A New Spirit In Women’s Soccer

Sometimes a little positive spirit can go a long way in enhancing a fledgling business model. In sport, an intriguing model this spring is Women’s Professional Soccer. Now with a third try, the skeptical can look at the venture, which is being run not by outside entities or deep pocketed business executives with an eye on sports glory, but by  The US Soccer Federation. The positive will look at this cost controlled, tightly managed startup as either being a case of “Third time is a charm,” or “three strikes and you’re out”  out as women’s soccer tries to find a viable business plan in North America.

This first to tries at a professional league followed the glory of major international success, especially at the Women’s World Cup level. Investors rushed in with deep pockets and big plans hoping to make a big splash, and in both cases what splashed were millions of dollars down the tube.  Despite some good ideas at marketing; cities, times, stadia and the marketplace wasn’t really understood, and the best effort of core fans, supporters and athletes left the ventures in tatters.

This latest venture, The National Women’s Soccer League is more about the buildup to World Cup in 2015 in Canada and Rio 2016 than trying to capture past glory. It is cost controlled, limited national exposure and big on all things grassroots. There is no bluster about being the best and most exciting sports league, men or women, it is all about managing expectations and taking little steps.

Some clubs like the Portland Thorns have helped draw from the marketing success of their MLS partners. That has resulted in some added exposure as the league launched, with an expertise in selling and marketing the game of soccer itself that wasn’t as proficient in other iterations. Other teams, like Sky Blue FC in New Jersey, are almost operating in a vacuum between MLS franchises in New York and Philadelphia, and are hoping to carve their own slow and steady growth with minimal support.

However a great example of finding its spot appears to be hanging in suburban Maryland, where the Washington Spirit, with minimal sponsors and even less media support, are using old fashioned door to door sales and branding techniques, combined with some effective digital tools, to find a platform to grow from.

To date, the club has had some great success with clubs and leagues having special “nights” as a group. Youth leagues have hosted “sportsmanship award nights,” where the leagues pay for the tickets for coach/players of the team in each age group and division that wins the sportsmanship award (least red/yellow card cautions in the season).  “Youth Experiences” have also been simple and every effective for the Spirit as well as capitalizing on the fan base that followed and successfully engaged with women’s soccer in its prior successful stops in the area.

A lot of this is a carbon copy of what many MLS sales teams have been doing for years, including D.C. United, to much success. The difference, according to The Spirit, is there are MORE girls playing youth soccer than boys, but they don’t go out to see MLS in near the numbers as boy’s teams.  So cultivating that audience and getting them to engage has been key.

More importantly, the club has carved out a blueprint of tangible programs which brands and fans can actually see when they come to an event. There is no guesswork, what there is is some proven success and best practices in everything from social activation to potential brand partnerships. This approach with minimal cost outlay, combined with the fact that the women’s league can legitimately claim they have the best players in the world, has resulted in larger projected crowds to date, almost 4,000 per game, in their intimate Maryland home.

The next and biggest challenge will come not in the short term, but in the long term. And this success with minimal outlay be replicated in every market, and can the Spirit take their ideas and turn them into ROI. The best thing they have going for them that their predecessors did not have is time and the lack of…money. Lean budgets will help extend the window for potential success, as the burn rate is very much lower than at any point before in women’s pro soccer history in North America.

Now all that DC success this far doesn’t mean this will work. The amount of startup sports that have been successful in the US for the long term in in the past 20 years us exactly…one. MLS, with maybe the WNBA a second to some degree. No money for marketing means big challenges, and those challenges include getting enough fans out for break even.

Still with those issues, it appears that on the franchise level the latest iteration of women’s pro soccer is looking forward for its wins, not back, and that is a positive step worth watching.