LOS ANGELES – Having just completed its fourth season, the National Women’s Soccer League is now the longest running professional league in the history of American women’s soccer. There’s also a case to be made that NWSL may be the best women’s soccer league in the world.
This may be seen as an affront to fans of some of the European women’s soccer leagues. The Swedish Damallsvenskan, the Italian Women’s Serie A and the French Division 1 Feminine have been around for decades after all. But it’s an inarguable fact that NWSL is currently the fastest growing women’s soccer league in the world.
Since the league was founded in 2012 it has grown from eight teams to 10. Average attendances meanwhile, have grown from 4,270 in 2013 to 5,558 in 2016. That’s over five times the average crowd for matches in Germany’s Frauen Bundesliga and the English Women’s Super League in the UK.
And while Major League Soccer struggles to hold the attention of fans reared on European leagues like La Liga and the Premier League, which feature the game’s top male players, NWSL has the benefit of boasting many of the top female players in the world within its ranks.
With NWSL being backed financially by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Mexican Football Federation, the league is home to the top regional players, with the U.S.A. and Canada currently ranked first and fourth respectively by FIFA.
Along with the league’s backbone of Canadian, Mexican, and American internationals, there is also a smattering of top-tier European talent, like Scottish striker Kim Little, who after three seasons with Seattle Reign recently returned to London to rejoin Arsenal ladies, and Portland’s Amandine Henry who has 45 appearances and four goals for the French national team.
Apart from quality on the pitch, one thing the NWSL has going for it that many of the more long-serving leagues don’t is a rabid base of young fans. Soccer is consistently among the most popular sports among teen, tween and preteen girls.
A generation of young girls has come of age in an era when they’ve seen the United States women’s national team prevail in two consecutive Olympics and a World Cup. Having a domestic league in which they can go and see their heroes like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd in person is a huge draw.
The league has also successfully marketed itself as a family-friendly alternative to the beer-swilling, obscenity-prone atmosphere of other U.S. domestic sports leagues.
Also, although MLS has been around for over 20 years now, America lacks the established soccer tradition of European and South American countries. This lack of a strong soccer tradition arguably cuts both ways for NWSL.
On the one hand, there is less overall attention paid to soccer here than in countries like Germany and Italy. But on the other hand, NWSL doesn’t have to work as hard to compete with MLS as European women’s leagues do with the likes of the Bundesliga, Premier League and La Liga.
With good stadiums, growing crowds and further expansion planned for the seasons ahead, the American professional women’s league is on an upward trajectory. And while it may take decades for MLS to be considered among the top leagues in the world, if it ever happens at all, the NWSL, it could be argued, is already there.