Luke DeCock

In World Cup win’s wake, NWSL’s moment has arrived

Hours before the United States celebrated its return to women’s soccer dominance with Sunday’s 2-0 win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final, something perhaps just as pivotal for the future of the women’s game occurred in the dead of the night.

At 2:13 a.m. Sunday, the NWSL announced a sponsorship deal with Budweiser, and while the timing was curious and terms undisclosed, the mere embrace of the women’s pro league by the biggest brand in sports marketing is overwhelmingly significant.

Coming in the wake of ESPN’s move last week to pick up a package of 14 post-World Cup NWSL games for ESPN2 and ESPNEWS, including four featuring the NC Courage as well as the semifinals and championship game, Anheuser-Busch’s decision to get on the bandwagon signaled what may very well be a new dawn for the NWSL.

Twenty years after the WUSA, undercapitalized and overdrawn, failed to leverage the mass-market interest in the 1999 Women’s World Cup – the original Courage was about the only franchise that made a real go of it – the level of interest in this year’s world champions provides a do-over, a chance to push women’s pro soccer to the next level, perhaps not as large as MLS but a bigger deal, with teams in important markets and every player on the U.S. roster under contract along with a few important foreign stars.

This is the NWSL’s moment. Whether it has the ownership, management and vision to capitalize remains to be seen, but the opportunity has never been as ripe. Not even in 1999.

With that opportunity comes danger. This World Cup showed that European clubs’ nascent commitment to their women’s teams is fueling the rise of challengers like the Netherlands, England, Spain and France. Thanks to Title IX and Anson Dorrance, the United States has been at the forefront of women’s soccer for decades, profiting from inattention overseas. That position has never been more tenuous. As clubs whose men’s teams pull in hundreds of millions of dollars start to divert even a small fraction of that to their women’s teams, the resources allocated could far exceed what the NWSL can now offer.

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At this moment, the Americans hold the World Cup and the NWSL can boast the best club in the world, or at least the closest thing to it. If the big European clubs were caught off guard by the Courage last summer in Miami, they won’t make that mistake next month when the Courage hosts Olympique Lyon, Manchester City and Atletico de Madrid in the second International Champions Cup in Cary.

Keeping up doesn’t require the cooperation of MLS, which isn’t in the same financial league as its European counterparts, although the NWSL should certainly welcome MLS-affiliated women’s teams in markets that don’t already have franchises. But keeping up will absolutely require taking the interest that exists today, in this moment in these players, and turning it into a financial foundation for future success. Every club should enjoy the support (and facilities) the Courage has. American players should continue to have every reason to stay home. Foreign stars should have more reason to play here.

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In erasing the memory of the dismal Olympic flame-out in Rio three years ago, this U.S. team not only won but did it with a brash confidence that crossed the line at times into arrogance, captivating an audience that crossed gender and sporting boundaries.

The Americans were, and will continue to be, a marketing dream.

If you can entice Budweiser and ESPN to your side, the rest of America is at your service. Its stars will never be bigger. It’s up to the NWSL to put this gilt-edged chance away.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.