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Opinion: Ladies First — The pandemic shines a spotlight on the NWSL

In the battle of the sexes, the women are winning — at least on the soccer field.

Everyone knows about the iconic United States Women’s National Team, four-time World Cup champions and one of the most accomplished teams in the history of international soccer. However, the real story of the pandemic sports restart is the undeniable success of the National Women’s Soccer League.

On June 26, the NWSL became the first professional sports league in the U.S. to return, decamping to Utah and establishing the first “bubble,” according to Insider.

The league was clearly up for the challenge.

They kept the bubble small, tested frequently and stressed the importance of respecting the quarantine. And critically, they provided copious mental health support for the players, according to ESPN, — soccer at the best of times is intensely competitive; the effect worsens when stuck in a bubble away from family during a global pandemic.

Creating a completely isolated environment where athletes can compete without infection sets a monumental precedent for all other returning sports. It effectively placed the NWSL in the spotlight as global leaders in the effort to bring sports back and gave the league a much bigger audience as sports fans wondered how the NWSL could possibly prevent the pandemic from destroying the tournament. 

Eight out of the nine teams in the league were cleared to participate, and the Challenge Cup not only came off without a hitch, but it also broke records.

The opening match of the tournament featuring the North Carolina Courage v. Portland Thorns brought in an average of 527,000 viewers, according to the Orlando Sentinel, up 201% from their previous record of 190,000 (dating back to Aug. 2014).

The Challenge Cup audience was also considerably higher than the most-watched game during the men’s Major League Soccer season, which saw 426,000 viewers. Moreover, the tournament’s championship game on July 26 hit new highs, drawing 653,000 viewers.

Generally speaking, the league has experienced an upward trend in viewership —  in 2019, the league saw a 21.8% viewer increase per game, according to Sportico. But in an increasingly competitive landscape for sports entertainment, how has an upstart like the NWSL managed to thrive?

The league leverages the USWNT’s success wisely.

As of the 2019 season, its 23 members were split among the nine club teams. Moreover, their season incentivizes National Team supporters to tune in and see their favorites play 24 games, which helps broaden its fanbase.

Additionally, the league courts major international players — notable players such as Rachel Daly (England) and Vero Boquete (Spain) are instrumental members of their respective clubs. 

The NWSL also continues to strategically build its brand geographically. Recently, a new NWSL team based in Los Angeles was unveiled and featured a predominantly female ownership group boasting names such as Natalie Portman, Uzo Aduba, Serena Williams and renowned USWNT alums Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm, according to Yahoo Sports

All of this growth and success is particularly meaningful right now when COVID-19 is seriously threatening the high school and college sports.

As uncertainty rises, the NWSL shows female athletes that there will be a career waiting for them when the pandemic is over. The pandemic put the NWSL in the national spotlight, and it’s certainly evident why the league is flourishing. Through the planned expansion, the league will continue to capitalize on their success and continue to inspire women and soccer fans everywhere. 

As the American Outlaws, the supporter group for American soccer likes to chant: “We love ya, we love ya, we love ya and wherever you go we’ll follow.”