NWSL launching expansion process, attendance and viewership up, plus more updates from commissioner

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NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman provided an update on league expansion and year-end metrics Friday as she addressed media for a brief state of the league update ahead of the 2023 NWSL Championship. Berman also began the news conference with an announcement of the formation of a new entity from women’s soccer leagues from across the globe, the Women’s Leagues Forum.

Here’s what you need to know about NWSL viewership and attendance:

  • On Thursday, the NWSL announced its new four-year media deals with CBS, ESPN, Amazon and Scripps for a combined value of $240 million.
  • Total CBS viewership was up 41 percent year-over-year, with an 83 percent increase in viewership for matches streaming on Paramount+.
  • Regular season attendance was up, again, with median attendance 40 percent higher in 2023, average attendance up 26 percent and more than 1.2 million tickets sold this year across the league.
  • Nine of the league’s teams broke the 10,000 barrier for attendance this season, with Berman noting that the number of games with 10K+ fans had doubled.

Expansion process opens for 16th team

The NWSL is launching the expansion process for the team that will join alongside Boston in 2026. The process will begin after this year’s championship — led once again by Inner Circle Sports, an industry-specific investment bank that has advised the league on previous expansions.

“Our preliminary analysis of the landscape is that we have more than a dozen qualified investor groups from different markets around the U.S.,” Berman said, making sure she also mentioned they were “interested in the kinds of investment” the league now expects.

That’s about all Berman gave on team No. 16, and details were thin as well on the sale processes underway in Portland and Seattle. The goal is still for both teams to be under new owners by the end of the calendar year. Earlier this week, Sportico reported that the Seattle Sounders were the other party in the bidding process for the Reign, but no confirmation came Friday.

Women’s Leagues Forum

Berman announced the formalization of a Women’s Leagues Forum, a group of 16 international professional women’s leagues that will work together to share information and best practices related to the development of women’s soccer.

The WLF board is comprised of leaders from eight different leagues and is co-chaired by Berman and Annika Grälls, the chair of the Damallsvenskan in Sweden. Per a WLF news release, members of the board include:

  • Mariana Gutierrez, head of Liga MX Femenil (Mexico)
  • Haruna Takata, chairwoman, WE League (Japan)
  • Beatriz Alvarez, president, Liga F (Spain)
  • Fiona McIntyre, managing director, Scottish Women’s Premier League (Scotland)
  • Nick Garcia, commissioner, A Leagues (Australia)
  • Lorin Parys, CEO, Pro League (Belgium)

Additionally, former FIFA Council member Moya Dodd consulted with the WLF in their formation and is now the secretary of the board.

Before the NWSL championship, Berman said that the WLF had also invited FIFPRO to their discussions and that USWNT Players Association executive director Becca Roux and NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke had sat in on some of their meetings. Per Berman, the WLF has already established one group around safeguarding and another around player compensation to discuss how to incentivize clubs to invest in future talent.

The WLF is not without precedent, as men’s soccer leagues have their own World Leagues Forum to address issues affecting the global men’s game. Berman emphasized that though the women’s WLF would look to the men’s WLF for some best practices, they were also cognizant that the women’s WLF must also be intentional about recognizing where a different path would be best to adapt to the specific needs of the women’s game. That work would include compiling an annual benchmarking report to identify different strategies in each league that could be useful to each other.

Both Grälls and Berman said that they expected the WLF would also eventually work on assisting in developing women’s leagues should they request it, although that assistance might vary depending on the primary stakeholder in each league. For example, some leagues are still primarily run by their federations as opposed to being an independent entity, and so best practices would vary accordingly.

Other notable details

  • The NWSL will not play through next summer’s Olympic tournament. “We will respect the FIFA window to ensure that our players can compete in our league when they’re not competing internationally,” said Berman. She did say they expect some form of “league activity” during that window, though details are not expected soon on what that means exactly.
  • Berman didn’t bite much on questions regarding the USL’s new women’s professional league and just stressed that the NWSL is focused on its own priorities. “You’d have to ask the USL about their plans and their strategy,” she said in one answer about potential competition in existing or proposed NWSL markets.
  • Player development and academies were also a popular thread, but Berman said that this is very much still a work in progress, with a landscape analysis underway. “Who are the players in those spaces? What are our clubs already doing? What are they interested in doing? And importantly, what is U.S. Soccer planning to do as they continue to feed the pipeline for development?” Berman said. “We want to ensure that the investments we make are additive and not redundant or conflicting with those who are making investments prospectively for the future. So the short answer is that it’s still a work in progress.”

What else Berman said

“As we look ahead to 2024 and beyond, we are at an inflection point,” Berman said in her opening remarks. “We have our new media deals. You’ve heard us talk about how this is the beginning of our future. This is a moment not to be complacent, it’s a moment to invest for the future. It’s a moment that we don’t take for granted. We believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to grow this league and to build for the future, and that is what we are prepared to do.

“Our aspiration is to be the best league in the world, and we’re prepared to make good decisions and investments that are necessary for us to make that a reality.”

Required reading

(Photo: Meg Oliphant / Getty)

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