Coming off the World Cup triumph for the US Women’s National Team, the NWSL, the one fully pro league in the US, has never been more viable or popular. As one of the few people in the media who regularly covers NWSL the reports today that Orlando will get an expansion team in the league next season is very exciting.
Florida has not had a women’s pro team since 2011 when magicJack FC, based in Boca Raton was booted out of NWSL’s forerunner, WPS. MagicJack FC featured Hope Solo, Christen Press, Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Lindsey Tarpley on a star-studded roster. The team sold out each of its home games at the capacity-limited FAU Soccer Stadium, which was far and away the smallest venue in the league. The team was popular locally and in terms of media and chatter eclipsed for a while the local men’s professional team, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers who reached the final of the second-division NASL that year. But after the World Cup ended, with the US dropping the final to Japan, interest began to wane.
This venture will be altogether different. Attached to a men’s team much like the top women’s clubs in Europe and unlike all but one pro team in the US, the marketing prowess and power of Orlando City SC will be behind the team. But as I have learned with Manchester City, the European club I support, that is both good and bad. Budgets and brand recognition are the good, but the women’s team CLEARLY plays second fiddle to the men’s team and even to the youth development squads at Manchester City. This is despite having five England World Cup players that reached the semifinals this past summer, including Steph Houghton who captains both England and City.
The Manchester City experience though has been highly positive in that the women playing for the Lady Blues including Houghton are paid above a living wage, unlike most of the women who are currently playing in NWSL whose teams with two exceptions are all independent of men’s clubs in the same cities. Interestingly those two attached to men’s teams, Portland and Houston have been smashing successes. Back to Manchester City- Since the women’s club is attached to a global men’s brand which is one of the biggest sporting names on the planet, the women HAVE to be paid well and given good facilities and promotion. But still a general male chauvinism prevails among many Manchester City fans, including some that complain I spend TOO MUCH TIME as a fan and editor of one of the largest blogs that covers the team, worrying about the fledgling women’s team when the 125 year old men’s senior side is always competing for titles in the world’s most popular sporting league, the English Premier League.
How will Orlando’s fandom work? Orlando City SC has attracted crowds that average over 30,000 for its first MLS season. With two matches remaining at home, the Lions are almost certain to break the single-season record for average season attendance for a pro soccer club in Florida set by the 1979 Tampa Bay Rowdies who averaged close to 29,000 fans a game. But will this translate to the women’s team?
NPSL’s average attendance is just over 5,000 a game. In previous seasons it has been much lower. When I closely covered the WPS in the 2009 and 2011 seasons, anything north of 5k was considered a good thing. The league in fact had its champions in both 2009 and 2010, teams playing in the LA and San Francisco Bay areas fold AFTER winning the title.
Orlando City SC (OCSC) seems like an indestructible brand right now in terms of market reach throughout the state. But women’s pro soccer is a difficult business to sustain interest in and to convince skeptical, largely chauvinistic sports writers that it is worthwhile. Trust me, I speak from experience when I speak of this. But I do think hitching an NWSL side to the OCSC brand gives the league its best chance for success in Florida. I just hope the local fans in Central Florida give the women’s game the equal respect it deserves versus the men’s game. After all some of the very best players in the world in the peak of their careers play in NWSL. MLS, the league Orlando City’s men side plays in is by comparison weak, with only a handful of internationally recognized superstars on rosters, and even those players are generally well past their best days.