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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.”

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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