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Women's World Cup Bump — Short-Lived Or Longer?

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It's been a month since the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team won a second straight World Cup, and gained rock star popularity in the process.

Since the win, the goal has been to capitalize on that success.

U.S. Soccer Federation president Carlos Cordeiro has been at odds with the women's team on issues of pay and working conditions. Still, Cordeiro understands the importance of maintaining USWNT momentum.

"If you love these players of the World Cup," he said at a victory celebration in New York City, "then come out and cheer on your local teams, NWSL teams, this year."

The NWSL is the women's pro soccer league in the U.S. Now in its seventh year, it helped develop the World Cup heroes – all 23 who went to France, play in the league. But it's still somewhat unknown.

Carli Lloyd, a veteran of the U.S. National Team and current member of Sky Blue FC, is interviewed by the press after the team's loss to the Dash.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR

"There are a lot of people out there that don't even know there's a league that exists," said Carli Lloyd, "That's a problem." The U.S. National Team veteran and current member of the NWSL's Sky Blue FC echoes Cordeiro's call to action.

"It's about awareness," Lloyd said.

World Cup Bump

In the National Women's Soccer League, World Cup bump is a relative term.

In soccer hotbed Portland, Ore., the NWSL's Thorns drew a whopping post-World Cup crowd of more than 22-thousand. Orlando had its biggest attendance in two years. Even in Houston, where major pro teams like the Rockets, Astros and Texans dominate the sports landscape, the NWSL's Dash had a season-high turnout at its first home game after the World Cup.

"We drew just under [5,500]," said Zac Emmons, the Dash's senior director of Communications. "For Dash games we sell the lower bowl of [BBVA Stadium]. We had the entire lower bowl sold out. [We] actually had to open some upper level sections to accommodate the crowd."

Fans watch the match from the lower-level of a nearly empty stadium in Houston.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR

At the second post-World Cup game, the energy was there, but the paying customers – not so much.

This time, 3,500 people showed up on a hot, sticky Sunday night. Including some who still wanted to make a statement.

"I read a call to action, and that's what I'm doing," said Houston resident Marco Gomez, "I'm doing it. I'm acting."

Marco Gomez, 30, watches the match. He says a call to support women's soccer on Instagram is what got him coming to this game.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR

Gomez, a 30-year-old hospital technician in Sugarland, Texas, explained what brought him to his first-ever Dash game.

"I was on Instagram," he said, "and I read that the U.S. World Cup team was fighting for equal pay. One of the comments was a question addressed to Alex Morgan – it was like 'hey Alex, what can we do to help out? What's the most effective way?'"

"And the reply was, go support women's soccer at all levels. That makes sense. So that's what I'm doing."

Gomez, wearing a backwards baseball cap and sipping a beer, sat and watched by himself. A few sections over, 9-year-old Remy Haguewood sat surrounded by family members. She's been to lots of Dash games, but was as excited as ever, decked out in a white U.S. Soccer jersey and Houston Dash scarf.

Ava Martin (left), 9, and her friend Remy Haguewood (right), 9, pose for a portrait during the match.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR
It's very important to stay dedicated — to stay strong for these women." - Lucy Haguewood

"I love soccer and I love the drums," she bubbled, "they play the drums also [the Dash supporter group Bayou City Republic]. So it's just awesome to be here."

And, said her mom Lacy Haguewood, it's also necessary.

"It's very important to stay dedicated," Lacy said, "to stay strong for these women. They go to work every day. Carli Lloyd just played for the World Cup and now she's here [Lloyd's Sky Blue team was playing the Dash]. Everyone knows who she is. You just have to stay the course and do what we do and that's show up every day."

Not Enough

On this night, the dedication of fans like the Haguewoods' was rewarded midway through the first half.

That's when Dash forward Rachel Daly blasted a shot from close range into the upper left corner of the Sky Blue goal. It was the only score in a one-nil Houston win over Sky Blue. Despite her starring role, though, Daly was not to be trifled with.

In the autograph line afterwards, where NWSL players work tirelessly to connect with fans, Daly reminded autograph-hungry little girls that manners matter.

Left: Girls hold small soccer balls to get them signed by players after the game; Right: Layla Reese, 8, has a Houston Dash logo painted on her cheek.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR

"If you say please," Daly said to a group of kids, who hadn't said the magic word. "I know your mom told you to say that."

One pre-teen fan responded quickly.

"Will you please sign my card?" the girl asked. "'Cause you said please, I will," Daly replied.

After she made her way through the line, I asked Daly if she thought the NWSL was getting the World Cup bounce people said it should.

Again, no nonsense.

"No, I actually don't," she said. "I think some places are, others aren't. Y'know I don't think there were enough people out there for us tonight."

Promoting Others

Daly was on England's Women's World Cup team, which lost to the U.S. in the tournament's semi-finals. She wondered if Houston lagged in the stands because no U.S. National Team members play for the Dash.

Team spokesman Zac Emmons says Houston has had USWNT members, but because of trades, doesn't now. He's not certain that has an impact on attendance. Emmons does say it's natural you'll see a bigger bump that first game back [after the World Cup].

"It's a challenge for us to keep those people coming back," he said, "to continue engaging with them on a week in, week out basis."

Fans react to a play on the field.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR

This kind of regression toward the mean is natural as the World Cup glow fades. All the more reason, said women's soccer writer RJ Allen, for the NWSL to promote others.

"Building up players that are sort of stalwarts for the league itself," said Allen, "highlighting those players and showing off more than just the Alex Morgan's or Tobin Heath's or Alyssa Naeher's is a key. [The league] has to build up a recognizable base of players that have nothing to do with U.S. Women's National Team."

That should be easier thanks to a new ESPN TV deal, essentially broadcasting a national game-of-the-week. The league also secured a major sponsorship with Budweiser.

Allen, the editor-in-chief of Backlinesoccer.com, said those deals help; but more has to happen.

"I think a TV deal," she said, "a true legitimate every-game-is-somewhere-on-television [deal], I think that is a giant thing the league is lacking."

And while the U.S. National Team members battle for equal pay with U.S. Soccer (which pays their salaries), the NWSL, Allen said, would do well to pay its non-USWNT players more.

"You're having players come out of college at 21, 22," she said, "with degrees from Stanford and University of North Carolina and Duke and a lot of really good colleges, and you're paying them $17,000 minimum salary, and they have job offers on the table for two or three or four times that."

"So keeping that talent in the league, growing that talent, having players earn 30,000 minimum, something like that would definitely help the league because it would keep that talent."

A New Rallying Cry

Houston Dash team member and member of England's World Cup team Rachel Daly takes a selfie with fans after the game.
Ilana Panich-Linsman for NPR

Despite the changes for which Allen and others advocate, there's general consensus the NWSL is the most competitive women's pro soccer league in the world. It's where the best soccer players go to hone their games.

And Allen said the public needs to know that.

"The reason the U.S. won the second [straight] World Cup is directly because of the NWSL," she said. "Because of players like Sam Mewis and Lindsey Horan playing in the NWSL and getting better because of this league. And without it, it becomes a lot less certain the U.S. is going to keep [its] dominance in the world."

Meaning, the rallying cry, "If you love the World Cup winners, please support the NWSL," should perhaps be a bit more hard-edged.

"If you love the World Cup winners, you better support the NWSL."

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