What's Next?: Marketing and Building Women's Soccer and the NWSL to Superstardom
Updated: Jul 17, 2019
Like many people, I was confused by this equal pay thing. I always thought that the issue was with FIFA and not with the US Soccer Federation, but I was wrong. I've recently had my eyes opened to the issue after doing research here, here, here, and here. I've never been much of a math guy, so I'll let the experts explain the pay gap. I personally feel that the Federation should pay the women more than the men, but that's another story. What I'm here to tell you is how I would market, brand, and change the National Women's Soccer League so that the longest running Women's Soccer league does not go defunct. In addition, I'm going to tell you how the league can flourish forever so that the 200 women can keep living their passion and dreams on the soccer pitch.
Have you ever seen the beginning montage of "Rocky 3"? Our hero, Rocky Balboa has just knocked out Apollo Creed and as the scene fades out on the Italian Stallion hugging his manager Mickey we are treated to a fireworks display as the opening chords of "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor rock the screen. This montage shows Rocky's transition from underdog club boxer from South Philly to a sophisticated, suave, millionaire fashionista as he knocks out challengers while appearing on dozens of magazine covers, American Express commercials, "The Muppet Show", and telethons gaining the adoration of fans worldwide. Now I understand that most of the 2019 US Women's Soccer FIFA World Cup Championship team has already been at the top, but Rocky's opening transition was such a whirlwind that it reminded me how quickly the team moved from winning the Cup in France on Sunday, to Good Morning America on Tuesday, to the ticker tape parade in New York City then a flight to the ESPY's in Los Angeles on Wednesday all while under an intense media spotlight. The only difference between Rocky 3 and the USWNT today is that Rocky had a manager watching his back while the women's team has a soccer federation that some say hasn't always looked out for their best interests.
After a short break, the USWNT will be returning back to their teams in the NWSL to finish the 2019 season which ends this fall. Though things seem to be looking up as they are going to be featured on ESPN 2 and ESPN News for their remaining schedule, and they have secured a major advertising deal with Budweiser, next season isn't guaranteed according to Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl:
Though the confetti is still on the streets of NYC, there is much planning to be done to not only stay afloat, but to exceed the country's and the world's expectations on how successful a soccer league can be in the US. That's right, I said a soccer league, not just a Women's Soccer league. The iron needs to be struck when it's hot. Why am I so passionate and invested in the cause? Let me tell you a little about my history.
I grew up playing sports but was mostly into the other version of football that is huge in the US. I played offensive line but was never talented enough to play in college. When I started my freshman year at Rowan University I found a work/study job working for the college's athletic department as a ticket taker and on game production crew. I was given the chance to work with many of the school's athletes along the way, from baseball and football to field hockey and volleyball. I really shined when I was given the microphone as the public address announcer for Women's Soccer, Volleyball, Softball, and Baseball. I loved providing the game announcements with my booming voice echoing around the campus. I was their Michael Buffer for $5.75 an hour.
I especially loved working with the female athletes because they allowed me to be creative with playing entrance music and provided me with "cool things" to say while I introduced them individually. All of the female athletes took the time to learn my name and be my friend. The way they would sing their made up songs and create their own chants reminded me of the USWNT. It could be that I'm so invested in the USWNT because I see the same spirit of the college athletes that I spent numerous nights cheering for in my younger days to the World Cup Champs.
Last summer, the company that I work for held a special "meet and greet" at our office for two players on the Sky Blue FC NWSL team - USWNT member Carli Lloyd, and Jen Hoy, a forward for the team and Princeton University graduate. I was chosen in the group to meet Jen Hoy and what I saw had a lasting impression on me. In what was supposed to be a quick picture, autograph, and “move along” scenario, Jen took the time to answer every question she was asked and couldn't have been any nicer. I had just been to the Philadelphia Eagles camp the weekend before and had my picture taken with head coach Doug Pederson. To my wife's chagrin I had replaced a picture of us together with my new picture with the Super Bowl winning head coach. I joked with Jen that if Sky Blue FC were to win the NWSL Championship that year that I would replace my picture with Coach Pederson with the picture that we had just taken together. (Not sure how the wife would have liked that one either!) Jen smiled and replied that it would not be that season as Sky Blue was at the bottom of the standings, but hopefully next year.
I would put this as one of my favorite meetings that I have ever had with a pro athlete/celebrity, up there with the time that I met John Cena and he called me "the best winner of a workout that he ever had". Jen is also passionate about holistic nutrition and has her own health consulting business that you can check out here. Just think, there are 23 women on the national team and around 200 players in the league. If those 175 players are anywhere near as kind and charismatic as Jen was on that day, then that's what I call an opportunity. All you need to do is put them in front of a large audience, market them correctly, and the people will come. Just as it has with the USWNT in 2015, 2016 for the Olympics, and 2019 for this past World Cup. Here's how you keep those ratings up and extend them to the NWSL without any lapse in years without big events like in 2017 and 2018.
In order do this, the league must Invest, Create, and Market the players and the league. I've read many articles on what needs to be done for the NWSL to succeed but not how. I understand it sounds easy on paper...it's not - and I'm sure that there were many people way more qualified than I am who could have thought of this already - but let me show you how I would do it.
Did you see Oprah crush that ball? It's great that she and other celebrities such as Jessica Chastain, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria and Ellen have shown their support for the team on social media and television. But does it have to stop there? If a media mogul like Vince McMahon (who is worth around the same amount as Oprah) can invest in a second attempt at an already failed sports league (the XFL), couldn't someone like Oprah invest in, if not buy the league outright, continue promoting the league on her network and possibly donate towards the improvement of stadiums and field conditions? Maybe the actresses mentioned prior could form a group to purchase one of the teams? And if not them, how about Mackenzie Bezos?...one of the Waltons?...Abigail Johnson?...Jacqueline Mars?...or Laurene Powell Jobs? What about Vince McMahon's daughter Stephanie? There aren't many female professional sports team owners. How about we change that with the NWSL? Tyler Perry's speech when receiving the Ultimate Icon Award at the BET Awards in June was very inspirational. Perry said, "While everybody else is fighting for a seat at the table, talking about 'OscarsSoWhite' I said 'Ya'll go ahead and do that.' While you're fighting for a seat at the table, I'll be down in Atlanta building my own. Because what I know for sure is that if I could just build this table, God will prepare it for me in the presence of my enemies." To hell with everyone who has failed at successfully pushing women's soccer in the United States. It might be time for a woman to show the world how it's done.
The Fertitta brothers Lorenzo and Frank took a risk in buying a "niche" sport - the Ultimate Fighting Championship for $2 million in 2001. They sold it in 2016 for $4 billion in 2016. That risk paid off big time!
Now this is where this gets interesting. I have an idea for a mid year tournament that will keep people interested in the happenings of NWSL. There needs to be a narrative to hook people to the league. Sure, just saying support them because they are the best in the world is one thing, but this tactic has been done for years and years and I feel that it needs to be amped up a bit. There could be a tournament that occurs for a week in July that does not interfere with the USWNT tournament action whether it be for the World Cup or Olympics. Allow me to introduce to you the Persephone Cup.
The Persephone Cup will be held each year at a location that has the capacity to handle such an event. For the hypothetical first event, lets say it will occur one month prior to the Olympics from June 20-27th 2020 at the ESPN Wild World of Sports at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The week will be dedicated to clinics hosted by the athletes/coaches, autograph sessions, question and answer sessions, live podcasts, and easy access as a home base for the media. Matches will occur daily at nearby Exploria Stadium. The single elimination tournament will consist of ten teams, nine from the NWSL and one from a special team playing in an international league (example: Manchester City WFC, Tottenham Hotspur FC Women, Olympique Lyonnais Feminin etc). The prize is a money prize from sponsorship money, which we will get to in a moment, but the tournament will also determine playoff qualification and seeding. The seeding will be determined from where the NWSL team sits in the standings. Using how the standings currently are, the bracket would be as follows:
Portland Thorns FC (3)
Sky Blue FC (10)
Chicago Red Stars (7)
Houston Dash (8)
Washington Spirit (4)
Orlando Pride (9)
Utah Royals FC (5/6)
International Team (5/6)
Reign FC (1) and North Carolina Courage (2) have a bye to the semifinals
As a courtesy the international team will be given a seed in the middle. So the winners of games 1 and 2 in each bracket will face each other in the quarterfinals. Then the winners of the quarterfinals matches will then move on to the semifinals where the bracket is reseeded and the lower seed will face Reign FC and the higher seed will face the North Carolina Courage. The winners of the semifinals will face each other in the finals with the winner automatically making it into the NWSL playoffs at the end of the season regardless of their position. If they finish as one of the top four seeds at the end of the season then they are automatically the number one seed. If the winner of the Persephone Cup is not one of the top four teams that team will take the place of the fourth place finisher. These are what I call stakes!
And if this isn't high enough stakes for you. The winner of the Persephone Cup will get the opportunity to compete for the Grand Prize, a shot at the US Women's National Team on the final night of the festivities. It would be a reward for the USWNT players to automatically get to play for the Grand Prize in the end with how much they mean to the sport. If the Persephone Cup winning team can beat the USWNT, then they will earn double the Grand Prize amount. Now any member of the Persephone Cup team who happens to play on the national team has to make a decision. Are they going to ditch their NWSL teammates and play with their World Cup winning teammates? Or will they stick it out with their NWSL club at a chance for double the prize. Any NWSL team who loses players to the national team is given the opportunity to use any NWSL player on loan from another team for the Grand Prize match, be it Samantha Kerr or Marta or Jen Hoy etc.
Are you scratching your head at this? Probably. But isn't it cool to try something different? I feel that this will be something that can set the NWSL apart from other sports like baseball which is in the middle of it's regular season in the summer. Networks should be fighting for the opportunity to broadcast this event. And if not, go to a streaming service
Did you catch the USWNT's celebration videos? Watching them slam Bud Heavies on Instagram and dance around the locker room was visceral to me. For the first time they looked badass, soaking with attitude. I could picture the Dutch, British, French, and Thai teams watching those videos knowing how hard they will have to work in four years. I always felt that they were marketed to a younger audience. Just look at the commercials that they usually are featured in. They are either doing some cheesy couch dance for Hulu, or kicking a soccer ball in a goal, or training at a soccer stadium. Nike and Budweiser have nailed the call to action commercial. How about trying something with a little pop culture humor? I have some experience in copywriting, check out this Bud commercial:
We open to a soccer field in which a Budweiser vs. Bud Light company soccer game is about to begin. The Budweiser team are a bunch of middle aged men who are way past their sports prime. The Bud Light team consists entirely of the medieval men from the Bud Light "Dilly Dilly" commercials with a Brock Lesnar/The Mountain from Game of Thrones type guy coaching them. In a state of despair the coach from the Budweiser team (played by Aubrey Plaza) says to her assistant :
Bud Coach: "Where's our star player? We really need to win this game so I could get my promotion!"
(All of a sudden a modern remixed version of "Summergirls" from Dino starts playing. If you need a refresher on what it sounds like see the video.)
(The star of our commercial now appears. It's Alex Morgan in a red Budweiser jersey wearing an obnoxious fake mustache with her hair up in a man bun.)
Alex: "Sorry I'm late. Rush hour."
(The game starts with the music still playing showing soccer action. Alex takes possession of the ball, fakes several Bud Light defenders, then scores a goal on the keeper played by the Bud Knight who falls to the ground.)
Director: "AND CUT!"
(The movie clapperboard makes a clapping sound. The movie being filmed is "Ladybugs 2" Starring Alex Morgan. Alex now on the screen holding a Budweiser. She quickly pulls off her fake mustache.)
Alex: "Hi, I'm Alex Morgan. Now that I'm a two time World Cup Champion, the movie offers keep piling in. But I always find the time to enjoy a refreshing Budweiser when I'm done filming.
(The Bud Knight comes on the screen)
Director: "Hey Alex...can you come shoot that again?
Announcer: "Budweiser - King of Beers and proud sponsor of the National Women's Soccer League"
Moving on to merchandising. I couldn't see a single USWNT player who has a Bleacher Creature, which is a plush toy in the form of an athlete or a fictional character. As a matter of fact there isn't much more merchandise that you can buy except jersey's and the players t-shirts that you can buy here, or the "USA vs. Everybody" shirt that you can find here. How about take a page out of WWE's book and contact Mattel and have them make a line of action figure dolls with them wearing their soccer uniforms packed with a nightlife change of clothes.
Speaking of WWE, the company struck gold with the reality show "Total Divas" on the E! Network which features the daily lives of many female WWE superstars. Before the "Divas Revolution" nearly five years ago, the female superstars were rarely given main event story lines, and mostly consisted of pin up models as opposed to athletes. That has all changed in recent years with this year's Wrestlemania being the first to have women main event the long running show. Are there any USWNT players who would love being in front of the cameras? If so, give Bunim-Murray Productions a call and they can start filming what I'd call "Total Glory".
There is so much that can be done to market this league. I understand that this is a bunch of fantasy league planning, but I'd love to hear what you think I got right, and what I got wrong. If you liked what you read please send me a follow on my social pages and subscribe to this blog. If you think my ideas suck, and I suck as a writer you can tell me that too. It didn't stop Tommy Wiseau, and it's not gonna stop me.
Song of the Day:
"We Are The Champions" by Queen