It's been quite a season for the National Women's Soccer League, with all teams having to schedule around the World Cup and adjust rosters accordingly. There's been inconvenient schedule changes due to late broadcast deals and a much-delayed announcement on moving the league final to Portland regardless of who plays in it. But there's also been huge bumps in attendance, a larger national profile, and an exciting playoff race.
"I think we had really great competition," said league commissioner Jeff Plush in a phone interview. "I think we had 90 matches and the season was pretty tightly fought down the stretch. We had a lot of high quality play. We dealt with the nuance of the World Cup sitting in the middle of our season and while that has challenges and players getting injured, at the end of the day it was a great celebration for our sport."
"Nuance" is interesting word choice for such a major disruption to the schedule, but Plush was sanguine about it. "On balance I think we had a really good season. I think you can look at the schedule, it worked out really well. The break was probably the appropriate break.... I don't think it compromised our quality of play on the run end. We could look at, for future years, for a World Cup year, I wouldn't be opposed to us looking at an increase in roster sizes. I think there was some strain on clubs during the World Cup but I think players who were here during the World Cup did a heck of a job and continued to play at a high level."
Asked what he felt was the league's biggest mistake in 2015, Plush said, "Maybe the biggest thing is we could have shared the championship final being moved to Portland sooner. We knew it was going to happen. It had been talked about since before I started. There wasn't any other reason not to share it."
As the conversation turned to the 2016 Olympics, Plush continued to refer to interruptions in the NWSL schedule as a "nuance," perhaps an indication of how he views these sorts of logistical problems: not problems at all, but something simply to accept and integrate into their planning.
"I think clearly you've identified the Olympics will create another nuance in our schedule," he said. "Not as much of a challenge, not as many countries, and not as long a period as time and not as many players, but still a challenge."
There was also the question of how the Olympics might affect league expansion, as well as scheduling. Would 2016 be a good year for expansion if key players will be gone for approximately a month, including pre-Olympic camp and a resting period afterwards? "[The Olympics] is one conversation, expansion's a different conversation," said Plush. "Clearly there's some benefits to expansion in 2016 to eliminate the bye week, that's helpful. The people who make the schedule, there would be less grey hair if you had a tenth team next year."
"We're still working towards 2016 [expansion] but as I've said that window is rapidly closing. I think once the final's over we'll have to make a decision on 2016 so I'm not prepared to make an announcement today, but in the next three weeks to a month we'll make a decision relative to 2016."
As for who is under consideration for expansion, Plush didn't limit the league's options to MLS partners. "Relative to MLS we've talked to quite a few MLS clubs. We've also talked to other soccer organizations that are not MLS, whether that's USL or NASL. I think there's a great opportunity. Lots of these clubs, they're not looking to just add on to infrastructure, they view it more holistically than that, developing a real pyramid scheme and a leadership position in soccer marketplaces."
Plush left options wide open, adding, "I wouldn't frame anything as a likelihood. We certainly talked to Orlando [City FC] among other MLS clubs. We're very encouraged by the conversations we're having, acknowledging the window is tightening. Whether in 2016, 2017, or 2018 I have no doubt we'll expand."
NWSL isn't just expanding clubs, it's also looking to expand its exposure. The league's 2015 TV deal saw it get a 10-game deal with Fox, with six games broadcast on Fox Sports 1 and four games streamed on Fox Sports GO. Contrary to the league's late start on and long wait in announcing the 2015 deal, a 2016 broadcast deal is already being discussed. "For next year we're clearly already talking about an extension, but I can't put a timeframe on it," said Plush. "I can't imagine [an announcement] taking as long as this year. We'll work to get that out."
First the league has to finish its season, with playoff ratings hopefully seeing good numbers in the 150- to 200,000 range, if not higher for the final. Then more permanent discussions can get underway for a new broadcast deal, although part of the package may still remain streaming instead of broadcast.
"We get through this first year and the three more games and evaluate where we are," said Plush. "I think clearly we value the games on Fox Sports 1; it's a fantastic platform. We're really proud of it, the reach is fantastic, 90 million homes, but to be fair the numbers and the consumption on Fox Sports GO streams is really positive too. I think our fans have a great appetite to watch our matches and they'll find it and we just have to evaluate what's the best platform and how many games it is and which games are the best to show."
Even with a broadcast deal, part of making sure viewers actually tune in for games is figuring out how to market the league. NWSL is a young as businesses go, but three years is plenty of time to start building an identity. The league has struggled at times to seem like a cohesive entity, adding to fears about its longevity. Plush acknowledged that NWSL has its weaknesses as a brand, but is actively working to address those problems.
"I don't think we have a brand yet," he said. "We're building one. We've done some of that work and we've worked with an agency to define all of those things and we've done some intercept/exit type surveys to understand better our current demographic. So we're doing a lot of the internal analysis to better understand who we think we are and who we actually are. It'll take a little bit of time. I feel very confident where we're going to end up. I have no doubts aspiring for us to be the most important women's soccer league in the world. I think we'd like to be one of the most respected and successful women's sports properties in the world. That doesn't happen overnight."
It is, however, still early days in terms of having actionable demo data. "We have lots of data. I wouldn't say it's to the point to share it. Our database, analytical people are scrubbing that to distill it down to something we can understand to plan marketing and tactics around it. I'm very excited to share that when it's appropriate."
But Plush also emphasized throughout the interview that NWSL will not become popular with quick fixes or one or two big changes. The success of the World Cup spilling over into higher attendance numbers was partially about viewers wanting more of what they saw during the summer and Plush focused on that aspect of the attendance bump. "The reality is this: we had more people in our venues," he said. "We were up dramatically across all our teams. And that's teams at the top and the bottom of the table. Really it's just down to we have a great product and we need more people to come see us, and that's customer service and salesmanship 101. It's not a magic bullet. How our potential fans see our product, see a product worth supporting. We're doing a lot better job lately in sharing ideas and best practices across our clubs and we're investing in salesmanship workshops in the offseason."
Higher attendances bring increased sponsor interest, which Plush is also attempting to capitalize on, adding to current league sponsors Coppertone, the National Mango Board, and Nike. "We are working on [sponsorship deals] all the time. We have our outside agency that does a lot of sports as well. There's a lot of realtime conversations happening right now which I'm excited about. We're very pleased with the quality of our sponsors and we are endeavoring to have more of them. The amount of dialogue has accelerated dramatically since July. Certainly that's an area where the World Cup was tremendously beneficial. Anyone who knows anything about sponsors, sponsorship is not a quick sale. It takes time to build up relationships, to get it in front of people who control the budgets. We're sitting here getting close to the fourth quarter, we're getting close to 2016 now, and there's some things that won't come to fruition until 2017 or 2018."
Overall Plush seemed calm yet enthusiastic about the future of the league. "How many times did I get asked the question ‘are you going to be around for a fourth year'?" he said. "But at some point we don't even think about that, it's not even a consideration for us." From a new broadcast deal to new sponsors and renewed efforts to implement best practices leaguewide, it seems that though Plush has been quiet since he took over nine months ago, he has certainly not been inactive. "I'm excited about our future," he said. "The future is really bright for us, it's just knuckle down and continue to do the hard work."