The NWSL season ended over the weekend with the newly-crowned Washington Spirit defeating the Chicago Red Stars in extra time in front of over 10,000 fans at Racing Louisville FC’s Lynn Family Stadium.
In 2020, as you’ll recall, NWSL created the Challenge Cup and Fall Series in lieu of a normal season because of the pandemic. The 2021 season marked a return of the Challenge Cup as cup competition, as well as normal league play for the first time since 2019.
New this year was NWSL operating on its own footing after a termination of its management contract with U.S. Soccer, although the federation and its Canadian counterpart still provide financial support. Also new to the mix was Racing Louisville FC, who hosted the NWSL Championship and debuted Muhammad Ali-inspired jerseys (among our favorite jerseys from 2021).
Before the focus shifts toward the offseason and the league’s tenth season, we look back at the season that was with our three biggest off-the-field takeaways from the 2021 NWSL season.
NWSL gains support from new sponsors
In 2021, NWSL gained four major partners and extended its partnership with a fifth. In an up-and-down year, adding and retaining sponsor support is vitally important for the league.
Mastercard commits to women’s soccer. At the dawn of the 2021 NWSL season, the league and Mastercard announced their partnership with the goal of elevating the fan experience, creating soccer-themed curricula for its STEM program, and educating NWSL players on their own financial wellness. Portland Thorns and U.S. Women’s National Team player, Crystal Dunn, also became one of Mastercard’s Global Brand Ambassadors.
Nationwide is on NWSL’s side. The insurance provider became the league’s first exclusive partner in this category. By partnering with the league, Nationwide aims to drive interest in the league and build community initiatives. Among the initiatives is an annual service and grant project highlighting local community impact in each NWSL market. The first recipient of the Nationwide Community Impact Award was just recently awarded to OL Reign and their community partner, Black Future Co Op Fund, an organization that provides education, opportunity, and funding to local black-owned businesses, non-profits, and other groups in Washington.
NWSL gained an Ally. The first official banking partner of the league is Ally, whose logo was featured on the sleeve of every team this season. A portion of Ally’s sponsorship went directly to NWSL players via a Player Impact Focus Program. Ally is also among a group of league partners working together on diversity initiatives.
Deloitte becomes league provider and advisor. The multiyear partnership between league and professional services provider sees Deloitte tasked with, among other things, advising NWSL on its strategic 10-year plan.
Nike renews deal. Just this week, NWSL secured a long-term extension of its Nike partnership until a rumored 2030. The American sportswear brand is a founding partner of the league and will continue to supply teams with uniforms, apparel, and equipment.
Angel City FC does all the things. Not to discount some of the other great local partnership and initiatives throughout the NWSL this season (like, for example, the Red Star’s partnership with The Black Bread Company), but Angel City seemingly stole most headlines despite never kicking a ball. And while it’s true the team still has more sponsors than players – and by some margin – the team signed a reported seven or eight-figure jersey sponsorship deal with DoorDash. This makes the deal the most valuable in the league and shows the level of corporate interest in the team that will play at Banc of California Stadium and debut in the 2022 season.
The NWSL branding evolution
For a nascent league, branding and re-branding for that matter, are a constant. MLS continues to go through the same growing pains more than 25 years on. For the story of the NWSL season of branding, let’s start just before the season.
Sky Blue FC changes to NJ/NY Gotham FC. The club’s rebrand was a result of fan research and a desire to extend the team’s roots further into the New York market while maintaining the team’s connection to New Jersey.
Kansas City takes cues from new home. After the Utah Royals ceased operations, the franchise assets were transferred to a Kansas City-based ownership group that includes Brittany Matthews, the fiancé of Chiefs quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. The team played the majority of their season with the Kansas City NWSL moniker, until halftime of the season finale when Kansas City Current, the team’s new name, was announced. The name takes inspiration from the Missouri River that divides the city and also provides a picturesque setting for their new 11,000-seat soccer-specific stadium – itself one of the biggest on- or off-field NWSL storylines of the year.
NWSL’s newest franchise name is SoCal-inspired. Announced during the 2021 season is the league’s eleventh franchise, San Diego Wave FC – an appropriate name for the Southern California market. The team will be led by president Jill Ellis and begin play in the 2022 season.
Turmoil defines the 2021 NWSL season
While hardly a marketing takeaway, the reality is it’s hard to recap the NWSL season without touching on the storylines that will pervade the memory of most fans.
Abuse scandals unveil toxic culture. In what is undoubtedly the biggest storyline of the year, NWSL was rocked by several still-developing stories of abuse. Paul Riley, Richie Burke, and now Rory Dames have been the subject of investigation for varying forms of verbal and sexual abuse.
Lisa Baird resigns. In the wake of developing scandals, Baird resigned from her positions as NWSL commissioner and member of the U.S. Soccer board of directors. General counsel Lisa Levine was also removed from her NWSL position.
Spirit players, fans force ownership shake-up. Pressure from the eventual NWSL champion, Washington Spirit, forced majority owner Steve Baldwin to resign as CEO and managing partner. Additionally, Baldwin will sell his ownership stake in the team.
As we look ahead to the 2022 NWSL season, there are many things to be excited about, including Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC beginning play. NWSL will have 12 teams – the most in league history.
In addition to the league’s expansion, we’re eager to see what other brands attach themselves to the league and how broadcast partner CBS Sports looks to expand and elevate coverage, especially with the Barclays FA Women’s Super League and many familiar English club brands joining the network.