The United States’ shocking loss to Japan in the championship game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Sunday, July 17 — the Americans took a one-goal lead in extra time before Japan tied it in dramatic fashion and won on penalty kicks — was a tough one to absorb for the team, which was heavily favored to win its first World Cup since 1999.
But the loss may have been even worse news for the Women’s Professional Soccer league, which could have used the boost in publicity a World Cup championship would have provided as it attempts to survive the start-up process and become a viable entity on the sporting landscape.
The WPS was founded in 2009 with the idea it would have to average between 5,000 and 6,000 fans per game in order to survive. But the WPS didn’t sniff those figures in its first two years and attendance continues to sink this year. After averaging crowds of 4,600 and 3,600 per game in its first two years, only five of the 34 WPS games played thus far this season have drawn crowds of more than 4,000.
This season is considered a make-or-break one for the WPS because the Women’s United Soccer Association, the previous attempt at creating a women’s professional soccer league folded after its third season in 2003. The WPS began in far more modest fashion than the WUSA, which reportedly had $40 million in startup money behind it and burned through a reported $100 million by the time it disbanded.
But like the WUSA, which started in 2001, the WPS had the misfortune of beginning play during a recession — and things haven’t gotten any better over the three seasons. Four franchises folded in the first two years and the WPS is down to six teams and based entirely on the east coast. Four of those teams are located in the northeast corridor.
Even those that are still in existence remain unknown even in their own market: The magicJack team, which is based in south Florida and named after the Internet phone service founded by owner Dan Borislow, has yet to draw as many as 1,500 fans even though its roster features popular American stars Abby Wambach and Hope Solo.
Of course, as the WUSA learned early this century, the positive publicity generated by a Women’s World Cup victory does not guarantee the success and continued existence of professional women’s soccer in America. The WUSA was formed following the 1999 World Cup victory that was punctuated by the iconic image of Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt and falling to the ground in celebration.
The good news for the WPS social media has not only proven there is a market to tap into but also made it easier to connect with these fans: ESPN.com reported today, Monday July 18, that the United States-Japan final broke the Twitter record for global volume with 7,196 tweets per second. Fans also interacted on Twitter with American stars such as Solo, who added a robust 188,000 followers in the final week of the tournament, and Megan Rapinoe. But some of those Twitter followers need to head to the pitch in order for WPS to survive until the 2015 World Cup in Canada.