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Commentary Jul 27, 2015

Dure: NWSL producing big games – will sponsors, broadcasters notice?

BeauDure-HeaderDon’t let the cheerful banter fool you.

Longtime Canadian international teammates Diana Matheson and Karina LeBlanc had just taken part in a fiercely competitive game.

LeBlanc had a couple of big saves and pounced on a through ball at Matheson’s feet to keep visiting Chicago ahead 1-0. The host Washington Spirit kept plugging away in a wild, end-to-end finish and got an equalizer from Crystal Dunn in front of 5,100 fans Saturday at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

For all the teasing, LeBlanc seemed relieved to have escaped the ‘Plex with a point. And she knew she had been in a big game — the league’s top team visiting the third-place team.

“This crowd made it feel that way for sure. … What you’re going to see in this league is players stepping up and fun games.”

So did Chicago midfielder and U.S. international Lori Chalupny.

“Even just the feeling in the locker room before the game, we were up for it. We’ve had some good battles against this team in the past,” she said. “We always get each other at turning points in each other’s season. It was a great game — exciting, back and forth.”

Yes, these teams already have history. The Red Stars’ playoff hopes in the league’s first season ended at the hands of the Maryland SoccerPlex’s WeatherBug Lightning Detection System after the lone goal of Lupita Worbis’ NWSL career.

And this game was full of great players making great plays. The Spirit’s equalizer was built on a combination by Nigerian forward Francisca Ordega and two players touted for future U.S. national play, Christine Nairn and Crystal Dunn.

+READ: What’s taken the U.S. Women’s National Team so long to return to NWSL action?

Chicago forward Christen Press, who scored a goal in the World Cup, scored a better one on a 25-yard dart that struck the lower corner past Ashlyn Harris. And Harris showed why she earned a trip to the World Cup with two big saves in the opening minutes and a scrambling save late that coach Mark Parsons thought was already in the net.

“The ball was bending behind me,” Harris said. “I knew it was probably going to hit off the post. I just threw my body, and it hit off the inside of the post and it came back to me. Sometimes you just do the right thing and get a lucky bounce.

Ashlyn Harris“I just flung my body. I guess I do that a lot.”

Chicago coach Rory Dames could only shake his head and praise the Spirit ‘keeper.

“For the second time in a row here, Ashlyn decided to take a ball off a corner that we already thought was in. It’s not an easy place to play.”

And the game had more stars on display. Chicago had Julie Johnston, the breakout star of the World Cup, marshaling the back line. Washington had Ali Krieger, the ever-steady U.S. right back, pushed up to central midfield to take advantage of her capacity to distribute the ball.

And no one could fault the effort. Matheson, as always, ran down errant passes and rescued them just before they went out of play. Chicago’s Adriana Leon dished out some bruises. Chalupny, who has had little time to train with the team, created chances at the beginning and end of the game.

So here’s the question: Where are the sponsors and broadcasters?

+READ: NWSL and FOX Sports announce national broadcast deal

This big-time professional sports game was only sporadically available on YouTube, as all of the equipment and staff taking up half the SoccerPlex pressbox couldn’t overcome a connection issue. The highlight package is missing commentary for the first couple of minutes and does not show the Spirit’s shout for a penalty kick late in the game, the one LeBlanc and Matheson joked about in their postgame chat.

Such technical issues have been common for the NWSL this season as clubs on tight budgets try to produce live broadcasts.

Will the league’s national broadcast deal help? So far, no. The first game of 10 on an online/cable deal with Fox Sports was marred by streaming woes, and Fox’s site was simply picking up the regular Portland Thorns broadcast with the enthusiastic but ever so slightly Thorns-leaning commentators. That was another huge game — regional rival Seattle playing in Portland, where 21,144 fans packed Providence Park.

So where are the broadcasters who will give these big games proper production values? Where are the sponsors who will make those broadcasts possible?

+READ: Dure: NWSL can’t remain subservient to national teams

Meanwhile, the activism in women’s soccer has been concentrated on other issues such as “pay equity.” The winner’s bonuses for the Women’s World Cup are exponentially lower than those for the men’s version — $2 million to $35 million.

The Mixxed Zone podcast pointed to a few problems with the focus on that issue:

1. The prize money goes to the federations, not the players. How much each player actually gets depends on whatever the collective bargaining agreement says.

2. There’s no question that the men’s World Cup, globally, rakes in revenue many times that of the Women’s World Cup.

3. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with players in other countries who will return to nothing but their difficult lives of sacrificing to play the game?

Mexico's-Charlyn-Corral-scores-on-T&TThe latter point is especially personal for Mixxed Zone podcaster Jen Cooper, who helped to collect money just so Trinidad and Tobago’s team could participate in a World Cup qualifying playoff. She was flabbergasted by the idea of soliciting online donations to give to the U.S. national team players who have comfortable guaranteed salaries and the potential for lucrative endorsements.

In other words — we’re raising money to pile at the feet of the players of a rather static U.S. national team player pool. But we need money to cover the basics of the league that will keep them sharp, keep the player pool fresh, keep fans energized, and grow the sport.

Without that, we could easily go back to the Dark Ages of the mid-2000s. Think pay inequality and the sub-$10K minimum salaries of the NWSL are an issue today? Imagine national team contenders playing as amateurs in the W-League, as they did in Washington in the years between the WUSA and WPS.

Cooper and hardcore NWSL fans are doing what they can, touting merchandise and tickets. Some fans even buy tickets for teams too far away for them to see, donating them back to get others in the gate and boosting the club’s revenue.

+READ: Dure: Abby Wambach’s NWSL gambit is ill-timed, but reasonable

The next step has to come from higher up. Major League Soccer has already set the blueprint with affiliate Soccer United Marketing and TV deals that bundle the U.S. men’s national team’s rights with the league’s. Those deals have helped MLS on its slow climb from near-extinction in 2002 to a thriving operation today.

Imagine the impact of a similar deal for the U.S. women and the NWSL.

Then imagine the next big game in the NWSL, with big-time production values and big-time sponsors.

The product is there. It just needs to be sold.

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