When the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League kicks off, women’s professional soccer will only be a 3 hour drive away for us here in Nashville. Will we pay more attention?
On a national level, while the women’s professional game is certainly growing along numerous metrics (e.g., more games are being broadcast, more streaming options are available, more franchises give the map better coverage), the game still hasn’t reached the levels of popularity one might expect when one considers that it is not only sprinkled with many of the players from the world champion (and wildly popular) USWNT but also from a league with incredible athleticism all around.
Regardless, while there are teams with healthy attendance figures (e.g., Portland averages over 20K per game) and while the league average is growing, there are still multiple teams (e.g., Chicago, Houston, North Carolina, Orlando, Reign FC, Sky Blue FC) with averages hovering near 5,000.
I certainly can’t put my finger on some of the lack of translation between the popularity of the USWNT and the relative success of the NWSL, but I do know my own experience. I watch the USWNT every time they play—even all the friendlies. I’ve watched the women’s team in Houston (small crowd of maybe 1000) and I’ve watched the Portland Thorns play live in front of over 20,000. I watch with enthusiasm and excitement.
But, back in Nashville, unless it’s the USWNT, I have no idea what’s going on with the women’s game. Perhaps it’s lack of coverage, perhaps it’s lack of discussion with those around me locally. I’m not sure, but I’m wondering if Racing Louisville Football Club, slated to begin playing this year at Lynn Family Stadium, is about to change things here in Nashville.
I talked to some local die-hard NWSL fans to get their take on how the presence of Racing might alter local fanship for the league.
Sara Kruszka of Cookeville, has been a soccer fan ever since playing on a youth coed in Michigan where she grew up. Kruszka has been a fan of our Nashville men’s team since it first began as Nashville FC in the NPSL, so she’s clearly a solid fan of the game. That said, last year’s Challenge Cup turned her eyes more toward the women’s game and the NWSL. The beautiful organization and execution of the game made her an instant fan and she watched every game she could once turning her attention that way. Kruszka believes that you really need to see the game live to fall in love with it, given the ecstasy of cheering and chanting with others, and she believes that having a team close enough for each of us to drop in for a game or two might just do the trick.
Joshua White, who works as a personal trainer and clinical administrator, first became attracted to soccer with the 1999 Women’s World Cup. While his fanship grew in stops and starts, he really found himself tied to it around 2005. While a fan of the men’s game, the USWNT was the driving force for his fanship, so it’s no surprise that he turned his attention to the NWSL upon its launch. Driven by an unexplained hatred of the Portland Thorns, he became attached to the Western NY Flash (who became the NC Courage) as the team that could beat Portland. White says that he travels the 8 hours each way to watch NC play a couple of times a season; he enjoys the game that much. In addition, he watches another 15 games of so either on television or through steaming each season.
White, too, believes that it’s important to see the game live. While he believes local watch parties help grow the game, the live exposure is important. While White has felt like he was on an island as a fan for years, he notes that the local group is growing and believes the Louisville team will be extraordinarily important for popularity of the NWSL in the mid south and the Ohio valley regions, giving girls and women who play yet another place to look for inspiration.
Chrissy Webb, a local therapist and found of NWSLville, is already a season ticket holder for Racing Louisville FC. Her fanship also began with the USWNT and has grown into the support of a number of teams in the NWSL, from the Orlando Pride to the Chicago Red Stars and now Racing Louisville FC. While she is a fan of the men’s game as well (Nashville SC here, Spurs in the Premier League), she watches more of the women’s, both the NWSL and the Women’s game in England.
While Webb watches local women’s soccer in the form of the Nashville Rhythm and Vanderbilt’s team, she believes that Louisville will be very important for continued growth of the game in the South. It’s coming at just the right time she notes, because while the league is in its ninth year, last year was the true beginning of national broadcasting. Webb believes that if people go to live games or join watch parties at the Lost Paddy or Tailgate, the sense of community and friendship will completely seduce new fans.
In my mind, it’s important for the growth of soccer as a whole that the women’s game grow as well, and it is important for the USWNT that a domestic professional league allow them to make a good living and hone their craft while doing so. As a result, I know I’ll be on the road several times to watch this team.
And I hope to see you there as well.