How NWSL could give Canada an entry point into women's pro soccer

Portland Thorns' Christine Sinclair scores on a penalty kick against Gotham FC during the first half of an NWSL soccer match Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, in Portland, Ore. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP)

The good times continue to roll for the National Women’s Soccer League in 2022.

The NWSL kicked off its 10th season back in April by welcoming a 12th team into the fold, LA-based Angel City FC who, according to Sports Business Journal, was valued at around $100 million US before it had even kicked a ball.

In July, WNBA legend Sue Bird and former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning acquired minority stakes in NJ/NY Gotham FC, joining a growing list of high-profile celebrities — that already includes tennis star Naomi Osaka, NHLer Alex Ovechkin and the NBA’s Kevin Durant — who have invested in NWSL clubs.

Just last week, it was announced that the NWSL’s championship game on Oct. 29 will air in prime time on CBS. Last year’s NWSL title game drew an impressive audience of 525,000 viewers on CBS, despite a noon ET kickoff. The belief is that the league can draw an even bigger audience this time around in prime time.

The NWSL is one of the hottest, fastest-growing sports leagues in North America, and everybody wants in on the action. The league is set to expand to 14 teams in 2024, with one of the two new slots likely going to the owners of Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake, who have a contractual option to re-establish an NWSL team in Utah after Utah Royals FC ceased operations in 2020. The league is aiming to announce its two new expansion markets before the end of 2022.

Could Toronto land the other expansion franchise on offer? It’s a possibility, with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment reportedly being one of many ownership groups that have a strong interest in acquiring a new NWSL team.

What would be interesting to see is what kind of effect the NWSL’s presence in Canada would have on the country potentially launching its own domestic league, something that Christine Sinclair and other members of the Canadian women’s team have been passionately advocating for over the years.

"I hope we'll see some investment in the women's game. I think it's time Canada gets a professional league or some professional teams, and if a gold medal doesn't do that, nothing will. It's time for Canada to step up," Sinclair said in the immediate aftermath of her team’s gold-medal win at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

In May, Canada Soccer appointed former MLSE executive Breagha Carr-Harris as its head of women’s professional soccer. Canadian soccer’s governing body said the main objective of the new position “is to spearhead women’s professional soccer with a strong Canadian identity and prioritize the development of promising young Canadians.”

Central to that is establishing Canada’s first, fully-professional league. But such a venture would take time to get off the ground, and Carr-Harris has refused to be pinned down on a specific timeline in recent interviews.

That could leave a Canadian NWSL team to fill the gap in the interim. It’s not ideal in terms of further growing women’s soccer in Canada. But until the country gets its own domestic league, it’s the best option available, according to former Canadian women’s team midfielder Amy Walsh.

Walsh, who earned 102 caps for Canada from 1997 to 2009, believes there’s room for both in Canada.

“I think at the beginning it was very much presented as one or the other. Like, we badly need a domestic league, so anything else was bad. But I think piggybacking on a league like the NWSL that has found success is a good thing. You get your feet wet, and you give opportunities to some Canadian players,” Walsh told Sportsnet.

“There’s no way around the fact that having an NWSL team in Canada is the easier way to go at it. We shouldn't thumb our noses at the idea of bringing the NWSL to Canada."

At the same time, Walsh warns that a Canadian NWSL team shouldn’t be a replacement for the country launching a domestic league.

“Compared to having our own league, the impact of one Canadian NWSL team would be small because it can’t have the same effect in terms of player development and deepening Canada’s player pool. But getting an NWSL team in Canada is a great first step because it would do a lot for the visibility of the women’s game, lift it up, and keep the momentum going that we garnered from Canada winning gold at the Olympics,” Walsh explained.

Orlando and Portland are examples of successful ownership groups that run teams in both MLS and the NWSL, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that MLSE, who owns Toronto FC, is said to be interested in an NWSL franchise.

Similar ownership situations exist in Spain where a number of big La Liga clubs, including FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, have invested in fielding women’s teams. As a result, Spain’s Primera division has become one of the top women’s leagues in the world.

“I think having a Canadian MLS team invest in an NWSL franchise is the best way forward. You look at Spain’s first division and how quickly it has grown. It‘s been an outstanding upward trajectory for Spain’s national team because most of those players play at home, and the reason why is that clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid have invested in women’s soccer and piggyback on the infrastructure already in place. That’s an example of how you can create something for women’s soccer and the money and the market follows,” Walsh said.

What’s more, given the NWSL’s growth, investing in an NWSL team makes sound business sense, according to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. He and his wife, tennis icon Serena Williams, are lead investors in Angel City, whose ownership group features a litany of A-Listers, including Hollywood actress Natalie Portman. Ohanian is bullish on the league’s future, and feels the NWSL provides greater brand value than MLS teams.

“Investing in women's sports isn't just good for society — it's damn good business. Save this tweet. Check the receipts in a decade,” Ohanian posted on Twitter in 2020.

Katrina Galas, a women's sport strategy consultant at In Common Consulting, argues that ownership groups such as Angel City are becoming the norm in the NWSL, and that’s leading to more and more celebrities wanting to get involved in the league.

“The NWSL has grown, there’s no denying it, and every indication shows that it’s going to continue to grow — not only as a league, but also its teams as properties. You see a lot of energy around teams like Angel City, and their investment group that is maybe atypical of what a sports ownership group looks like, but they’ve shown that it works,” Galas told Sportsnet.

“Angel City isn’t the only NWSL club that follows this ownership model. There are several others, too. And so, I think this approach has helped the teams to grow, which in turn boosts the growth of the league.”

About the author: John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.

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