It's happened several times this season: some news item about the National Women's Soccer League drops, women's soccer fans overrun social media, and the league remains curiously, puzzlingly, frustratingly silent. Soccer news sites will break news days before the league makes its own announcement and in the meantime fans have time to react, overreact, mock, satirize, calm each other, overreact again, and then get impatient.
Just the latest publicity gaffe was the league's announcement of its decision to host the 2015 final in a "neutral" city instead of giving it to the regular season winner, which is looking to be the Seattle Reign, as it has the past two seasons. Instead of Seattle, this year's final will be hosted in Portland, home of the Thorns.
Much of the frustration and even anger over the decision stems from the league announcing this decision so late in the season. Then commissioner Jeff Plush revealed in an interview with Equalizer Soccer that team owners had made this decision in April before the season started, further stoking resentment. Why sit on the news so long? The timing of the announcement meant shutting out many fans and soccer media, who had been counting on different travel plans.
Then there was the league's silence in the gap between the news originally breaking on SoccerWire, as reported by Charles Boehm, and the league's own announcement. SoccerWire had the piece up on Friday, August 14, and the league made their own announcement on Monday, August 17, giving everyone a nice long weekend to percolate on how NWSL seems unable to get out in front of their own stories. In the meantime, the person fielding questions about this decision wasn't a league spokesperson, it was Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson.
@JeffKassouf its not a mid season change. Neutral site format decided and voted on prior to season starting. I realize it wasnt announced
— Merritt Paulson (@MerrittPaulson) August 14, 2015
This was certainly an instance where not waiting for a Monday morning announcement might have been in the league's best interest—fans were on high alert anyway, waiting for confirmation and clarification, and there was no way it would have gotten lost over the weekend.
There have been other issues: botched handling of Abby Wambach's concussion, not properly covering the 2015 college draft, mysteriously opaque disciplinary committee proceedings, and a general sense that those running communications simply don't care or aren't listening.
Even Alex Morgan, arguably one of the league's biggest names, took to tweeting at them instead of going up the chain of command.
Regardless of who was the proper party to notify, does Alex Morgan not have the commissioner's phone number? Where is Commissioner Plush, anyway?
Plush has been nearly persona non grata (perhaps not necessarily by his own design at times, as he might have liked to speak at the USWNT's victory parade in New York but found himself taking a seat to listen to MLS commissioner Don Garber instead). He gave interviews at the college draft and hasn't been especially visible since then. He popped up at the start of the league and again around the World Cup and now with the announcement of the final move to Portland. In between these announcements, fans (and seemingly players) have no idea what kind of moves Plush is making. Where is he? What is he doing for the league? What are his thoughts on the day-to-day status of American women's soccer? His predecessor, Cheryl Bailey, was frequently seen at NWSL games and was usually available for comment on league matters. Plush's contentedness to remain behind the scenes has left the league seeming more opaque than ever.
Perhaps that opaqueness isn't the worst thing at the moment, as it obscures the fact that the league doesn't have much of a brand. Within each team's individual market, club brands are starting to take hold, but on a national level, NWSL doesn't really have a solid identity. There's been no coordinated marketing effort on a broader level, probably due to a lack of money, which is fine. You can't spend what you don't have. But brand identity isn't just about national advertising—brand is about consumer perception, the essential feelings fans associate with the league, and there are cost-effective things the league can do to give itself a personality that inspires consumer confidence.
The first step is probably timing. No more stories coming out on Friday evenings, no more waiting days to respond to scoops. NWSL should be getting out in front of bad news and leaking good news for the hype. They should not be linking to an outside news site in order to provide more information on their own decisions, as they did with Plush's explanation of the Portland final decision.
For more insight on Portland being the site of the 2015 NWSL Champion... https://t.co/U6R7tLkjCM
— NWSL (@NWSL) August 18, 2015
The next step is probably a little more transparency. Community building and brand loyalty requires fans feel as though they are being heard, not just dictated to. By the structure of the league itself (or any sports league), of course fan loyalty lies primarily with their clubs, but NWSL is not yet a huge, faceless entity overseeing 20 teams across all time zones. The league still feels small, intimate, and now is the time to make fans believe the league both values them and has a cohesive vision of its own future. So no more sitting on league-altering announcements for nearly an entire season, upending fan expectations after establishing a status quo. No more announcing the league is in talks for a television broadcast deal, then not updating the status of that deal for months.
Most of all there needs to be a bigger buy-in from US Soccer. Or, if they're already as invested as they possibly can be, there needs to be a better job of eradicating the pervasive notion that USSF doesn't care about NWSL. There seems to be a disconnect between the federation and the league, where the league's needs are always second fiddle to the national team. It's been brought up before that USSF does not necessarily operate in a way that maximizes its relationship with NWSL, from schedule changes to playoff interruptions. This lack of coordination is disappointing, considering that US Soccer staff seem to be responsible for a great deal of NWSL's functionality. NWSL's website lists five league staffers, with two of them being interns. Beyond having just two people each for communications and ops, if you count an intern as having the same autonomy and functionality of a full-time worker, someone else must be handling things like marketing and administration. So US Soccer really has no excuse for not being aware of the league's needs.
With a little more communication and some more thought given to its timing and delivery methods, NWSL could stop feeling like US Soccer's last-minute homework, hastily dashed off and handed in without caring about the grade. It would definitely feel less cobbled together at the top level and reassure some fans that there is a stable future for pro women's soccer in the United States after all. And it would probably give whoever is in charge of NWSL's twitter account a lot fewer headaches.