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Finding the Best Markets for Major League Women's Soccer

CARSON, CA - APRIL 19:  Kandace Wilson #9 of FC Gold Pride goes up for the header against Marta #10 of the Los Angeles Sol during the WPS match at The Home Depot Center on April 19, 2009 in Carson, California. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
John HowellAnalyst IMay 23, 2012

Part Two in the Series: How Major League Women’s Soccer Can Work in the U.S.

The reason two major leagues for professional women’s soccer have failed in the past ten years in America is simple, and yet I’ve never seen it mentioned in any of the post-mortems.The tragic flaw has been market selection.

We already know which markets won’t work—all the markets already tried by the two leagues. Western New York and Boston might be exceptions, as they are the two clubs with the best attendance and deepest organizational support. 

It made sense to try launching a league in major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, NY/NJ, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta and in soccer strongholds like N. Carolina and St. Louis. It made sense if you assume the large population, large amounts of sports dollars being spent in such markets already and a high level of interest in soccer in said markets automatically indicates that a major league for women will also thrive.

It doesn’t make sense if you analyze what’s behind the success of major league sports in general, and developing a fan base in particular. What makes for a successful major league sports franchise?

It isn’t necessarily a following for the sport in the market. There are numerous examples of markets with a strong college sports following where the fans never accepted pro franchises in the same sport. If you have major college sports in a market where loyalties and passions run deep, the upstart pro team can come across like Dad’s new girlfriend to the kids who are loyal to Mom.

There are also examples of markets with strong soccer communities where women’s soccer has failed, because the markets already have strong men’s teams. That was true in St. Louis and Chicago, where WPS teams folded after one or two years, respectively.

Pictured above, Jillian Lloyden and Lindsay Tarpley during their tenure with the Chicago Red Stars. Despite great crowds in the same stadium for the Chicago Fire, the Red Stars folded after two years.
Pictured above, Jillian Lloyden and Lindsay Tarpley during their tenure with the Chicago Red Stars. Despite great crowds in the same stadium for the Chicago Fire, the Red Stars folded after two years.

The Chicago example is especially pronounced. The Chicago Red Stars of WPS shared Toyota Park with their MLS counterparts for two years. During that time, the Chicago Fire was often close to selling out the 22,000 seat venue. The Red Stars were drawing crowds of 2-5,000, usually closer to the lower end of the range. As much as many of us would disagree about this, this vibrant soccer community was most indifferent toward the women’s game. The only support came from the women’s soccer community.

It isn’t necessarily the size or affluence of the market either. Some of the strongest major league franchises are in small and less affluent markets. Look at Green Bay, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake. On the other hand, look at Los Angeles, who has lost two NFL franchises and currently has none.  

The special sauce for success of a major league sports franchise in any market is the team’s ability to capture the passion of an entire community. For a new league to find its way quickly into the hearts, imagination and passion of a whole town or region, especially when it is a women’s league, especially when the sport is soccer, there can’t be any competition for dollars or for loyalty.

Hence, the solution lies in being the only major sports game in town. Once the league has had an opportunity to succeed for a few years and the league’s profile is raised globally, then it might be possible to gradually expand into the larger markets. But for now, the place to launch and develop the women’s major league is cities that have no other major professional or college sports.

What drives the quality and quantity of fan passion for sports is the local prestige that comes from having a major league franchise, especially in the smaller markets. It’s half about sports. The other half is about having a civil religion for the community that unites and excites large numbers in the community by celebrating their communal identity through devotion to a symbol of the community—their team.

Although WPS is gone, last year's champions, the Western New York Flash, along with the Boston Breakers of WPS, are keeping hope alive in a substitute league until a new major league can be formed. Pictured above, WNY Flash Captian McCall Zerboni in her 2012 Flash kit.
Although WPS is gone, last year's champions, the Western New York Flash, along with the Boston Breakers of WPS, are keeping hope alive in a substitute league until a new major league can be formed. Pictured above, WNY Flash Captian McCall Zerboni in her 2012 Flash kit.

A smaller market that has no major league sports is likely to rally around any major league franchise, regardless of what sport it is, and what gender the players are. They will appreciate having the women’s game knowing that they are very lucky to have the world’s greatest athletes playing in their hometown.

In addition to the lack of a major league or major college team in the area, communities that are well-defined (in other words, not part of a larger metro area, cities that are not grouped with other cities and are a significant distance from larger cities) are more likely to have the type of community dynamics and demographics that would support major league women’s soccer on a community-wide basis.

The largest cities in the U.S. and Canada that fit the above criteria are Las Vegas, Birmingham, Fresno, Omaha, Albany, Allentown, Grand Rapids, Colorado Springs, Halifax (Nova Scotia), London (Ontario), Wichita, Des Moines, Savannah, Duluth, Montgomery, Amarillo, Cedar Rapids (IA), Harrisburg, Topeka, Sioux Falls, Fargo. The metro population of these cities ranges from 200,000 to 1.6 million.

The one exception to the no-major league rule might be cities with no major men’s sports programs, but where the WNBA is thriving. The presence of a successful WNBA franchise could actually be an indicator of the potential for a successful women’s league in other sports. If we also include cities that have WNBA teams but no other major league teams, we could include Hartford and Tulsa.

There are a total of 23 cities in the above lists. If we are keeping the Western New York Flash and the Boston Breakers, the two WPS franchises that are continuing to function in a substitute league, we would only need to put franchises in six of these cities to have the eight-team minimum for U.S. Soccer sanctioning.

Market research can be utilized to determine which ten of these 23 cities would be most likely to support a women’s soccer team—again using the criteria of overall community support. Among the ten finalists, a ticket sales contest could be held to determine which markets are willing to put money down on the prospect of bringing a major league team to their town.

Even the smallest of these cities should be able to sell 10-20,000 tickets for ten home games at a low-end major league ticket rate of $40-150 per ticket if the entire community is behind it. An average of 10,000 tickets at an average of $100 per ticket or 20,000 tickets at an average of $50 per ticket is a million dollars per game. Ten home games would bring in $10 million dollars, which should be enough to operate a women’s professional soccer team at a profit using the same salary range that was used in WPS.

The likelihood of maintaining that that level of attendance or revenue in any of the current major league cities has already been proven to be impossible for women’s soccer. It isn’t primarily because there was something wrong with the business model in the first two leagues. It is because there was something wrong with site selection.

The Western New York Flash were coming close to those attendance numbers in the last half of last season, but their average ticket cost was around $20, not $100. No other WPS franchise came close in numbers or revenue. And if Joe Sahlen hadn’t gone calling with lots of cash in hand, his Western New York team wouldn’t have been in the league in the first place.

With the Flash playing its games in Rochester, the demographics actually fit our criteria. Rochester is not part of Metro Buffalo, which is 75 miles west. Rochester technically has major league lacrosse, but none of the marquis sports. Therefore, Rochester could have been predicted to be successful for the WPS.

It seems, then, that market selection would do more for creating a successful major women’s soccer league than any other single strategy. However, we do have some other ideas as well.

Coming up in part three: Venue and Amenities    

Missed part one? Here’s the link: 


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