The NWSL Effect: Why high-profile athletes and celebrities are investing in women’s pro soccer

Credit: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

Alexander Ovechkin, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, James Harden. What do they all have in common other than being world class athletes? They’re all investors in NWSL franchises.

With the news earlier this week that Washington Capitals sensation Alexander Ovechkin was investing in the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, the NHL sniper added his name to an ever-growing list of athletes and celebrities publicly and financially voicing their support for women’s soccer.

While Ovechkin joins an impressive group of investors in Washington, other NWSL franchises across the league also call high-profile athletes and celebrities their supporters. The trend seemingly began late last summer when Angel City FC, a 2022 expansion team located in Los Angeles, introduced a star-studded lineup of owners including Serena Williams, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Garner, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach. In late January, the North Carolina Courage announced tennis superstar Naomi Osaka had purchased a stake in their organization, while the NBA’s most famous “beard” James Harden owns a minority stake in the Houston Dash.

So why women’s soccer? More importantly, why the NWSL? Look no further than the expansive growth of viewership and engagement numbers in the past 18 months.

In the summer of 2020, the National Women’s Soccer League was the first U.S. professional sports league to return to action amidst the pandemic with its Challenge Cup Tournament. By doing so, the NWSL broke its previous viewership records by nearly 300%. Corporate sponsors took notice and big-time brands like Verizon, Google and Proctor & Gamble signed deals with the league while multiyear partnerships with CBS Sports and Amazon’s Twitch live streaming platform ensured that games became more visible and accessible for fans. The league also saw massive digital growth, with mentions of the NWSL on social platforms up 152% year over year, and traditional news media coverage up 55%.

While 2020 seemingly wreaked havoc on many professional sports leagues in the United States like the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB, who all saw double digit drops in viewership – the NWSL celebrated a staggering 493% rise in viewership year over year. The league is already positioned to further its growth in 2021 and beyond with the expansion of new franchises and new sponsorship opportunities.

With the NWSL’s rising momentum shutting down the long-assumed statement of “no one wants to watch women’s sports”, it seems like high profile athlete and celebrities are taking notice that being in the business of women’s professional soccer is good business.

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