The Thorns closed out the regular season in front of a near-sellout crowd at Providence Park. The match itself was frustrating, but there were plenty of other goings-on to entertain us.
Before the match started, the Orlando-Reign match was showing on the big video screen. When Marta scored the equalizer at the death, there was quite a cheer. The 2-2 result in Orlando meant that the Thorns would finish in third place regardless of their result. With that decided, both the team and the Riveters could relax a little and have fun.
The Riveters displayed a tifo reading “A League of Our Own”. This can be taken any number of ways: the NWSL is finally a stable, self-sustaining entity or; with US Soccer stepping out of the league management roles the NWSL is finally independent or; NWSL is not MLS and MLS policies should not be applied to our league. Or all the above.
It was Riveter’s Prom Night where fans who feel inclined dress up in formal wear for the last home match. It’s a fun tradition and it seems that this year the participation was greater than years past. There were certainly some creative fashions displayed!
Another tradition is the Thorns visiting the Riveters on the capo stand after the season finale for high-fives and cheers. It’s always fun to see the players close up and particularly to watch the reactions of the rookies. For example, Gabby Seiler appeared bewildered by the experience, as did Edie Parsons (Connie Valeri seemed right at home). The gathering is to witness the awarding of the Riveters Player of the Year. For 2019, it was Midge Purce. She pretended to be surprised although she should not have been. A speech was demanded. She made a very brief statement of thanks – I suspect she is a shy person by nature.
Yet another tradition is the giving of player gifts from the supporters. This year, each player and staff member received a personalized flipbook made from photos taken throughout the season by the Riveters’ photographers. The books were hand cut and bound. Each person also got a 2019 Riveters scarf.
As the players were admiring and comparing their books, Edie Parsons and her friend led the final huzzahs. With that, the 2019 season has ended as a memorable, somewhat bizarre, year on and off the pitch. The unusual schedule, the protests over the Iron Front symbol, the downgrading of NWSL’s referee pool, the World Cup month run for both the US internationals and the “stay-at-home” Thorns, a 5-0 win, a 6-0 loss – 2019 had it all.
Butts in Seats
The Thorns last match was 700 shy of sold out, with a crowd of 24,521. This pushed our year’s average attendance to 20,098 to set yet another milestone in the history of women’s sports. The expanded capacity of Providence Park was used three times in 2019. That means there is room for yet more growth in 2020. As it is, the team was up 15.7% over 2018, which was also a record year.
Beyond the Thorns, this was a bellwether year for the whole league. Average attendance jumped from 6,000 to 7,400. Sky Blue played to large crowds at Red Bull Arena twice – their attendance is up 26.2% as a result. The Washington Spirit also played two matches in an MLS facility, Audi Field, and drew enormous crowds. Their gate was up a league-leading 36.3%. And the Utah Royals passed a major milestone as they became the second team in US pro women’s soccer history to have annual average attendance of more than 10,000.
The Game is When?
The league had paid closer attention to the schedule for 2019 and it paid off. There were fewer mid-week games and none at Saturday noon. Except for the Spirit, the midweek games did well. It seems strange, but the worst time slot was Saturday afternoon while Sunday afternoon was the best. Evening slots generally did better than afternoons. With the new TV contract, ESPN forced a few NWSL games into earlier-than-usual time slots (11:00 am – seriously?) but these were for “big” games which drew well despite the early hour.
When the Thorns come to town, many clubs enjoy a bump in attendance. This was particularly true for Chicago, Tacoma and Utah. The Thorns drew terrible crowds at the Spirit and Sky Blue. For some reason, two of Sky Blue’s three worst games were hosting the Thorns. Go figure. Overall, the Thorns draw an average 9% bigger crowd on the road.
Of Course We’re Going
I measure the “loyalty” of the fanbases around the league by measuring the consistency of their crowds. A team with huge swings between the best and worst attendance has a lot of revenue at risk every week. Their season-ticket-holder base is too small, so they cannot invest like a team with a larger base and more consistent revenues.
As you can see in the table below, only Portland and Houston have reliable revenue, albeit small in the case of the Dash. This is the biggest challenge for the league, as it has been every year and as it was for the previous leagues.
The team has four main sources of income: ticket sales, concession net profit, merchandise net profit, and sponsorships, which the team is very tight-lipped about. TV revenue is not yet meaningful to the clubs as best I can tell.
Let’s make some conservative assumptions:
- Average ticket price, counting some free and discounted comps = $15
- Each person buys the equivalent of one beer per game with a net profit of $5
- Each person buys one piece of merchandise per season with a net profit of $20
That means this much income:
- Tickets $15 * 241,181 = $3,617,715
- Concessions $5 * 241,181 = $1,205,905
- Merchandise $20 * 241,181 / 12 = $401,968
- Total = $5,225,588
To that total we add the value of the Thorns-specific sponsorships such as Two Towns, IKEA and Providence. There may be other revenue from radio, local television, shared sponsorships, etc.
On the expense side, there are the player salaries which are capped at $421,500. The team has a dedicated staff of about eight people doing coaching, analytics, and fitness. Let’s say they are all paid generously such that the staff payroll is $1,000,000. All other expenses are shared with the Timbers – things like training facilities, stadium mortgages, payments to the city, etc. There is little to no Thorns-specific marketing.
The bottom line? A profit of $3,804,088 plus the unknown sponsorship and media revenue and minus incidentals like travel costs and housing subsidies. Clearly this isn’t all going straight into Merritt’s pocket since there are those shared expenses to split. Perhaps the youth development program for girls is not paying 100% of its own bills and may be getting a subsidy. Regardless, the Thorns are certainly profitable and worthy of further investment.
Fun With Numbers
How do the 2019 Thorns stack up to men’s teams for attendance? Pretty darned well!
MLS: The Thorns would be 10th in 2019 MLS attendance, ahead of half of the playoff-qualified teams.
NBA: in 2018/19, only the 76ers had better average attendance (by 342).
NHL: three teams did better — Chicago, Montreal and Philadelphia (by 272).
MLB: the Thorns would be 25th in baseball.
NFL: the Thorns would not place in American football, lagging the LA Rams by 5,257.
EPL: the Thorns would be 18th in the 2018/19 Premier League, ahead of Bournemouth and Watford, trailing Burnley by 438.
In the English Championship (men’s second division) the Thorns would be 11th of 24.
The only professional men’s soccer league in the world in which the Thorns would not place is the Bundesliga in Germany.
The Thorns would be 14th in Serie A (Italy), 14th in Primera División (Mexico), 12th in China, 12th in Brazil, 11th in Ligue 1 (France), 10th in Argentina, 9th in La Liga (Spain), 9th in Japan, 6th in Russia (missing 5th by 12), 5th in the Eredivisie (Netherlands), 2nd in Belgium, 2nd in Peru, 2nd in A-League (Australia), 2nd in Colombia, and 2nd in Ukraine.
Everywhere else, including USL, the Thorns would be first!
Onward Rose City!