NWSL expansion to Philadelphia remains a long shot

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Banners representing the National Women’s Soccer League’s 10 teams outside the draft hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

When the National Women’s Soccer League took over the Convention Center’s grand ballroom for its annual draft last week, a significant puzzle piece was missing: There was no Philadelphia team taking part.

It’s not for lack of fan interest. Philadelphia has a strong history of supporting women’s soccer, from the vast youth scene to attendance at professional and U.S. national team games. An NWSL team here would surely draw well, too.

“It’s a soccer city for me,” said Paul Riley, who coached the Philadelphia Independence in 2010 and 2011 and now coaches the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage. “You’ve got big soccer clubs in the area. … It’s the tradition and the history of the city, and it’s got a lot in soccer and in sports in general.”

But there has not been a tradition of two key elements: corporate sponsorship and committed ownership. The Independence struggled to attract sponsorship revenue, even with U.S. national team regulars Heather Mitts and Amy Rodriguez on the roster. Owner David Halsted couldn’t fund needed infrastructure and travel expenses out of his own pocket.

In the early 2000s, Comcast owned the Philadelphia Charge. The team averaged more than 7,000 fans per game in its three-year run, but the league collapsed in 2003 with just two national sponsors and a $20 million deficit.

The NWSL is in much better shape. As the league begins its sixth season, it has 10 teams from coast to coast. Five are owned by men’s pro teams, including powerhouses in Portland, Orlando and North Carolina. They provide stadium and training infrastructure that past leagues didn’t have. They also can leverage existing marketing staffs to deliver sponsorships and ticket sales for women’s teams.

At the league level, there’s a major equity investment from media partner A+E Networks, which puts a nationally televised game on Lifetime each week. A+E also helped the league form a marketing arm to improve its profile.

“I’m still not certain that there’s [no longer] this perception that ‘it’s for soccer moms,’ ” former Independence general manager Louise Waxler said. “I think it’s a broader audience that needs to support women’s soccer, [and] I think it’s here.”

There are certainly reasons to watch. U.S. national team stars such as Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Delran’s Carli Lloyd top the marquee, along with big international names such as Australia’s Sam Kerr and Brazil’s Marta. And because the U.S. Soccer Federation subsidizes national team players’ club salaries, there’s a recipe for sustainability that never existed before.

But there’s no recipe for a Philadelphia team. The closest team to here is New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC, which plays at Rutgers’ soccer venue in Piscataway.

It isn’t an impossible drive for Philadelphia fans, and it could become more attractive now that Sky Blue has Lloyd on its roster. But it’s not the same as having a team with Philadelphia on its jersey.

“First and foremost, we need to have an ownership group that shows an interest and commitment to bringing a women’s professional team to Philadelphia,” said Amanda Duffy, the NWSL’s managing director of operations (and effectively its commissioner). “There’s been teams in this city in the past and they received a lot of support, so that would be encouraging for us to engage in a conversation to look at this market. But it starts with making sure that there’s a viable ownership that’s showing interest in bringing a team here.”

Asked if she has been approached by anyone with such interest, Duffy said, “We currently have not, no.”

The most obvious candidate to run a local NWSL team would be the Union. Chief business officer Tim McDermott said it’s “a concept that we will evaluate.” He has seen the U.S. women’s team’s star power first-hand: that team has sold out Talen Energy Stadium twice and drawn well at Lincoln Financial Field, too.

But don’t get too impatient waiting for the Union to act. There’s no obligation for MLS clubs to run women’s teams. And considering the Union’s history of frugality – not to mention their lack of success on the field – they might want to get their house in order before building an addition.

Duffy said that as the NWSL considers expansion candidates, it isn’t limiting itself to ownership groups with men’s pro teams.

Perhaps the question that most needs answering is: Just how much money would it really take? One person who knows is Dell Loy Hansen, owner of MLS’ Real Salt Lake. His club took over Kansas City’s NWSL franchise after its owners couldn’t fund that team anymore.

The Utah Royals, led by U.S. national team co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn, are debuting this year at RSL’s 20,000-seat stadium. The team will have have its own locker room at the venue, and will train at RSL’s new $73 million practice facility. Hansen hired 16 people to manage the Royals’ operations.

“I’m not in soccer because I think I’ll make money — I don’t think I will make money,” Hansen said. “Will we invest 3 to 5 million dollars in the franchise over the next three years, even after we get sponsorship revenue, tickets and everything else? I absolutely believe we will. … If you’re strictly in this because you need a return on investment, I probably wouldn’t come in.”

He is spending money on women’s soccer because he believes in the potential for a payoff. And it might come soon: The Royals are on track to sell 8,000 season tickets this year, and will likely sell out the building for their first game.

“We’re the English Premier League of women’s soccer,” Hansen said. “We’re building an American women’s league that’s the best in the world. And to do that without sacrifice or payment or investment would be foolish.”