Jeff Plush answered media questions for nearly half an hour during the 2017 NWSL college draft. Topics covered everything from league expansion to sponsorships to schedules to league response to criticism of entering the North Carolina market while HB2 is still in effect.
The questions for Plush jumped immediately into the effect the USWNT’s collective bargaining agreement negotiations with US Soccer might have on the league.
“There's two things. As everyone knows, we're not part of negotiations,” said Plush. “So that'll run its course. I know that our camps will open, and we will be ready to open camp. Our players will be excited to be there. It certainly needs to run its course, but when it does, [USWNT players] will be in camp as well.” When pressed on if he had been given any assurances by US Soccer, he reiterated that the negotiations were between the WNT and the federation. “We're certainly involved in it, but we're not party to it at all. So it will run its course. We have 200 players in our league. So that's what we're focused on.”
Plush was generally positive about the league itself, despite recent decisions by several players to either leave their NWSL clubs or skip the NWSL draft altogether. “Players absolutely earned that right to make decisions and do what's best for themselves,” he said. “And every person is different. Sometimes it's a soccer decision. Sometimes it's a financial decision. We would be thrilled to have Ashley [Lawrence] and Kadeisha [Buchanan] in this league. I also know there are a lot of great players joining this league today. And I have a lot of confidence that we're still the best league in the world. But to stay there, we can't be complacent. We have to continue to invest more in our players, invest more in our training environments. And we're committed to getting better.”
Salary cap increases
One part of getting better is increasing the salary cap and giving players attractive financial incentives for joining or staying. Plush pointed out that NWSL has increased the salary cap every year. “And we'll be coming out with, in fairly short order, what the minimum and maximum salary increase, cap will be for this year, but it will be quite a bit,” he said. “And we'll continue to do, to be very, very clear, is to operate in a manner that will be prudent for the long-term stability of the league. And that has to be the priority for us.”
Within the salary cap changes, Plush emphasized bringing up standards for players on the low end of the payroll rather than look to allow bigger spending in places like designated players, especially not as a reaction to some of the bigger-name WNT players departing the league temporarily or otherwise. “I'd say the 2017 priority is to raise that bottom end,” he said. “That is what we want to address first. I don't think, personally, that we are looking for a designated player rule. Not at this point in our evolving league, in only our fifth season, I think that's premature. ...we're not going to tear down our whole structure just to compete for a couple of players. Two of the national team left. You know, not 24, two. And there are those coming back we know for sure, it's already been announced..”
Another measure the league is putting into place to bring up standards is subsidizing coach certification costs for players, especially in hopes of widening the pool of female coach candidates at every level. “We’ve made it a priority for our clubs to make sure that they are interviewing candidates, a diverse pool of candidates, including minorities, including women,” said Plush. “We certainly understand and would like to have more female head coaches in our league. We know that that’s an opportunity for us and a priority and so we’ve instituted that policy. But I think part of it also is being proactive in developing the coaching courses and making it affordable for our players and so we underwrite that for our players.... 75 players took the [US Soccer] F license which is a start, right. And another 25 did the E and we do this year over year over year, we’re going to start developing a pipeline of coaches who understand that they can have a real impact and a real career in this... It’s the league, it’s the colleges, it’s the federation, it’s the CSA, how we can all create a platform for more women to realize that there’s a career in this league and a career after their playing days. It’s a priority.”
North Carolina and HB2
Part of the league’s growth in 2017 is the acquisition of the Western New York Flash by the North Carolina FC ownership group, which will operate the team as the North Carolina Courage in this upcoming season. However, North Carolina is currently in some political turmoil as it deals with House Bill 2, a discriminatory bill that requires transgender people to use public restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate, as well as forbidding local governments from passing their own anti-discrimination bills. For a league that has long been considered friendly to LGBTQ audiences, doing business in North Carolina when several other sports entities such as the NBA and NCAA have already pulled events in protest of the bill seemed a repudiation of that acceptance. Plush emphasized that the league was very aware of HB2 and the political situation in North Carolina.
“The first next step is to sit down with the Courage, their ownership, with the governor, and with Equality North Carolina, and hammer out those next steps,” he said. “This is obviously all very fresh, and I feel strongly that we are going to be a participant on this, and not just on the sidelines on this.”
Plush insisted that there was interest and excitement for North Carolina to join the league in spite of protest that they should not be doing business in a state with such a discriminatory law. When asked how he would respond to fans who say they will not travel to North Carolina or do business in the state, Plush said, “For the ones who would not, A, that's their decision, B, I'd ask them to reconsider. The way that we'll move forward in a positive way is, I did say this to Richard [Farley at FourFourTwo], we are a league, and we talk about it all the time, we are a league of diversity and inclusiveness, opportunity and equality, then you have to be a league of those things. And that means operating when it isn't easy to operate. So we're not naïve about this, but I have 100 percent confidence in the North Carolina ownership group, 100 percent confidence in the governor, with the community, Equality North Carolina has been supportive of this. And we'll get after it, we'll work to be a league you can be proud of.”
Plush didn’t have a timeline for when this sitdown with parties in North Carolina would take place. “I'm sure I'll be talking to them at the draft, too, but we haven't formalized it,” he said. “We've spent a lot of time with them just on operating in the league, so they understand the entity, all the things that make our league different from other leagues. And so we'll be spending a lot of time with them on a variety of topics.”
Another team that experienced ownership changes in the offseason was FC Kansas City, recently purchased by Minnesota businessman Elam Baer. However, Baer won’t be moving FCKC. “They will absolutely stay in Kansas City,” said Plush. “That was entirely part of the process. They're staying in Kansas City, they want to be in Kansas City. Just because Elam doesn't live in Kansas City, he has said he believes Kansas City is the right place. They've already had success in Kansas City. Like any situation, if there was any relocation, it'd be subject to board approval and all those things. It was expressly pointed out that they are going to stay in Kansas City.”
Expansion for 2018
Then there’s actual expansion itself. With North Carolina having acquired a team instead of putting in a bid for expansion, remaining markets include Los Angeles and Vancouver. “I wouldn't want to speak on behalf of Vancouver,” said Plush. “I would tell you that we've had very good conversations with them, fantastic market, great infrastructure with the Whitecaps, with everything they've done on the academy side. So it's a very attractive opportunity, but I wouldn't give a timeline on it.”
Plush was similarly cagey on Los Angeles as an expansion market, but with slightly more detail. “I think in this market you have LAFC and you have the Galaxy. You have LAFC who’s about to launch and a stadium that’s coming out of the ground not too far from here with a fantastic ownership group and someone like Mia [Hamm] specifically who would be phenomenal, no question. And then the Galaxy have the most decorated MLS club in league history, so I think we have some great potential targets here in this market. And we’re friends with them and I’ve been fortunate to know the Galaxy guys for a long time with my MLS background so we’ll see how that evolves. But yeah, Los Angeles is an attractive market for a lot of reasons but there’s good people here who could be our partners.”
Plush added that a Los Angeles (or California in general) team would also help make NWSL a true national property. “I think the biggest challenge for our interests and opportunities and sponsorship from a national point of view is that we’re not really a national property,” he said. “We’re not in the number two and number four media markets in the United States right now. So I think California’s incredibly important. Still under the right process, right. You do it with ownership, infrastructure, all those things.”
Sponsorships and TV deals
Though the league doesn’t have the strongest presence in the west, Plush said “the level of confidence is high” regarding a TV deal for the league. “Television, I have very high level of confidence that we will have a TV deal that’ll be significantly more robust than we’ve had in the past.... Next 30 days I’d say. I feel you’ll call me I’m sure if it’s 31 days. Look, yes, very confident and very near-term, but not today, so I can’t announce anything.”
The television question is also linked to the question of whether the league will manage to nail down more sponsorships. “Very optimistic, very much tied to the earlier question around television,” said Plush. “We are having very positive and I have a high level of confidence in what we will come out with on the broadcast side of things, which will lead to commercial opportunities for us.”
The league schedule itself isn’t concrete at the moment either. North Carolina’s late entrance to the league may delay the schedule and its release. “It’s all happening so fast, we literally are just getting dates from them this week,” said Plush. “But we have the other teams, so now it’s about a little bit of a jigsaw puzzle. MLS announced their schedule a little bit ago actually, which helps, releases some dates for us. We’ll finish this and schedule’s priority number one. I’ve already had teams ask about the schedule. They get the first pick and they wanna [snap].”
At the very least, Plush confirmed the number of games. “I can confirm 24 games, absolutely. Which is great. But it adds some complexity. We need more dates and more buildings and some of our – whether it’s Harvard or whether it’s Rutgers, with busy schedules themselves, it makes it a little complicated, but we’re excited about more games in some great venues. And we’re excited about the Raleigh venue..”
In the end, Plush emphasized that the league was in it for the long run, and that teams were planning around long-term growth. Growth was the keyword for him. “Growth in ticket revenue, growth in sponsorship, growth in engagement, growth in social metrics, continuing to raise the bar on ourselves, not just on everyone else,” said Plush.