Dear National Women's Soccer League,

Soccer is the world's game, and it's growing in popularity here in America. Despite hemorrhaging money at the moment, MLS is already planning on becoming the biggest football league in the world over the next twenty-five years.

Those are big dreams, considering MLS is currently #11 among global football leagues in terms of revenue generated per team. Compared to other U.S. sports, MLS is at #6, right behind the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and the biggest NCAA football conferences.

Hell, when it comes to TV ratings, MLS is only the third most popular soccer league in the United States. Even most people in America would rather watch Liga MX or England's Premier League.

So if MLS has the delusional confidence to dream big, so can the National Women's Soccer League. 

Last year's Women's World Cup victory brought a massive spotlight onto the already popular U.S women's national team, and it really feels like a turning point for women's soccer. Granted, we've been saying that since 1999, and twenty years and three failed domestic leagues later, the attendance at the 2019 Women's World Cup was... less than it was back in '99; 43% fewer spectators per match, in fact.

BUT, the 2019 World Cup TV audience was huge. 1.12 billion people tuned in at some point, dwarfing any previous Women's World Cup. That supplies hope that there's a growing appetite for women's soccer, and we have indeed seen a boost in NWSL attendance.

Horrible, derivative logos and an over-reliance on the ponytail as a signifier of gender aside, there's obviously something different about the NWSL and a reason to be optimistic about its future. A quick word to the wise at the WPSL, if you have to put both the words "premier" and "elite" together in the same logo, you might as well add, "we're overcompensating for a pathological inferiority complex" to the design as well, because it's what everybody who sees it is going to be thinking anyway. Guess which one of the four leagues above was only semi-professional. As a general rule of thumb, I allow people a maximum of one self-aggrandizing word per sentence; any more than that and they're automatically a liar. You can claim to be stable. You can purport to be a genius. But claim to be a stable genius and there's a 0% chance that you are either of those things.

The USWNT is also enjoying tremendous public support in their legal battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, a civil suite which affects some of the star players of the NWSL.

People who haven't really thought very much about fair pay for female athletes (misogynist pigs and knee-jerk social justice warriors alike) think it's about unequal pay in absolute terms. As if the players of the WNBA are demanding to be paid as much as NBA players, even though the NBA generates over 140 times more revenue than the WNBA. That would be like the members of Goldplay, Germany's preeminent Coldplay tribute band, complaining that they don't earn as much money as Coldplay.

The effort might be equal, but the work rendered isn't, at least not in terms of people entertained or revenue generated.

No, what pisses off players like Kelsey Plum is that the NBA pays out about 50% of their $8.76 billion annual revenue in the form of player salaries, while the WNBA pays out around 20% of their $60 million annual revenue in player salaries. It's not that the WNBA has a smaller pie, it's that the players get a proportionally smaller slice of that smaller pie.

Luckily, the equal pay debate doesn't suffer from that conflation when it comes to the USWNT. The U.S. women's soccer team actually generates more money than the U.S. men's soccer team in absolute terms, and they've done so since 2016. The women's World Cup may be a smaller event with a smaller prize pool than the men's World Cup, but the USWNT wins it every four years while the men's team does things... a little differently. (Maybe next time don't lose to Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean island with a population roughly half that of Brooklyn.) But the upshot is that Nike reports USWNT jerseys are setting records in the soccer category and while the U.S. men's team does draw more American viewers than the women's team when the men play in the World Cup, that hasn't happened since 2014, and won't happen again until at least 2022. Missing a World Cup is kind of a big deal because a lot can change in eight years. It's taken two World Cup trophies in the same time span during which the men's team did diddley-fuck all, but the women have succeeded in closing the revenue gap... which means it's time to close the pay gap.

The U.S. Soccer Federation's stated position in their legal battle over equal pay included the point that, "The job of MNT player (competing against senior men’s national teams) requires a higher level of skill based on speed and strength than does the job of WNT player (competing against senior women’s national teams)." This statement caused a massive outcry. Woke people everywhere went into DEFCON-1 level apoplectic shock. They had to set up wet floor signs in the NY Times sports office on account of all the mouth foam. Roger Bennett was afraid to quote the federation for fear the misogyny might be contagious. Companies threatened to pull their sponsorship. The president of the U.S. Soccer Federation resigned. The lawyer representing the WNT players compared the statement to something a caveman would say.

And maybe a caveman would have said it... but so would anyone with a passing knowledge of human physiology. The players on the USMNT are bigger and stronger and faster than the players on the USWNT. They have faster 40-times and higher vertical leaps and longer broad jumps. They can do more reps on the bench press and have better VO2 max scores. Their sprint speeds are higher and their body fat percentages are lower. Despite how dominant the USWNT is vs. other women's teams, they would get absolutely smashed if they played the USMNT. Hell, the USWNT lost a scrimmage 5 - 2 to the FC Dallas U-15 boy's academy team three years ago.

But true as those facts may be, they're also irrelevant. Running fast, being strong, hell, even scoring goals isn't intrinsically productive. If scoring goals had some sort of inherent value, we'd pay that prolific ten-year-old racking up hat tricks in their AYSO league the same money as Messi. Unlike building a house, planting a field, or teaching someone to read, a soccer game is only worth the pleasure which the players and spectators derive from it. Professional athletes are entertainers, and the value they generate isn't goals or quantifiable athletic metrics, it's entertainment. The USWNT is entertaining more Americans better than the USMNT right now, ergo they're outperforming the men's team, speed and strength be damned.

Things are not going quite as well for the National Women's Soccer League, however, which is where the stars of the USWNT spend most of their time between World Cups. The minimum salary in the NWSL is $16,538, or less than you'd get working full time at most McDonald's locations. The maximum salary is $46,200, almost exactly what the average McDonald's store manager earns.

14.3 million Americans watched the women's World Cup final on TV last year. After that record-setting match, ESPN acquired the rights to NWSL matches for the rest of their season and the league averaged 81,000 viewers per game. To put that into perspective, the Professional Bowling Association averaged just over 1,000,000 viewers per event on Fox Sports in 2019. The NWSL was able to muster 8% of Professional Bowling Association TV numbers IMMEDIATELY following a record-setting women's World Cup.

Every time a U.S. men's or women's team does well in any international competition, the proponents of that discipline get all excited that their sport is now on its way to going mainstream. That's virtually never the case. Americans are patriotic and we like to win, so anything painted red, white, and blue that can cover us in vicarious glory is going to be popular. Remember how Michael Phelps was the most famous athlete in the world for about one month every four years? Did anybody keep on watching swim meets after the Olympics ended? National identity provides a powerful natural rooting interest and once that interest is gone we quickly forget about the badminton, rowing, and gymnastics that captivated us a few weeks earlier.

Regional loyalties can also animate a rooting interest, and that's pretty much Major League Soccer's only USP. Are the players in the MLS as good as Europe's big 5 leagues? Mostly not. But... they do wear your city's name on their kits, if that's exciting for you.

The NWSL has an even tougher sell. Their USP is that all the players have two x chromosomes instead of one. That's enough for some people, but it's a tiny sliver on the Venn diagram and a league can't grow very big subsisting solely on Portland-area lesbians, parents trying to inspire their daughters, disgruntled Democrats who see women's sports as an extension of the culture wars, and Roger Bennett dipping in just often enough to virtue-signal his credentials as a progressive. 

And going to a women's athletic event to support gender equality doesn't even make sense. It's one of the few domains of modern life in which women demonstrably & quantifiably underperform their male counterparts. Virtually any other profession would provide a better illustration of what women are capable of. Walk into a law firm with your daughter and cheer on a female attorney as she reviews case law just as well as any man. Visit Dr. Prof. Claudia Goldin's Harvard office and give her a slow-clap standing ovation as she finishes a peer review. Supporting gender equality by watching full-grown women playing soccer at a level somewhat below that of 15-year-old boys makes about as much sense as a Klansman going to an NBA game to revel in the superiority of white athletes. "But look how good they are at the fundamentals!"

So the NWSL's current audience is small and roughly half of those paltry few could wake up any morning now and suddenly realize that there are roughly infinite better illustrations of the gender equality they would so like to support in the face of our patriarchal society.

The NWSL needs a hook. It needs a unique selling proposition that appeals to a wider demographic. It needs to create a rooting interest. It needs to set itself apart from what already exists, particularly men's soccer. But instead I all too often hear well-meaning proponents of women's sports do the opposite. They focus on the athleticism and wax lyrical about how fast and strong and powerful and fierce and totally-not-slow-and-short female players are. And unless you want to be labelled a "caveman," you have to applaud and pretend to see the Empress' new clothes as well.

Slightly less gas-lighty proponents will admit that men's and women's soccer are different games, but then go on to argue that raw athleticism doesn't really matter. That's closer to a winning formula, but it's still a mistake to start your pitch by focusing on the athleticism aspect. What is an advertising campaign supposed to look like that has, "They may not be as fast and strong but you shouldn't care about that," as its core message?

Introducing - the new, "that's more my pace" campaign:

Are you sick and tired of show-offs like Mbapp√© streaking down the pitch at speeds no female sprinter has ever attained and scoring a goal before you've even finished pouring the cheese on your nachos?

Do you get bored waiting around for Ronaldo to finally reenter the earth's atmosphere? I mean, come on, is this a football match or a Space X live stream?

Have you ever experienced feelings of inferiority while watching Trent Alexander-Arnold launch a fly-by-wire laser of a cross-field pass directly onto Andy Robertson's left foot?

You see what I mean? The core of your sales pitch can't be drawing attention to an unfavorable comparison and then telling people to ignore it. Too late. You've already drawn people's attention to it.

All else being equal, yes, most people prefer superlative athletic performance, but getting people to watch sports is about creating a rooting interest. My mother cheered far louder at my Pop Warner football games than she ever has for an NFL team. It's not because I was a better tight end than Gronk.

The NCAA doesn't claim that its athletes are as big and strong as those in the NFL or NBA, and their value proposition doesn't center around a Wizard-of-Oz-esque injunction to pay no attention to that athletic deficit behind the curtain. Instead the NCAA leverages a natural rooting interest and differentiates itself from pro leagues.

About a third of all American adults have attained a bachelor's degree or higher. Many more have transferred between multiple institutions, earned a masters or PhD at an additional university, or attended a college without graduating. In fact, over 60% of American adults have "some college" experience. Not only, then, do a majority of Americans have some sort of personal attachment to a university, many have attachments to multiple universities. Because the prestige of the university reflects back on the prestige of its alma mater (and vice versa), there is a natural and powerful rooting interest when it comes to collegiate sports.

NCAA leagues also differentiate themselves. They have traditions that professional sports often don't, like fight songs and bands. They have competition formats (like March Madness) and season structures that are different from corresponding professional leagues. Teams sometimes have quirky mascots, outlandish uniforms, or the occasional blue football field. They're not afraid to alter the dimensions and markings on the playing surface or have different rules than professional leagues, rules which make the game more interesting for spectators, or make it easier for athletes with less talent or physical prowess to still put on a good show.

The NWSL is off to a good start with its bevy of women's World Cup superstars, including the entire U.S. national team, but the rest of the players are... less well-known. Even some of the World Cup stars are toiling in relative obscurity. Abby Erceg is the captain of the New Zealand national team as well as the North Carolina Courage and has won the NWSL championship the last two years running. I guess you could say that makes her the Tom Brady of the NWSL. She has 1,855 followers on Twitter and her account isn't even verified. I assume it's really her. If not, then it's the most boring parody account ever created.

Some perverse part of me wants to start an @AbbyErcegsDelts parody account, but how are people going to laugh at my witty, spot-on impersonation of Abby Erceg's deltoids if they don't know who Abby Erceg is? My first tweet would have been, "Now I am become Delt, the destroyer of worlds."

We need a reason to care about this cast of characters. Something like a reality TV show would be ideal, but failing that, a web series or even podcast could help audiences connect to the personalities, sympathize with the backstories, and become familiar with the rivalries and drama within the league. 

People are also fond of using a league as the underlying asset for a derivative game such as fantasy or sports betting. I've never watched more NFL games, consumed more sports news, memorized more stats, or internalized more strategy than the season I spent trying to kick my friends' asses in fantasy. Three years ago I could have recited the first, second, and third-string running backs of all 32 teams from memory. Nothing manufactures a rooting interest stronger and faster than when someone's own personal pride (and/or money) hangs in the balance. Why can't NWSL be the fantasy-friendliest league on earth?

Before COVID-19 brought a premature end to the season (and probably the league as well), the newly rebooted XFL was doing some interesting things. Coaches were mic'ed up and could be interviewed during the game, for example. The NWSL should consider anything that might enhance the TV viewing experience. Mic-ing up coaches could be an option, but interacting with players in some way during the game could also be cool. Novel camera angles and placements, live stats, trackers, overlays, graphics, etc. should all be on the table, as should changes to the rules, field and equipment. The perception of size and speed is relative. A smaller field could increase the speed of play with less trotting through the midfield and allow for more direct cross-field passing. Less jogging between boxes would also allow everyone to save more of their energy for high-intensity sprints. Relative to body size, women are currently playing with what to a man would be a size 7 soccer ball. Female soccer players suffer concussions and knee injuries at higher rates than their male counterparts. Maybe it's time to stop playing with that cast iron beach ball. Should the goals be smaller? Maybe. Or maybe they should be bigger so that more of that scoring thing happens that everyone's there to see. Experiment. Try things out. Make it your own.

I've heard NWSL players themselves say that the woman's game is different, so actually make it different instead of just another me-too product.

Sebastina Braff


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