Women’s soccer fans had their hopes up that the 2019 World Cup bump and natural growth of the league would bring expansion to the National Women’s Soccer League in 2020. Reporting had Sacramento joining the league this year with Louisville set for 2021. Now, though there will be significant improvements to player pay and benefits this season, the league will be stuck at 9 teams for a second straight year.
In Minnesota, MN United FC opened one of the most revered soccer venues in North America in Allianz Field and invested more than ever before in their on-field Major League Soccer product. But, despite hitting their own previously named hurdles that needed to be conquered before pursuing a women’s squad (get the stadium built - check, get the lower level affiliate deal set up - mostly check) NWSL expansion chatter in the Land of 10,000 Lakes has been limited to possible, far-off interest.
In order to kickstart the conversation, I present my free plan for bringing NWSL to Minnesota.
The Lay of the Land
The National Women’s Soccer League is made up of 9 teams, the closest to Minnesota being Chicago. It recently announced a new Commissioner to fairly widespread acclaim. The best reporting to date had Sacramento set to join the league as an expansion team this season but they now seem destined to join in 2021 alongside Louisville -- hypothetically bringing the total number of teams to 11 for next season. Two other MLS ownership groups in Atlanta and LA have signaled some intention to add women’s teams as well. And most of that chatter took place before Lisa Baird came on as NWSL Commissioner, a move that should theoretically be the first domino is knocking down the skepticism that some ownership groups seem to have about the long term viability of the league (see: Minnesota’s such skepticism as laid out in a recent 55.1 podcast).
My personal counterpoint to these fears would be that there is enough there there in terms of globally recognized stars, tent pole franchises like Portland and North Carolina, and overall league stability that MLS teams should be excited about investing in the NWSL. New compensation rules add some much needed, if not somewhat unique, spending power to keep and recruit top talent and a new 3 year TV deal with CBS and Twitch will bring some stability for fans who have dealt with ever changing platforms and broadcasts.
To put it even more bluntly, there will eventually come a time when simply paying the expansion fee just to join the league costs real money. MLS, which is not that far removed from contraction and huge annual financial losses, may charge north of $300 million each for their next two expansion slots. Obviously NWSL is nowhere near that kind of price point. The Reign were recently valued closer to $3.5 million during their recent sale. But the point of getting in now, or at least soon, is not just that you don’t have to pay as high of a price. It’s that you can then benefit from receiving part of others’ expansion fees as well. Minnesota United, for example, may soon be a fully vested team and thus be eligible to benefit from the immense MLS paydays described above. It’s not the worst idea in the world to follow suit on the women’s side.
Where should they play?
Let’s pretend for a minute that one of the most gorgeous sports stadiums in all of North America doesn’t automatically float to the top of our list and work backwards from some data. Last year, the NWSL averaged about 7,000 fans per game, buoyed heavily by Portland averaging around 20,000. Let’s take those two numbers with a mixture of some Minnesota exceptionalism and a dose of reality in saying we’ll be above average but nowhere near Portland’s numbers.
Needing to seat roughly 7,500 people leaves options such as the National Sports Center (beloved for its history but located in the northern suburbs), CHS Field (a baseball stadium I can’t stop suggesting for one off soccer matches but not really suited as a permanent home), or if necessary a few high school or small-college football stadiums. But by this point we can drop the charade. The answer is, without a doubt, Allianz Field.
Though it seats nearly 20,000 at full capacity, multiple US Open Cup matches during 2019 were sold as lower-bowl only with attendance of roughly 7,000 and 12,000 for Sporting KC and New Mexico respectively. For an inaugural season with a certain amount of buzz and excitement, those numbers don’t seem entirely unrealistic. And the atmosphere is simply unparalleled.
How should they build the roster?
I will be the first to tell you that the ins and outs of NWSL rosters and player abilities are not my specialty. I created Equal Time Soccer specifically to fill a void in Minnesota womens soccer coverage because many national outlets already do a fantastic job (like, for instance, all the sources linked to in this piece already). Because of this, I don’t have specific or informed ideas about how to build the top end of an NWSL roster (other than making legendary Minnesotan and NWSL veteran Kassey Kallman your first signing, making current Gopher Soccer star Katie Duong your second signing, announcing them via a massive parade in front of Allianz Field featuring all the Kallmans and some Gopher greats, letting me MC said parade along with former Gopher Soccer star and current MNUFC commentator Kyndra De St Aubin, and maybe letting me be the sideline reporter for the broadcasts and having Kyndra and I do a weekly studio show with the players and coaches. But LIKE I SAID, no specific ideas).
But after years of covering a top college program, the NWSL reserve squads in the second division Women’s Premier Soccer League, and interviewing dozens of women who have jumped from college to the pros, I do have some insights into building out the backend of the roster.
As we’ve covered at length during our conversations with women’s soccer players who choose to, and choose not to, go pro, the decision isn’t as simple as it would be for athletes in other sports. Sure, NWSL rosters have been expanded slightly and the new compensation rules mean that each of the 4 additional supplemental players make $20,000. But with a lack of expansion overall, most opportunities for fringy pros are either on NWSL reserve squads that play in the WPSL or in European leagues overseas. Right now, the same Minnesota player who can make a few hundred or even a little more than $1,000 a month and have their housing covered in many leagues abroad essentially agrees to play for free, in a city pretty far away, with no guarantee at a shot in the big leagues.
Even someone who loves the game and has real professional talent can’t be questioned for thinking twice about several years of the scenario described above. But tweaking even one element of that situation -- where the team is based -- could really tip the scales. In conversations with recent stars who have left the University of Minnesota, the prospect of going through the no-glory, unpaid, battling through the reserve squad was far more intriguing if they got to be in a place they’re comfortable with while surrounded by friends, family, and former coaches. Now add on top of those Gophers a handful of the Minnesotans who leave for other top programs like Wisconsin, Michigan, or coastal schools. The slew of local talent alone wouldn’t guarantee you success in the NWSL. It might not even guarantee you produce a regular starter. But it certainly would shore up your bench and reserve squad. Role them out to play at nearby Hamline University just north of Allianz Field and you’ve got a recipe for really fun, super high quality soccer.
How to sell it
First let me say that I think there will be demand for professional women’s soccer in Minnesota. The Lynx show that professional womens sports can work here. United and its previous iterations show that professional soccer can work here. Allianz Field is beautiful enough that even people who don’t care about soccer in any way, shape, or form would want to attend. And, as the cost of MNUFC tickets ratchet up year by year, another option for experiencing the stadium may be attractive to an even wider set of people.
But if we need to get more transactional about actually selling this thing, I think a good first step would be to utilize the MNUFC season ticket base as a leverage point. For years, the Toronto Maple Leafs only let you on their season ticket wait list if you first bought tickets to the Toronto Raptors. Because MNUFC has capped the number of season ticket holders and created a wait list, why not let folks jump up that priority list if they purchase season tickets for the women’s team? Hell, Glen Taylor is a part owner, give them a deal on Timberwolves or Lynx tickets. Ok one of those ideas may make more sense than the other.
In terms of spreading the word, making direct connections to organizations like Monarch FC and Like a Girl who work day in, day out to provide access to soccer and futsol to inner city girls and girls of color would go a long way in showing that the club is investing from the ground up. Use the new women’s team as a way to expand the club’s sponsorship base by bringing in new brands that feel like the NWSL associates more closely with their market than MLS.
What fans can do
Getting to see the USWNT play right here in St Paul was amazing and one day getting a top shelf professional women’s soccer team in Minnesota would be unbelievable, but we have to start seeing past the shiniest and biggest possible outcome at the expense of support the women who are playing the game already. The number one thing fans can do right now is to go watch the Gophers this fall in what is sure to be a great bounce back year. Go watch the WPSL this summer and see if there are players you want to follow at other schools when they return to their college programs.
For every MNUFC fan who posts on social media or chats with your friends about how amazing it would be to have a professional women’s team in Minnesota, let’s take some action to show we mean it. This summer, let’s go to a few WPSL games. This fall, let’s go watch the Gophers or another local women’s college team. There was a time when mens pro soccer in Minnesota was held up by the passion of a few hardcore fans and the grit and elbow grease of passionate leaders and players. Now, we get to watch our men’s team play in one of the greatest soccer stadiums in the continent.
In other words, if we want to stand up and fight for equal pay and equal opportunity, now is the time to show it.
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