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Leagues: Not as easy as they look

2012 January 30
by Victor Matheson

The Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), the 5-team American league that just finished out its 3rd season, cancelled its 2012 season today while holding out hope for a return in 2013 or beyond. The WPS represents the second women’s soccer league to fail in the United states in the past decade, following the demise of WUSA in 2003.

WPS’s announcement follows one day after CONCACAF finished up its women’s soccer Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver, BC that attracted record crowds that exceeded 25,000 fans for the U.S.-Canada final. Other international women’s soccer matches have also demonstrated an impressively broad level of popularity. Last summer’s Women’s World Cup final, for example, attracted a television rating of 8.6, a figure that exceeded the average rating for games in the 2010 World Series between Texas and San Francisco.

Clearly a market exists for women’s soccer, but attracting fans outside of international events like the Olympics and the World Cup remains an elusive goal. I don’t really have a brilliant economic point to make here other than to note that the saga of women’s soccer in the U.S. serves as a testament to the impressive ability of existing leagues in other sports to regularly attract large crowds, even for those meaningless late season games when both teams are out of the hunt, and without the pageantry and national fervor that women’s soccer has managed to capture on occasion.

9 Responses
  1. Dan permalink
    January 30, 2012

    We have been told forever that Americans are not good at soccer so when a team of foreigners come here there are enough people curious to see the real thing. A national team will draw because they are the best of our best usually playing a foreign team. But sports fans are aware that any American soccer league is going to be a minor league compared to what they play in Europe. I’ll go watch the Pirates on a Tuesday night because I know even the Pirates or Royals are still good enough to give the Cardinals or Yankees a game. But I won’t necessarily want to watch Round Rock play Edmonton if they were on ESPN every night no matter how good the games were.

    This post reminded me of the biggest laugh I got from reading Michael Freeman’s book on ESPN. Near the end of the book he talks about the growth of sports ESPN was covering and he mentioned the increasingly popular WNBA. The book is over ten years old but the WNBA is still trying to get to the indifferent level much less popular.

  2. Rob Macdonald permalink
    January 30, 2012

    Thanks Vic – one might suggest that soccer is a dud sport and that’s the underlying cause…. but that might be uncharitable.

    Not that your post is unfair at all, but it is a bit unfair to look at the first 10-20 years of women’s soccer and consider that against the contemporary major leagues (of most nations) that might be 50, 75, 100+ years old. The history of those sports also highlights a lot of failed teams and/or competitions in the early years too.

  3. Duane Rockerbie permalink
    January 30, 2012

    D2 and D3 soccer in the U.S. is not doing much better. The NASL and USL Pro leagues report average attendances of a few thousand. The NASL has no TV coverage while the USL has a weekly game televised on the Fox Soccer channel that no one watches. The NASL has not announced a 2012 season yet and speculation is that there will not be one. With teams constantly moving or going under, it is no wonder that there has been no development of a wide fan base.

    Soccer is a tremendously popular participation sport in the U.S. and Canada, particularly among the U-16 age group. But it is not a spectator sport except at the MLS level.

  4. Alex permalink
    January 30, 2012

    As a guys soccer fan ( as well as the 4 main sports), I can say watching women’s soccer is the most painful women’s sport to watch. Women sports like basketball/tennis are slightly more exciting for me to watch because there is more skill to admire (girls can shoot). While there is definitely a lot of skill in soccer, it seems to be predominately athletic based… lots of running/quickness which makes it so exciting to watch (for me). When I watch a women’s game, it’s like watching snails moving around on the pitch compared to men. Quite frankly, I’d rather watch women’s softball, which differentiates itself from baseball and is slightly exciting to watch.

  5. Dennis permalink
    January 31, 2012

    Women’s soccer is a very different beast than men’s soccer. The US Women are generally among the two or three top teams in the world. The US men are pleased cracking the top 10. Moreover, in Europe and elsewhere, women’s soccer is largely a semi-professional endeavor, with some players paid but many players not. In fact, the WPS attracts some of the best players in the world while they are still in their prime, both Americans and non-Americans. MLS largely attracts foreign players on the downhill side of their careers. Moreover, few American men have any significant impact on top division soccer clubs in Europe.

    As for a brilliant economic point, like Victor I have none to offer. I would note however, that sports economists talk about demand being driven by both absolute and relative quality of play. I would contend that whether it is basketball or soccer that women are largely at a lower absolute quality of play than men, and attendance at their games in regular league play reflects that.

    I wonder if the interest in women’s individual sports like tennis and figure skating may be a reflection of greater absolute quality of play by women in those sports. By this I mean that women’s comparative advantage sport-wise lies in the individual sports rather than in the team sports, not that the best women players are better at tennis or figure skating than the best men at those sports.

  6. January 31, 2012

    The failure of the Women’s Professional Soccer league was brought about due to the nature of the league, not the economy. In a league where there is 5 teams, anti-climactic match-ups, inferior competition, weak marketing, and next-to-nothing media coverage, what do you expect?

    The NFL thrives because they have teams spanning across the U.S., they hit hard, and they are covered by various media sources 365 days a year.

    The NBA thrives because of rim shattering dunks, household names (Lebron), and big time match-ups, (LA vs Miami).

    The MLB thrives because of their high paid athletes, die-hard fan base, and extensive media coverage.

    The NHL thrives…in Canada.

    There is simply no market here in the United States for women’s soccer whatsoever. This is not a fundamental economic problem, its just what people enjoy watching. Don’t over-complicate things, its a simple economic issue of no demand.

  7. Victor Matheson permalink
    January 31, 2012

    Dylan, thanks for the comments, but it’s simply not true that there is no demand for women’s soccer. Last summer’s Women’s World Cup final drew a television audience larger than all but 5 of the games played in MLB last year. (In other words, that women’s soccer game outdrew 2459 of the 2464 MLB games broadcast in 2011.) Last week’s Olympics qualifying final, which was essentially a meaningless game since both teams had already qualified for London, drew more fans at the stadium than the average Blue Jays game last season.

    Ah, but translating this demand for one-off international matches into demand for the week-in, week-out schedule of a domestic league, now that is hard. Maybe the interest in these international games is simply a reflection of Americans’ (and Canadians’) love for patriotic expression rather than any interest in women’s soccer. I mean, even swimming seems to be exciting in the context of the Olympics. Still, I find it odd that Americans can’t seem to get enough of Hope Solo as a member of the U.S. National Team but are almost completely uninterested in her as a magicJack player.

  8. January 31, 2012

    Soccer is a tremendously popular participation sport in the U.S. and Canada, particularly among the U-16 age group. But it is not a spectator sport except at the MLS level.

    It’s easy to exaggerate MLS’s popularity. The league has its fan base, but still has a low profile in general. Most every casual sports fan, for example the sort of person who watches Sports Center on occasion and catches a football game each Sunday in season, will have no trouble naming every NFL, MLB and NBA team, maybe NHL too, but most likely cannot name more than a few MLS teams.

  9. Doug permalink
    February 2, 2012

    I suspect this being an Olympic year, it would have been difficult to market as the top players would have been dispersed to national teams to qualify and play friendlies. Not having strong professional circuits, the World Cup and Olympics are the showcases.

    Did they suspend operations or fold outright?

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