How the NWSL became the world’s most innovative league

<span>Deloitte estimates that women’s elite spot will generate more than $1bn for the first time in 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Ira L Black/Getty Images</span>

Deloitte estimates that women’s elite spot will generate more than $1bn for the first time in 2024.Photograph: Ira L Black/Getty Images

No soccer league in the world is experiencing a boom comparative to the NWSL in 2024. Last month, the world’s first purpose-built stadium for a women’s sports franchise opened in Kansas City, marking the new home of the Current. San Diego Wave broke its NWSL home opener attendance record with over 32,000 fans, while the NWSL was listed at No 5 on the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2024.

“At the NWSL we are working to drive innovation, growth and increased investment in women’s soccer,” Jessica Berman, the NWSL’s commissioner, tells the Guardian. “I’m excited about the 2024 season and to see what else we can accomplish in the women’s soccer space.”

Related: Project ACL: WSL clubs to take part in pioneering injuries research project

The NWSL’s recent accolades are another reminder of the growth of not just women’s soccer, but women’s sports as a whole. The 2023 headlines focused on the Women’s World Cup, which was the most attended and generated the most revenue in tournament history. That was a precursor for the start of 2024, which has already seen unprecedented numbers for women’s sport (the final of the Women’s NCAA Tournament this month averaged 18.7 million viewers in the US, and was the most watched basketball game since 2019).

Deloitte estimates that in 2024 women’s elite sports will generate over $1bn for the first time, at least 300% higher than 2021. And with the NWSL’s two expansion teams, Bay FC and the Utah Royals, arriving alongside a massive new broadcasting deal, it’s clear that the investment in women’s sports is paying off.

“It’s very important that the NWSL has a pervasive geographical footprint as we think about growing the game and all of the national revenue streams from a media and sponsorship perspective,” Berman says. “Going from 12 to 14 NWSL teams is significant. We’re also selling an expansion team for 2026, so we will have 16 teams for the 2026 season which will be another level up.”

Since Berman became the NWSL commissioner in 2022, she’s been working to elevate women’s soccer by growing the league and increasing the value of its teams. Before Berman’s reign, NWSL franchises were sold for somewhere between $2m and $5m. In March, however, San Diego Wave’s principal owner Ron Burkle agreed to sell the team for around $113m. These rapidly rising valuations, combined with the league’s growing audience, are key markers of growth – and a new precedent for women’s sports.

“As the business grows there will be additional mechanisms that investors will analyze as a way to get a return on their investment,” Berman says. “So you can think of players as assets … We are investing in athletes and their wellbeing because that’s the product we put on the pitch, and there becomes a buyer and seller market for transfer players, which exists on the men’s side.”

The NWSL is different from leagues in Europe, where women’s teams sometimes come second to the men’s – which is why the NWSL has implemented minimum standards across the league regarding staffing and resources.

In the last two years, the size of the league office has tripled. Berman has also worked to bring some of the world’s best players to the NWSL (notably Bay FC signing Nigeria international Asisat Oshoala in January) and to create an ecosystem for players to thrive.

“These are things like medical and coaching staff, and other tools and resources that are available not just directly to players, but to the people around the players whose job it is to maximize and optimize their performance as professional athletes,” Berman says.

“This is sort of expected and taken for granted on the men’s side, because candidly it’s the way it’s always been done. For women’s sports, it requires specific policies so everyone understands the expectations of how we’re going to take our product to the next level, and ensure the players feel like they’re getting the support they need to thrive.”

One area of focus is injuries. The league is working to prevent injury, promote recovery amid increasing workloads and “schedule squeezes” from international matches. While the NWSL cannot change the Fifa calendar, the league has decided to minimize midweek games and use technology and experts to collect data and assess player wellbeing day-to-day.

“Thinking differently about what we can directly control in our schedule allows the NWSL to provide the best possible playing experience for our players, but also the best viewing experience for our fans,” Berman says. “The best experience for our fans also comes with having healthy, top talent.”

But with top talent comes top pay. In order to maintain quality and attract the best players, the NWSL has doubled its salary cap from 2023 to 2024. According to Berman, the NWSL has “a handful of players” who are making close to $500,000 a year, a figure that seemed impossible a few short years ago, which also results in more competitive matches for fans and thus, more sold out stadiums. “All the games, absolutely all of them, are like a Champions League game at the highest level,” Esther González, a World Cup winner with Spain and a current NJ/NY Gotham forward, said in 2023.

Related: ‘This will change women’s soccer’: why KC Current’s stadium has set a new standard

Berman believes these factors have allowed the NWSL to become a world leader and to help influence other leagues and women’s sports globally.

“The NWSL is trying to help the entire ecosystem think differently about how decisions in the sport impact the entire landscape. It’s crucial to get these decisions right. And it’s going to require a lot of different constituents and stakeholders to come together and decide how to do that most effectively,” Berman says.

The next big event for women’s soccer is this summer’s Olympics – which, like the World Cup, will have more eyes on female athletes than ever before.

For Berman, events like the Olympics, W Gold Cup, World Cup are positive ways to showcase and follow players on a global stage, almost an exclamation point for how the game has grown. However, Berman says there needs to be more intentionality when it comes to supporting these players year-round.

“If you’re watching your favorite player on the world’s stage, know that they are employed and paid by their professional clubs. And so if you enjoyed seeing Christine Sinclair play for Canada for example, know that she’s employed and paid by the Portland Thorns,” Berman says. “You don’t have to wait to watch these players once every four years. You can watch them every week in the NWSL. That’s how we’re going to support and grow women’s soccer.”

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