continue to move those markets and those organizations forward that enable to them not just keep operating and keep in business, but find a path forward to thrive in the women’s game and women’s professional soccer. To present the best team, the best and brand, and to represent both locally and nationally the team in NWSL, that we feel like women’s professional soccer deserves, the players deserve and in a way that shows the continued growth.
But there are some challenges, there’s definitely some challenges in certain markets and the strengths and weaknesses that need attention and need to really be focused on to make those teams successful.
So we did have some challenges in Kansas City this year, it was a new ownership and new management, new general manager. There was a lot of transition and changeover of staff that made things a little bit harder, and probably the process a little bit slower than probably they expected and we would have wanted. But that’s something that’s a part of the evolution of the league and evolution of how we’re going to grow. So when we have those opportunities, it’s a matter of taking the situation by the hand and showing the way, guiding the way to meet the standards that we want to continue to grow with also.
Is that the focus for this offseason?
This was a big year. February 2nd, we announced the partnership with A+E and Lifetime and launched NWSL Media. I mean that’s eight months ago. We’ve had some personnel change over, [former NWSL commissioner] Jeff [Plush] isn’t with the league any more, just some new thinkers and new ideas and new staff, you guys, too. A lot of new people coming into a lot of new things that are all great for the league and the sport going forward. All of that happening was a big change for the teams too, a lot of new ideas and expectations coming into it. Going into this offseason, we have more of that in place and a better framework for what all of this looks like with our partnership with A+E, and with NWSL Media up and operating we can really focus in on that we need as a league and nationally, and also with the teams. What the expectations are going to be and how we really move those situations to stronger places.
Where do things stand with FC Kansas City?
It’s a priority. It’s a top priority for us right now. We’re working with that ownership right now to resolve and get that to a situation that has clarity and the right path forward for next year. It’s a market we believe in strongly. FC Kansas City has success there, on and off the field, in past years. I think it’s proven to be a great soccer market on the men’s and the women’s side. It’s a market we haven’t lost any faith in, on what the potential is there. It is a priority, and we’re continuing to work on that to give clarity and resolution on how that will look in 2018.
On future expansion:
When I got here, nine months ago, ten months ago, there were some opportunities that were being discussed that had gone back into last year and looking at 2018, and it felt like there was a little bit of a rush and push to do that just for the sake of having that. There’s some really good expansion opportunities and expansion markets and prospects that the league is talking to. We’re in a great position though, because it’s not required. We’re not in a situation where we only make it to year six if there’s expansion. It just gives us a better opportunity to really have the right conversations with the right ownership groups, so that any new ownership that comes in, any team that comes in, they’re coming in at the top. They’re coming in to enhance what we’re doing and build the league and grow the league. It’s not a situation where they can operate at the level we’re operating right now, they can help be a part of the growth and the drive to move the league forward, move the game forward.
In 2018, we don’t anticipate any expansion. But with all the prospects we’ve been working with, and talking with, they feel very good. We have very good, very positive conversations with all the ownerships that have been speculated about and mentioned in the past with future expansion, potentially as soon as 2019.
Is it difficult to have expansion in a World Cup year?
I think there’s challenges to it, but also when there’s so much attention on women’s soccer it also creates an opportunity. You might have more fans interested in seeing it, and a better opportunity to expose to people that watch in those tournament years, at those times, but wouldn’t necessarily be paying attention or following otherwise. In those years, it’s not just the diehard women’s soccer fan that’s paying attention, you have a broader audience. I think there’s benefits to coming in and starting a team during a World Cup year also.
Status of FC Barcelona, which has expressed interest in the NWSL:
It’s a group that we continue to have positive conversations with. Between the things they’re working on, they’re continuing to grow their presence in the United States at all levels. It kind of goes back to the right time and the right location for FC Barcelona and for the league, and those are the things we want to get right and we have the ability to take our time and make sure it’s done right in a way that sets them up for success. It helps across the league for the league to be successful. So it’s a good place to be in right now, and it continues to be a great conversation, and we’ll continue to identify that right location for them
Do you want to see teams in Los Angeles and New York City?
Those are markets that have existing professional soccer organizations that do very well. In LA, there are now two for the MLS teams at least, and other men’s professional teams in the surrounding area. Same goes for New York. With LAFC coming into that market, I certainly think they’re going to do everything right and everything well, and the LA Galaxy are a proven, historical team in that market too. They’re great markets, and there’s proven success for professional soccer there. We’re going to look at the markets: does it make sense regionally and geographically with the teams that we do have? And it’s going to be about having the right ownership before we go into any market that we’re going to expand in. Is the team set up for success with the right stadium, the right facilities, the right resources, financially, in a front office, that allow a training facility, that allow the women’s game to thrive and to have everything it really takes to operate at a professional level.
On the new NWSL Players’ Association:
I know they’ve been working for a couple of years now to organize themselves and to organize this Players’ Association. For them to be able to set up a situation where all the players have a clear opportunity to talk and a channel to bring information to the league, that allows the league to have a better understanding of some of the things going on, in the places that we’re not necessarily seeing or hearing things. I think to have that ability to have that information and better understand the on-the-ground stuff that’s happening, and just feedback from the players that are living this every single day. Across the board, everyone has the same end wish — or not even a wish — but to see the continued growth of the league. For everything that I have now, I want it to be better for the next person, the next set of players that come in.
With that in mind, and with everyone having that same desire for the league, and for growth and the ability to communicate to the league and us to players. I understand it, it makes sense, and it’s been good dialogue so far. It’s still very early, and it’s been an establishment process for them for getting the association set up, getting their leadership in place, their representatives from the teams. I think this will be an important offseason for them too, now that some of those sort of set up pieces, start up pieces are now behind them. What are their agenda items? What is it that they really want to talk about and focus on that will come to the league? And we’ll continue to look at and have dialogue with them.
They named the two representatives from every team, they named their executive leadership there. It’s been very much, over the course of three or four months now, what those roles and responsibilities are. A few things that they’ve brought to the league’s attention that are not bigger, broader aspects, but just sort of singular, here’s a situation, how can we handle it. We’ve started to do that on a singular basis, but this offseason they’ll spend more time in really laying out what some of the items are that they really want to talk about.
On the A+E Networks partnership, weekly games on Lifetime, and where that goes next year:
This is one of those things too, where I think this offseason is going to be important for us. With it being announced and finalized in January, announced in February, we put a lot together before the start of this season, both from on the linear side and also on the digital side with our broadcast this year.
We’ve been really pleased with our Lifetime Games of the Week. Every Saturday, we have a game of the week that we can just continue to drive fans to, and they know at the same time every week they’re going to have an opportunity to watch the NWSL. That’s been really valuable for us to have that and be able to promote that, leading up to each, Lifetime’s been really good at promoting throughout their A+E networks to drive and deliver the viewers, so we’re certainly appreciative of that. It’s invaluable to have the broadcast for this league, as it opens up so much more opportunity. We have our women’s soccer viewers that are going to know and follow, it doesn’t take a whole lot to get the information to them, they’re looking for information about the league. There are other, more casual fans, and making sure that they’re aware and they know when they can find the NWSL. What A+E also brings to the table is the other group that’s not necessarily a fan yet at all. They might have a child play, but they don’t follow the NWSL, they might not even know about the NWSL. So it just introduces the league and the players, the athletes to what I would consider a new audience on the Lifetime network. But it then gives us the opportunity for looking at sponsorships, and broadening our viewership, and a better platform — for when we talk about national sponsorships and go in that direction, it gives us a better platform to sell off of and really talk about the league and talk about the viewers.
Our average viewership this year is higher than it was last year. We’ll have 25 games on national television this year, which is more than the league’s ever had.
On Lifetime, go90 and the growth of NWSL on digital platforms:
When we think about Lifetime, go90, and the website, those are three key areas that are night and day from what we’ve had in the past. Starting with the website, new website and I’ll throw in the app on that also, but a new website with more live content than we’ve ever had before, which has just been amazing for the league. Content is what helps drive engagement, and having new fresh content for our fans to look at, and not just the written, but the videos. There’s just so much more for fans to really understand the league, that we haven’t been in position to do before. Having that, and the launch of a new website and to follow that up with all the content and all the interaction that it affords through both the website and the app, it’s an important step to getting our brand out there and making sure it’s represented in a good way and a strong way, that delivers the right message and showcases the athletes in the best way.
Coming in behind that with our digital broadcasts, previously on YouTube and also the responsibility of the teams with the production and the talent, and really just delivering the digital broadcasts. Working with Vista this year has really been a wonderful experience and they’ve been great about the quality of our broadcasts, really improving it to a level that we’re really happy with and talk about the ways that we can enhance that broadcast going forward too, just so we can give that higher quality feel and experience for someone watching. Whether that’s for someone watching through go90 or our website, which our website now allows that for our international viewers and in the cases that we needed it to, our domestic viewers as well.
That experience, combined with the quality of the broadcasts on Lifetime — [NWSL on Lifetime executive producer] Michael Cohen has done an excellent job week in and week out with the production of the game itself, but also with the pregame show, the features, telling the stories and more stories about the players as part of those games. The stories off the field about players and personalizing it in a way that I think is really important and what the women’s soccer fans really connect with. It’s been really positive, the movement, the growth on all three of those sides has been really great. It’s been really exciting to look at those, to talk with Vista, to Lifetime, talk to Evan [Silverman, A+E Networks EVP of Global Digital Products and Platforms, who manages NWSL Media] and you guys about what more we can do, and there’s really a platform for us to do more. I think the response has been really great and the quality of it all has been really great to just, bringing it back to telling stories of the athlete, showcasing the athletes and their stories on the field and off the field and just giving them a platform too to talk about things that are important to them.
Status of potential sponsorships:
When you look at the timing of the A+E deal came together, we missed the window for 2017 in the sponsorship life-cycle. And that’s something that’s just part of the launch of NWSL Media, that’s one of the areas that’s a priority for NWSL Media to drive that opportunity and through A+E through the relationships and partnerships that the network already has, and in some aspects looking to be a beneficiary of some of those existing relationships and being able to bring that over to the women’s side. A+E’s already done that in so many ways, it just enables us and positions us to have stronger conversations with potential partnerships that make sense with the league and the brand, and really connect on a level more than just the financial part of it, that there’s a bigger connection and relationship that makes sense for them being a part of the NWSL.
On whether the USMNT missing the World Cup could impact NWSL:
It’s a very, very unfortunate situation. I don’t sit here today and — I don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel very good about where this league is, in that for five years now it’s managed itself, it’s been managed and positioned to be stable and to be successful. It comes with its bumps and challenges along the way, but it’s a model that was set up in a way for it to be successful.
So while there may be a lot of talk about systematic changes top to bottom, leadership, youth, professional, amateur, college, everything, I think if I put the shell around this league, it’s been positioned to be successful. I don’t have any question about that. I think it’s going to continue to grow, I think we’re going to continue to focus on the areas that we need to to grow, from team ownership down to resources within the organizations, to the players that keep this league a part of the conversation of being the best in the world. I certainly think the most competitive, top-to-bottom, I certainly think this league is that. So while there are a lot of things going on, a lot of talk going on in the soccer community right now, at the end of the day, MLS is in year 22. The professional game is still — relatively speaking — it’s young in the United States, and there’s a lot of growth in front of men’s and women’s soccer in the United States.
Whatever challenges there might be on the immediate horizon to look at and to work through, I don’t ever question the support and intention to work through it, to make sure we’re developing the players, we’re developing the coaches, and we’re putting the sport in the right place to be able to grow — for men’s soccer, for women’s soccer, and certainly at the professional level to continue to grow and be in the right position.
Bringing it back to here, I feel good about where this league is right now. That we’re going to be the steady piece that just continues to grow up and develop and be a part of broader sense of the soccer landscape.