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.
The United States World Cup win pushed their fan support on the field to a whole new level. And because of how they won — as outspoken and fearless champions for equal pay and representation — they also built a groundswell of support off the field. As the World Cup champs return to their club teams in the National Women's Soccer League, they’re bringing record breaking crowds with them. Yet their equal pay dispute with the US Soccer Federation is far from resolved. And even less certain is how or if the benefits of a new contract for national team players will trickle down to the rank and file in the NWSL.
Still, it’s clear that the conversation has shifted. And for a breakout star like Rose Lavelle, part of the battle is using her new platform in a way that brings real progress.
“We obviously have a unique platform and us using our voice inspires more people to use theirs. Even just pushing the conversation past just talking and more towards action has helped more female athletes feel like they have the power to do that too.”
Can Minnesota be next?
At the same time, with only nine NWSL teams across the country, it remains to be seen how much the World Cup bump will impact places like Minnesota. With a brand new stadium and a Major League Soccer ownership group with connections and experience in so many other professional leagues, does Minnesota have the right ingredients to be an expansion team?
Carli Lloyd, who has experienced the ups and downs of not only this league but its predecessors, knows it’s not always that simple. But the potential is there.
“There’s obviously tricky things, other than just saying ‘it’d be great to have a women’s team here,” Lloyd said. “But a place like Minnesota I think would probably offer an amazing setup for a team.”
Minnesotan and NWSL veteran Kassey Kallman agrees. Especially if the investment is there.
“I think Minnesota is doing all the right things to have a women’s team at this point. You see the teams that are coming in that are affiliated with MLS teams that are doing so well. The teams that are struggling are the people that are more independent owners that have smaller stadiums. If they put in the resources the same as the do for the men, if they do the marketing the same as the men, it can succeed. People love women’s soccer here.”
Early proof of concept
The highest level women’s soccer team in the state are the Gophers at the U of M. Since current Head Coach Stefanie Golan started in 2012, they’ve won one regular season Big Ten Championship, two Big Ten tournament championships, and had four trips to the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers worst season in that span has still been over .500. That sustained success has led to some of the best attendance in the country for college soccer.
In fact, I’d wager the Gopher Soccer program has sent about as many players into the pro ranks as the football and basketball teams, who receive infinitely more coverage and attention from local media. For more than a decade, Gophers have been going on to have successful careers in Norway (Kelsey Hood) and Germany (Jenni Clark), and while others have made stops in the pro leagues of Sweden, Czech Republic, Iceland, Serbia, Israel, Puerto Rico, and more.
Outside the Twin Cities, high quality programs at the DII and DIII levels. The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference is largely made up of Minnesota state schools and the MIAC and UMAC feature many of the state’s small liberal arts colleges. And players of all levels are featured in the WPSL, a massive semi-pro summer league with six teams in Minnesota and Fargo.
Fans can make a difference
It’s easy to forget when you watch the national team suit up in red, white, and blue at the immaculate Allianz Field, but the world class soccer we get to experience now is really thanks to years of support for lower level soccer up in Blaine. When finances were tight, and it looked like the Stars (formerly the Thunder) might fold, it was the outstanding fan support and game experience at the National Sports Center that helped convince this ownership group to invest in the Stars, and bring them to MLS as the MN United we cheer for today.
So if we want the chance to see these incredible women play soccer week in and week out for a professional team based right here in Minnesota, and not just for one special night, we need to start by showing our support for the fantastic women’s soccer we already have. Check out a Gopher game. Watch a WPSL game online. And tell your friends and family about your experience. Rather than letting the visit from the women’s national team be a one time high that leads to emotional hangover, let’s use this World Cup win as our gateway drug into the wonderful world of Minnesota women’s soccer.
Video & Podcast: LIVE from the Blackhart USWNT night before party with Jen Larrick, Stefanie Golan, Kassey Kallman
Thanks to everyone who showed up to the fantastic night before party at Blackhart to celebrate the USWNT coming to town. Any party that involves Lori Lindsey (shown above with monthly supporter Brynn Sias) is a success.
If you want to watch our chats with Jen Larrick, Stefanie Golan, and Kassey Kallman about expanding access to soccer, representation, the Gophers, NWSL expansion, and more, it's embedded in the tweet below (albeit with some pretty hot lighting. I'll place the phone better next time). Or you can listen to it as a podcast both below and on iTunes,Google Play, or Stitcher.
Supporters giving $10/month and up
Chad Flynn & Mary Lahammer
Salvo Soccer Club
Jim & Kristen Gray