It’s Crunch Time!

By which I mean it’s time to crunch the numbers on NWSL attendance

We’re a little past halfway into the 2019 NWSL season and the victorious USWNT players have returned from the World Cup. It’s time to take a look at how the league is faring at the turnstiles. Well folks, there’s good news and bad news.

Butts in seats

First the good news – leaguewide attendance to date is up 13.6% from this time in 2018. Considering that 2018 was a record year, this bodes well for the long-term health of our league. The trajectory continues upward.

Historically, the last half of the season has six percent more attendance than the first half. If that holds, final league attendance should be about 702,000 for 2019 not counting playoffs. That’s an 8% increase over last season.

The wildcard is Portland. With seven home dates to come, and with greater stadium capacity, and with a team on a serious playoff run, the Thorns could push the league total up even further.

Television contract

Early reports are that TV viewership is up also. The first match showed on ESPN2 was the Red Stars vs Courage. It attracted 149,000 viewers, which is more than any regular-season Lifetime game ever drew.

World Cup bump

The league also saw a nice bump from the World Cup. The Chicago Red Stars profited the most, with a 305% increase over their norm. But eight of the nine teams had their biggest gate of the year for their first post-WWC match. Only Utah failed to exceed their home opener although they tidily beat their average crowd. Three teams set new franchise records (Portland, Chicago, and Reign FC) and two others posted sellouts (Sky Blue and Washington).

Better scheduling

For this season, the league stopped scheduling games at noon on Saturdays and cut the number of weekday matches from 21 to fourteen. This has reduced the variability in attendance based on the day the match is played. In 2018, midweek games had the worst attendance, followed by Friday night games. Perfect scheduling would show every time slot at 100% for every team.

So far in 2019, Saturdays are the worst slots. This is partly an artifact – Portland has yet to host a Saturday match but four are on the schedule. By the end of the season, I expect we will see that the league’s scheduling approach has been an improvement.

So what’s the bad news?

World Cup bummer

So far, two teams have hosted a second match after their official “welcome back” games. And the results are not pretty. Both the Royals and Dash had attendance below their regular season average not counting their World Cup bump game.

Perhaps this is specific to those two teams – Utah tied their big match while Houston muddled through a boring 1-0 win. As the other clubs play another home game we will see if this holds. Chicago entertained with an exciting win in their welcome-home match. A small drop-off is to be expected but hopefully many of the new fans will come back for more.

Season ticket holder conversion

Aside from Portland and North Carolina, the clubs do not have an adequate base of season ticket holders. I measure this by comparing the high and low attendances and computing the standard deviation. A low deviation means that the club is drawing more consistent crowds, which indicates that they are not relying on single-match sales for the bulk of their gate.

Portland and North Carolina have average deviations of 11% and 15% respectively, compared to the league average of 35%. The Houston Dash also have a low deviation, but the absolute number is small – as an MLS-affiliated team with a nice downtown stadium, they should be drawing three times what they are.

The other teams are all over the place. If you assume the season-low attendance is approximately the club’s season ticket holder base, this indicates that big chunks of revenue are at risk week-to-week. As the extreme case, Chicago has had two excellent games with 12k and 17k, yet their worst game was 2k. They need to convert some of those 10k+ single-game customers into loyal season ticket holders.

The next frontier for many of the franchises is to turn World Cup fans into NWSL fans. Until they raise the floor, they’ll be under water every time it rains.

So which is it?

In my opinion, the good news outweighs the bad. The league looks about as healthy as you could hope for: awareness of the women’s game is higher than ever, the TV contract is just starting, new sponsors are on board, the league has made some smart moves with scheduling, the wind behind the USWNT is propelling the league’s boat also.

What do you think?

Richard Hamje

Hander-out of Riveters chant sheets, electric car enthusiast, fan of Thorns, Timbers, Chelsea and only lately, Leicester City.

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4 thoughts on “It’s Crunch Time!

  1. Thanks for the information. Most of the news is good. My hopes are that Houston can figure out how to market a promising team, Sky Blue can improve their facilities so that it is less of a Gulag for players. Outside of Carly Lloyd I don’t think any player wants to play for Sky Blue and I would live to see a couple more teams on the West Coast and one in Cincinnati.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. I often wonder if Sky Blue is a lost cause, or if they could actually turn it around. NWSL needs strong owners with deep pockets. The days of daddy buying a team for his daughter are over – SBFC is the last of those dinosaurs. But perhaps they will make the effort to become a truly professional club, get a real stadium, etc.

      Expansion is on everyone’s mind, I think. I hope the league doesn’t rush into things too much though. We need the right owners, and we need to think about the USWNT/CANWNT talent pool dilution. Would you be willing to give up Horan to a new team? Not me.

      1. Sky Blue has committed to finding better facilities. I believe their contract with Rutgers expires this year, they’ve said they’re not renewing it, and they have several possible new venues for next season they’re investigating. That said, it’s not a done deal yet, so who knows what will really happen.

        Also, thanks for the data dive, Richard!

  2. “Houston muddled through a boring 1-0 win”

    If you’re talking about the first home game after the World Cup, that was actually a loss for Houston, 0-1 to Chicago. A boring loss was no doubt even worse for next-game attendance — much worse — than a boring win.

    My biggest worry about NWSL attendance is lack of competitiveness between teams. It’s not at all good to have two teams who were effectively out of the playoff picture after the first month and a half of the season. And it’s going to be hard to turn that around, especially for Sky Blue. What good player would want to go there now? How are they going to attract fans without some good players? NWSL needs to walk a fine line between leaning on management/ownership enough that they’ll improve the team and not leaning on them so much that they just shutter the team.

    Luckily no one is running away with the league this year, and the other seven teams all have somewhat realistic playoff hopes.

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