Can USWNT Star Power Lift the NWSL?

Bridgeview, IL - Julie Johnston played on September 6, 2015 as The Chicago Red Stars tied the Houston Dash by the score of 1-1 at Toyota Park.

Bridgeview, IL – Julie Johnston played on September 6, 2015 as The Chicago Red Stars tied the Houston Dash by the score of 1-1 at Toyota Park.

Written by Alex Baker

Against the backdrop of an ongoing federal complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation from some of its biggest stars, the National Women’s Soccer League kicks off its fourth season on Saturday. That in itself is something of a landmark, as the NWSL is the first professional women’s soccer league to last longer than three seasons.

The NWSL will showcase some of the most recognizable female athletes on the planet. World Cup winners Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo and Christen Press all ply their trade in the league when they’re not featuring for the USWNT.

This year the league has added another expansion team, as it has in each of its previous seasons, bringing the total number of teams to 10. Meanwhile, Fox Sports has signed on to broadcast six matches for the second consecutive year in a row, although it won’t do so until the final month of the season.

Meanwhile, average attendance for the league rose 23% last year from the year before. Although it still hovers around 5,000 a game, less than a fourth of the average attendance for an MLS match.

Still, these are all significant steps forward for women’s soccer in this country, which let’s face it, when there’s not a World Cup or an Olympics going on, tends to fade from public view. Yet, despite these advances, the income disparity between female professionals and their male counterparts remains huge with some NWSL players earning as little as $7,200 a season.

But last summer’s World Cup seemed like something of a game changer for women’s soccer in this country. It transformed the likes of Morgan, Lloyd and Sydney Leroux into true household names. Sandwiched as it is, between the World Cup and the upcoming Summer Olympics, the 2016 NWSL season is well poised to make a greater impact as it heads into what is basically uncharted territory for an American women’s professional soccer league.

Surviving into an unprecedented fourth season and demonstrating continued growth is already a major accomplishment for the women’s game in the U.S.

The question that remains however, is will the star power of the league’s big names finally translate into broader, sustainable success for the league and more importantly, a living wage for all of its players?

(Photo by ISI and Robin Alam)

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