Jessica Berman, Commissioner of the Women’s National Football League, understands that one key metric will drive success in every other area.

“I think we all who have worked in the sports industry for decades know that the rocket fuel for the growth of any sports league is attendance,” Berman recently told Sportzshala.

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This year, the NWSL has finally begun to fill the proverbial reservoir (and stadiums) in earnest. In its ten years of existence, the league surpassed 1 million fans in a season for the first time in 2022, marking a 70% increase from last year. The final week of the regular season, with attendance leaders Angel City and Portland Thorns playing twice at home, marked the first time the NWSL drew more than 100,000 fans in a single game week.

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That momentum continued into the playoffs, culminating in Saturday’s NWSL Championship between the Kansas City Current and the Thorns. The past two weeks have seen four of the biggest NWSL playoffs in history – first in Houston and then in San Diego, Portland and Seattle. 26,215 spectators at the first-round playoff game in San Diego on October 16 is a new bar for postseason play.

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By any measure of league-level attendance, the NWSL is on an upward trend. This is obviously a positive change, but it also means a lot for teams whose financial results are still dependent on ticket revenue, and for a league trying to get expansion fees and franchise valuation that are exponentially higher than even two years. back.

The exact percentages vary by team, but ticket sales still account for roughly half of the NWSL franchise’s annual revenue. This reality has different implications for NWSL teams trying to attract fans and those who continue to struggle at the gate.

California Gold Rush NWSL

The expansion was a game-changer for the NWSL in many ways, including attendance. Los Angeles-based Angel City led the league in attendance in 2022, the league’s first year, averaging 19,105 fans per game over 11 regular season games at Bank of California Stadium.

Angel City treats itself like a brand and promotes women’s football as a coveted event that even the rich and famous Los Angeles residents can’t miss (even if dozens of them do so because they invested in the team).

Data is at the heart of Angel City’s ticket sales, but the club also did something really obvious that most other NWSL owners didn’t want to do: invest in a strong, experienced staff. The winnings came in the form of season tickets for 15,000 fans ahead of their first regular season game, and by the end of the season, that number surpassed 16,000.

Banc of California Stadium is also a modern football gem with plenty of luxurious seating. In the Los Angeles market, prices are higher than average—the average ticket price is $42 a game—but season-exclusive bundles run into the tens of thousands, meaning higher potential revenue from games. A spokesperson for the club told Sportzshala that Angel City’s biggest ever single-game goal was over $1 million.

“Attendance is the most important indicator that you are succeeding in building a community and identity for your club,” said Angel City president and co-founder Julie Urman. “The ability to get fans into the game and keep them coming back, whether they win or lose, shows your ability to create that connection.”

The other side of San Diego Wave FC’s expansion also saw an increase in attendance following the move to Snapdragon Stadium at the end of the season when that stadium was built. A sell-out of 32,000 fans for the team’s first regular season game at the stadium set a league attendance record.

Why Attendance Determines Everything Else

In many ways, attendance is the most telling indicator of the health and popularity of a team or league. A full stadium evokes the image of an important event, something that strikes FOMO, or the fear of missing out on those who are absent. The impression that many people want to participate in NWSL (attendance as a key indicator) helps stimulate other business interests that NWSL is trying to develop.

The league’s international media rights agreement with streaming service Twitch expires at the end of this season, while its domestic media rights agreement with CBS ends at the end of 2023. Several NWSL sources expect the next media rights deal to grow exponentially from $4.50. million allocated to CBS in 2020. Trends in sports media rights confirm this bet: MLS, the male counterpart to NWSL, which has struggled to attract a consistent broadcast audience, recently announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with Apple.

Higher attendance creates a more compelling broadcast and streaming product, and greater media exposure generates more sponsorship dollars. For the NWSL, this means attendance growth is at the heart of everything the league wants to achieve.

“Everything is connected and interconnected, so you can’t set goals from a business perspective without understanding the relative dependencies between each of these business areas,” Berman said. “And I would say attendance increases the number of viewers, but views and distribution from a media point of view will also increase attendance. And all this will stimulate the participation of sponsors and brands.”

Otherwise, NWSL will not be able to fulfill its potential, and Berman and the company set high goals for themselves.

Two expansion teams are expected to be announced in the coming months, one of which will be located in Utah in the Greater Salt Lake City area, as first reported by Sportzshala in June. A return price for Utah in the $2 million range was fixed in a December 2020 deal made by previous league leadership (much to the chagrin of the current board) when the Utah Royals disbanded and were replaced by the Kansas City Current.

Berman said there are “dozens of groups that have signed NDAs” (non-disclosure agreements) to participate in the official bidding process for the expansion. Several sources expect the winning group’s expansion fee to exceed $20 million due to demand for only one seat.

Estimates of existing teams are also rising. Washington Spirit sold for $35 million earlier this year, 10 times more than Seattle-based OL Reign. sold in December 2019. NJ/NY Gotham FC recently raised $40 million in funding. Berman declined to confirm specific estimates or possible expansion fees.

Investors come to these numbers subjectively, betting on the NWSL’s future growth potential, but they also need to see signs that the league is heading in the right direction. Attendance is one of the key performance indicators and its interdependence, media rights and sponsorship means that continued growth at the gate is critical.

Dependency goes beyond these core segments and affects some of the smaller revenue streams that become more important as traffic grows.

“Attendance generates significant revenue for clubs, not only in the form of ticket revenue, but also in the form of additional revenue streams from goods, concessions, parking,” Urman said. “But being able to see a full stadium will encourage other people to want to go to these games because they create a sense of belonging and a sense of community.

“Also, it’s much more interesting to watch it on TV, it’s more interesting for potential media rights partners who want these rights, because you see the level of attachment to these games. Not to mention what it does for these players on the pitch to inspire them to play at the highest level.”

NWSL winners and losers by attendance

City of Angels and even the San Diego Wave may seem like anomalies, but other clubs have a lot to learn from the immediate success of the expansion sides.

Kansas City left worst stadium situation in 2021 – a converted baseball field that drew the ire of players from both home and away teams – prior to the announcement of plans to build their own privately funded stadium, a first for an NWSL team. It is expected to open in 2024.

Meanwhile, the Current moved to Children’s Mercy Park, MLS home of Sporting Kansas City, this season and have averaged over 7,600 fans, up 63% from 2021.

Right now, ticket revenue makes up roughly 35% of Current’s total revenue, club president Allison Howard told Sportzshala. Opening their own stadium will boost revenue streams for Current and create a venue that they hope will sell out for every home game, but the move is expected to shift revenue further towards sponsorship. Why? Because the club is expecting a major stadium sponsorship deal in addition to several founding partners.

The Houston Dash, who have historically struggled to attract fans, have made great strides in attendance in the team’s first full season under majority owner Ted Segal and team president Jessica O’Neill in 2022.

Even removing Angel City and San Diego from the equation, NWSL attendance is up 28% from last year. However, the gulf between these success stories and teams fighting for the goal is wide. Four of the league’s 12 teams averaged less than 5,000 fans per game in 2022, including the Chicago Red Stars, not counting their doubleheader with the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field.

There are serious questions about the viability of some of these situations, especially in Chicago, where the team plays well out of town in Bridgeview, Illinois. The future of this market will be further tested when longtime owner Arnim Wisler is stripped of his decision-making power. The club’s board removed him as chairman and the players demanded that he sell the team following details released in a report by Sally Yates on systemic abuse in the NWSL. Whisler, the report elaborates, received and dismissed repeated complaints against former head coach Rory Dames, who has been accused of mentally and physically abusing players throughout his coaching career.

Among the cons…