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NWSL anticipates record crowds for 2023 opening weekend

NWSL season ticket sales are up 20% for the 2023 season. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

The 2023 NWSL regular season kicks off this weekend, and commissioner Jessica Berman is expecting it to be one of the most successful opening weekends in league history.

“We’ve already surpassed the number of sales for opening weekend [over 2022], and we still have five days to go,” she told reporters Monday. “We know that that will just continue over the next five to six days, so we’re excited to break some records.”

Season ticket sales already are up 20% across the league compared to the entirety of the 2022 season, even with days to go before the 2023 season begins.

“We’re comparing a full season of sales to what is a prospective sale for the upcoming season,” Berman said. “So if you are really comparing apples to apples, which we will do, you would see what the number and the percent increases at the conclusion of 2023 … we will be excited to share that number and certainly expect it to be significantly more than a 20% increase.”

Berman described ticket revenue as “rocket fuel” for the league in its 11th year, building on the strong increases the league had already seen from 2021 to 2022. More than 1 million fans attended games in 2022, the first time the league has reached that milestone.

The NWSL also experienced a jump in viewership from 2021 to 2022, including a 71% jump for the NWSL Championship, which brought 915,000 fans to CBS in prime time.

The rising numbers have fortuitous timing as the NWSL actively negotiates its new broadcast contract. The league is in talks with a number of prospective partners, as the exclusive negotiating period with CBS expired in 2022 (though CBS still has its hat in the ring).

The NWSL’s previous contract, extended an extra year after the suspension of the regular season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was reportedly worth $3.5 million. Yet as expansion fees skyrocket, Berman is optimistic the NWSL can negotiate a rights deal that reflects where the league is going.

“The conversations we’ve had have been robust,” she said. “There are many interested parties in the media landscape.

“We’re looking at it both from a domestic as well as international perspective. And we think that there are some really interesting opportunities here and overseas to consider as we think about growing our brand globally and really claiming our spaces the best league in the world.”

Berman highlighted other investments the league has made in itself this offseason, including doubling the NWSL’s staff size and officially opening an office space on Madison Ave. in New York City. The league is preparing for its first season after investing in VAR, which includes a greater investment in production quality.

The changes are player-driven, Berman said.

“[Players] really felt that it needed to be a priority for the league to invest in broadcast production, and for the game itself to be able to showcase in a way, for fans to be able to appreciate their athleticism and how great the NWSL is,” she said. “That was a consistent theme, and almost every team of players that I spoke with, I think we also know that we expect to really have more visibility with our next media deal.”

For a league coming out the other side of years of controversy after bombshell reporting exposed years of league-wide toxicity and in some cases abuse, Berman wants the focus in 2023 to have room for storylines on the field as well as off it.

Two NWSL teams put up for sale in the aftermath of the abuse reports, the Portland Thorns and the Chicago Red Stars, are in “advanced stages” of the ownership transfer process, with the league eager to close a painful chapter and to get the final decisions right.

“The most important thing is that we have the right ownership in place who are not just resourced appropriately, but willing to invest what’s necessary to provide the professional environment that we all know is necessary,” Berman said. “And so long as we feel that the process is moving forward in good faith, we’ll continue to make sure that that is the utmost priority.”