The Washington Spirit don’t have a chance to defend its National Women’s Soccer League title, but the NWSL championship game set for Saturday at 20,000-seat Audi Field is trending toward a sellout crowd.
It’s a testament to the rising popularity of professional women’s soccer that the support is so strong at a neutral venue between the Portland Thorns and Kansas City Current. Saturday’s season finale will put the exclamation mark on a postseason with average attendance of 21,495 over four games.
“We know that athletes in the NWSL are cultural icons that are household names,” said NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman. “People watch what they do on and off the pitch as a representation of what is possible for women and girls. For that reason, sponsors and media partners are recognizing that this is a place to invest resources and get a return on investment.”
While working to grow its fan base, the NWSL has also had to deal with scandal and protection of its players. The recently released Yates report on systemic abuse in the NWSL included allegations of sexual harassment against former Thorns head coach Thorns Paul Riley.
Riley last coached the Thorns in 2015 and moved on to lead other teams in the league before more allegations of abuse surfaced against him last year with the Carolina Courage and he was fired. Merritt Paulson, who is part owner of the Thorns and Major League Soccer Timbers, recently resigned as the team’s CEO and there have been calls for him to sell his teams.
“We do believe coming out of this we will be a best in class organization,” said Berman. “We are addressing some of the issues that we know are unique to the NWSL. These are broader cultural issues that women and girls face in our society. We believe this is an opportunity to get it right not just for our athletes but for everyone else who experiences these challenges.”
The NWSL is the third attempt at a professional women’s soccer league in the U.S. The Women’s United Soccer Association launched in 2001 featuring early stars of the game like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain. It only lasted three seasons. A circuit called Women’s Professional Soccer tried again in 2009, but also only lasted three seasons.
The NWSL seems to have staying power. In addition to a postseason attendance boom, expansion teams in San Diego and Los Angeles were successful at the gate and the championship contending Current has broken ground on its own 11,000-seat stadium in Kansas City set to open in 2024.
“We believe we are at that critical turning point where women’s sports and women’s soccer and the NWSL in particular are about to take off,” said Berman. “We have the World Cup next summer and we know how incredible that is as a moment in time to bring tailwinds into the pro league. We have seen that happen before and that adds to our excitement for next season.”