EletiofeNWSL smashes opening-week attendance record, an emblem of growth

NWSL smashes opening-week attendance record, an emblem of growth

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Mar 26, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Angel City FC forward Jun Endo (18) fans wave a Japanese flag during the second half of the game against New Jersey/New York Gotham FC at BMO Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Angel City sold out its 2023 NWSL opener against Gotham FC. (Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports)

WASHINGTON — There were 11,281 here at Audi Field, and 22,000 Sunday night in Los Angeles. There were 15,204 in Portland and 30,854 in San Diego. All told, over 90,000 people attended a National Women’s Soccer League game this weekend, and helped the league shatter its opening-week record.

Across six games, the league averaged 15,002 fans on Saturday and Sunday, easily surpassing the previous mark, set last year, of 10,150.

The number validated growth that NWSL leaders touted all offseason. Commissioner Jessica Berman spoke Monday about “go[ing] from a mentality of surviving to thriving.” And on opening weekend, it indeed seemed like the NWSL has turned a corner.

That average attendance number used to hover in the mid-four digits. It was 3,321 in the inaugural season, 2013, and up to 7,880 in 2016 but back down to 4,488 in 2019. COVID-19 essentially wiped out 2020 and heavily impacted 2021.

But with two Southern California teams joining and investing last season, and others soon to follow, the league rebounded and rebuilt.

It had always had a strong presence in Portland. But in 2022, Angel City regularly filled what is now known as BMO Stadium; and the San Diego Wave opened Snapdragon Stadium, a 35,000-seat ground that the now-second-year franchise will share with San Diego State football.

This year, the Washington Spirit moved in with D.C. United in the nation’s capital, a massive upgrade on the team’s previous homes out in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Michele Kang, who purchased a majority share in the club last year for $35 million, has invested heavily on both the sporting side and the business side, and the move was a big piece in her initial puzzle.

“The commitment in energy — because it took a lot for Michele to get this done — but also the commitment in finances to get this done was big,” Spirit head coach Mark Parsons said after Sunday’s 1-0 win over the Reign. “We got a home. We got a home that the fans can call home, and we have a home that the players deserve. It was great.”

Kang was also pleased with Sunday’s crowd, on a gorgeous late-afternoon in D.C., with cherry blossoms blooming, but said at halftime: “This is just the beginning. It’s only gonna get better.”

Meanwhile, Kansas City is constructing the country’s first women’s-soccer-specific stadium. Clubs are building out their marketing staffs, constructing foundations that will lead to more ticket sales and revenue. Berman said this past week that season ticket sales were up 20% league-wide year over year — and clarified that 20% number number compares current sales to final figures from last season, meaning it should rise even further.

And it’s vital. Broadcast rights are ultimately what creates a behemoth, but — as Major League Soccer, the North American men’s league that struggled in its first decade of existence, has proven — consistent crowds create stability.

And that is what the NWSL increasingly has.

“Attendance and ticket sales,” Berman said, “are really the rocket fuel that will feed the growth of this league.”

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