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NWSL attendance dips in season 5

Some teams grew, but not enough to offseat other teams’ setbacks.

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Another year has come and gone for the National Women’s Soccer League. Now it’s time for the postmortems, to slice and dice through the results and the data.

Here’s the basics in terms of attendance:

Leaguewide, average attendance was down. In 2016 the average was 5,558. In 2017, the average was 5,082, making for a drop of 8.6%. Overall, this isn’t the worst number considering 2016 was an Olympic year and 2017 didn’t really have a major tournament on national television calling attention to the women’s game. Attendance was also affected by several rescheduled games due to weather - some of them because of the midsummer heat, and a couple due to Hurricane Harvey impacting Houston.

Team by team average attendance compared to their previous year average:

Some teams made gains, like Portland, Chicago, and Sky Blue FC, and you can see North Carolina improved a good bit over their previous average when they were the Western New York Flash and still played in Rochester, which is a convincing case for the viability of acquiring struggling teams and moving them to stronger markets with invested ownership. Most teams, however, took a dip. Once again, there were some mitigating factors. Houston’s average attendance without the two makeup games they played outside of their home market - one was in Frisco and the other in Edinburg - was 5077, which would make for a -10% drop instead of nearly 20%.

Orlando also saw a huge percentage drop, but their actual number was still relatively healthy. What’s really concerning here is drops for the independent, non-MLS teams like Boston, Seattle, Washington, and FC Kansas City. Woof, KC. Some numbers aren’t too bad; Washington’s probably falls in line with the general dip you might expect from the lack of big tournament boost. But a drop like Boston’s needs some examination - did their marketing change? Was their schedule hostile to growing an audience? Did they actually overcount in 2016? These are all questions whose answers could be beneficial as part of a best practices guide league-wide, not to mention discussing how Chicago and Sky Blue managed to bump their attendances.

Week-by-week average attendance is below. Green bars represent weekends Portland played at home. (click to enlarge)

Week 14 stands out particularly because only four games were played that week among eight teams, not all 10. Some weeks also represent more than five games by including midweek attendances, like week 11, which includes figures from nine games total.

We can also see high non-Portland-home weekends in weeks 2 and 21, which may have been driven by opening and closing weekends for some teams. Week 2 was Orlando’s home opener, which featured their season high attendance of 14,452, dragging up the average when Chicago, Seattle, and Boston had an average attendance of 2,403 between them that week. Week 21 was the last home game for Orlando, Sky Blue, Houston, and Seattle, and all of those teams had very solid respective attendances. Houston did have one more “home” game in week 22, but it was a makeup at H-E-B Park in Edinburg, over five hours away from Houston.

And finally here are the best home game attendances for each team, not counting their home opener or closer.

Six out of the ten best home game audiences were against either Portland or Orlando, which is not surprising. Once again it’s the outliers here that deserve some scrutiny. How do you market to get good attendance when you don’t have an opposing roster filled with big names to help give you a boost? Alternately: how do you market so that your club is the main attraction as part of the community, and not for the novelty of getting to see a handful of popular national team players once or twice a year?

Six of these games took place in August, which could simply be a reflection of better weather, especially in a season that was hot enough to finally get NWSL to formalize a weather policy. The USWNT also had just finished the Tournament of Nations on August 3, which may have given everyone a little bump. Houston’s great midweek attendance against Boston was the result of a doubleheader with the Dynamo playing in the US Open Cup, which may be part of future strategies for games here or there, although doubleheaders in general are not a long-term solution for NWSL.

Overall, yes, attendance was down this year. What’s important is for teams with dropping attendance to be able to diagnose the problem and be able to respond so that they can at the very least level out for 2018. Depending on how much of the slump was related to lack of WNT action, that’s also something to consider - how does this league, over the next three or five years, transition away from relying so much on NT player recognition? At least for the foreseeable future, the league will always be connected to the NT on some level and clubs aren’t wrong to exploit the connection for every last ticket sale possible, but it’s also in every club’s interest to be able to market locally and get their home towns invested in the players regardless of star status.

For now, we’ll see how attendance goes in 2018. Though there’s still no big tournament next year, the USWNT will be going through World Cup qualifying, which will somewhat shine a spotlight on the team, and by extension, the league. In the meantime, hopefully clubs are working to push attendance so that they don’t have to rely on the women’s tournament cycle. Reaching that stage would be a great sign of stability for the women’s game and proof of NWSL’s staying power.