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National Women’s Soccer League hopes to ride World Cup wave

Rapinoe says league must market the game's stars

By Paul Danzer, Columbian Soccer, hockey and Community Sports Reporter
Published: July 23, 2015, 5:00pm

PORTLAND — Megan Rapinoe gets it.

After playing in front of 21,000 fans on Wednesday, the United States winger and former University of Portland star said that marketing will be critical if the post Women’s World Cup boost is to be more than a blip for the National Women’s Soccer League.

“For us, I think that we just need to keep letting people know who we are,” Rapinoe said.

By “us” she meant the Seattle Reign. The Reign are one of the best teams in the 3-year-old league, but like the majority of teams in the NWSL, they play in the shadow of established sports franchises and in a stadium that is used mostly for high school sports.

The Reign has announced it expects to fill the north grandstand at Memorial Stadium (6,000 seats) for Sunday’s visit by the Thorns. After the Reign and Thorns played in front of Portland’s first sellout crowd on Wednesday, the question was: how long the NWSL can ride the World Cup wave?

“In Portland or in other cities?” Thorns coach Paul Riley replied. “In Portland, it’s a soccer city and they’ll always be here. I think the women’s side of it here has grown and grown.”

Rapinoe said the planned 10-match victory tour for the U.S. women’s national team should help keep the momentum going at least through the end of this NWSL season. Matches have been announced in mid-August at Pittsburgh and Chattanooga, Tenn., and for September in Detroit and Birmingham. Six more matches will be added.

And next year’s Olympics could provide another boost.

Rapinoe knows the fans are out there. She said the strong fan support in Vancouver, B.C., during the Women’s World Cup certainly included many from around the Northwest. But she said that many who follow the national team probably aren’t familiar with the NWSL.

Six NWSL games, including all three playoff matches and the Thorns’ final two home games, will be shown live on the Fox Sports 1 cable channel. The atmosphere at Thorns matches, while more sedate than at Portland Timbers matches, makes Thorns home games the most attractive for TV.

Rapinoe said the Thorns have some advantages their NWSL rivals don’t, including being owned by Merritt Paulson. Portland and Houston are the only NWSL teams owned by MLS owners. More such cross ownership would be good for the NWSL, Rapinoe said.

“I think the Thorns have a pretty unique situation with the stadium here right downtown, and being totally under the umbrella of the Timbers,” Rapinoe said. “I don’t know if they’re doing things completely different than every other team, or if they have such a better set-up here. I think it was part of the environment that was already here.”

No doubt Portland is an outlier for a league with average attendance is about 4,500 — including the Portland crowds. Take away the Thorns crowds, and that average dips significantly. One match this season drew fewer than 1,000 fans. So far, though, the other NWSL clubs have also seen big crowds after the World Cup.

After the U.S. won the 1999 World Cup, women’s soccer saw a boost that led to the Women’s United Soccer Association being founded the following year. But that eight-team league folded in 2003 after falling short of attendance and TV viewership forecasts.

“The true test of the World Cup (impact) is probably not this year, but probably in the season-ticket sales next year for all the clubs,” Riley said.

To really take advantage of the World Cup bump, though, the league will need to do more for fans than just let them know about games.

“We’re all in this together,” Riley said. “Our job is to entertain. Our job is to put teams on the park that people want to pay money to come watch, and put them in suitable stadiums for people to watch. I think that’s the next step for everybody, and hopefully they can do that — the whole league.”

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Columbian Soccer, hockey and Community Sports Reporter