After years of false starts, it finally looks like the women’s soccer league has finally found the road to success. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), by completing its fourth season in October, passed a milestone that its predecessors never reached, but Commissioner Jeff Plush said the league is looking to do more than survive.
A little history: Originally called the United States Interregional Women’s League, the USL W-League was formed in 1995 as the first national women’s soccer league, providing a professional outlet for many of the top female soccer players in the country. It also allowed college players the opportunity to play alongside established international players. Starting as the Western Division of the W-League, the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) broke away and formed its own league in 1997 and had its inaugural season in 1998. Both the W-League and the WPSL were considered the premier women’s soccer leagues in the United States at the time, but eventually fell to a second-tier level upon the formation of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) in 2000.
After the United States women’s national soccer team won the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, a viable market for the sport became apparent. So feeding on the momentum of their victory, the twenty national team players, in partnership with John Hendricks of the Discovery Channel, sought out the investors, markets, and players necessary to form the WUSA. The league played its first season in 2001, and was the world’s first women’s soccer league in which all players were paid professionals. Unfortunately, financial problems and lack of public interest conspired to close down the league after only three years.
Efforts to reestablish a national league continued from 2003 to the eventual creation of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) in 2008. The success of the United States women’s national team at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup resulted in another upsurge of interest in the sport. But it was short lived and internal organization struggles and legal battles led to the suspension of the league in 2012.
With WPS folding, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced a round-table discussion of the future of women’s professional soccer in the United States. The meeting resulted in the planning of a new league set to launch in 2013 with twelve to sixteen teams from the WPS, the W-League, and the WPSL. This eventually became the NWSL.
When the United States women’s national team won the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the NWSL announced agreements for its first televised games with Fox Sports 1 during the 2015 season, airing games near the end of the season and during the postseason. The league reached another similar agreement with Fox Sports 1 for the 2016 season.
When the media exploded after the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, MLS’s Orlando City SC showed interest in starting a women’s team for the 2016 season. On October 20, 2015, the NWSL and Orlando City SC announced that Orlando would host the Orlando Pride, which started play at the beginning of the 2016 season. With the expansion, the Orlando Pride became the NWSL’s tenth team.
At the beginning of the 2016 season, the NWSL became the first professional women’s soccer league to play a fourth season, thus dispelling the jinx of past leagues. At the next owners meeting, they’ll discuss what is next for the league in expansion. The league is not planning to expand in 2017, but the plan is to move into additional markets which could help further the league’s broadcast and sponsor goals. They have also attracted the interest of other potential ownership groups.