Wednesday, July 24, 2024

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman on more expansion, expanded playoffs: ‘This is the beginning of our future’

The National Women’s Soccer League will close out the calendar year on Saturday with the 2023 NWSL Championship. Jessica Berman, he league’s commissioner, gave her usual yearly address on Friday ahead of the big game. The league recently announced a new multiyear broadcast rights deal with CBS and other digital platforms, but her latest updates include a look ahead toward future expansion, 2024 Olympic windows, and more.

“You’ve heard us talk about how this is the beginning of our future, and we know that this is a moment not to be complacent,” Berman said in her opening remarks.

“It’s a moment to invest for the future. It’s a moment that we don’t take for granted. We believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to grow this league and to build for the future, and that is what we are prepared to do. Our aspiration is to be the best league in the world and we’re prepared to make the decisions and investments that are necessary for us to make that a reality.”

Here are some key takeaways from her news conference:

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The Women’s League Forum 

Berman was joined by Annika Grall, chair of the Damallsvenskan in Sweden, to announce the new Women’s League Forum. The WLF is a group of 16 global professional women’s soccer leagues that will work to empower and unite professional women’s football leagues from around the world. Per a release, the group aims to bridge the gap between governance structures and the often-overlooked concerns and interests of international women’s leagues. 

They will focus on, “Networking opportunities, sharing best practices, facilitating business development, and identifying common interests among women’s leagues worldwide. Its primary focus will be on matters critical to the commercial success of these leagues, such as the calendar and the regulation of player transfers.”

Members of the board include:

  • Mariana Gutierrez, head of Liga MX Femenil (Mexico)
  • Haruna Takata, chairwoman, WE League (Japan)
  • Beatriz Alvarez, president, Liga F (Spain)
  • Fiona McIntyre, managing director, Scottish Women’s Premier League (Scotland)
  • Nick Garcia, commissioner, A Leagues (Australia)
  • Lorin Parys, CEO, Pro League (Belgium)

Record attendance will fuel future expansion in 2026

Berman also shared successful attendance data for the 2023 season. Median attendance for the regular season is up 40% and average attendance is up 26%. In the regular season, the league has sold more than 1.2 million tickets, a 36% increase from last year. This season, nine clubs broke the 10,000 mark for attendance, and Berman shared that the number of 10K+ fans had doubled this year. 

“We know that attendance is the rocket fuel that drives all of the growth of everything else that we’re building and creates the excitement around our game that makes people not only want to attend games but to consume our content and to watch our games on TV,” she said.

With the constant growth year-to-year, the league will formally begin the expansion process for the league’s 16th team post-championship. The league will welcome Utah Royals FC and Bay FC as the 13th and 14th franchises in 2024, and has already awarded NWSL expansion to Boston for 2026. The 16th franchise will have a build-up to the 2026 season alongside Boston. 

“We will be again working with Inner Circle Sports [investment bank] to find team 16 and our preliminary analysis of the landscape is that we have more than a dozen qualified investor groups from different markets around the U.S. who are extremely interested in the kinds of investment that we know is required in order to operationalize a successful team.”

For more on how teams are hitting these record attendance levels, don’t miss Pardeep Cattry’s look at how NWSL kept growing despite missing out on a World Cup bump.

Want more coverage of women’s soccer? Listen below and make sure to watch Attacking Third on Golazo Network Monday, Wednesday and Friday for all your USWNT, NWSL and WSL women’s soccer coverage.

2024 Olympics and expanded NWSL playoffs

As the league prepares to close the chapter in 2023, they will move on from the FIFA World Cup and look ahead to the 2024 Olympics. While there is no official schedule framework for 2024 at the moment, Berman did confirm the league would take a similar World Cup scheduling approach for next year’s Olympic Games.

“We have made a decision as a league and as a board that we will not have regular season games during the Olympic window. So as part of these calendar conversations, we will respect the FIFA window to ensure that our players are able to compete in our league when they’re not competing internationally. We likely will have some League activity during that period and a lot of that remains a work in progress,” Berman explained.

The 2023 season did not include regular season midweek matches, but Challenge Cup games were a regular occurrence during the World Cup. There is no formal announcement that the Challenge Cup will return or a new Cup event will replace the current format in 2024. 

During the recent news of the League’s new broadcast deal, details around additional quarterfinal matches caught the eyes of many. The current NWSL playoff structure features six playoff teams, with two quarterfinal games, two semifinal matches, and the NWSL Championship. 

“We haven’t yet finalized or announced or specific schedule footprint but absolutely we are adding quarterfinals,” Berman confirmed. “That will mean that there is no bye week, and there will be eight teams that make the playoffs, and those teams will compete in the quarterfinals go on to the semis and then into the finals.”

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