The National Women's Soccer League has been a growing force in the accelerated growth of women's soccer throughout the globe. Home to nearly the vast majority of the USWNT, as well as other top international players, the league has developed both on and off the pitch since its founding in 2013.
Starting off the debut season with eight clubs, the league has since grown to 10 with an 11th, Angel City FC, slated to begin playing in 2022. While interest in the league held steady throughout the latter part of the 2010s, often attributed to the success of the USWNT on the global stage, advancement on the business front truly took center stage in 2020. Lisa Baird was hired as the league's new commissioner, ushering in a wave of support on the partnerships front. New alignments with Google, P&G, and Verizon, as well as increased involvement with Secret Deodorant and Budweiser, furthered fueled the league in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NWSL became the first sports league to return to play last year, the action of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup being furthered with robust coverage from new deals with CBS and Twitch.
This league growth has mirrored the progress amongst individual clubs. *For sake of relevancy, only clubs that are still in existence and who will be playing during the 2021 NWSL season have been charted. Clubs that have rebranded/been renamed over the years are only referred to by their current identity.
Here is a view of the kit sponsorship categories that have dominated the league from debut to present:
Health care has been the unequivocal category leader from start to finish. With a commitment to supporting the local community and natural overlap amongst viewing demographics, it allows for clubs to amplify health-related messages and truly create well-rounded partnerships.
A few key takeaways:
Portland Thorns FC holds the distinction as the only club to hold the same kit sponsor from the league's debut till present day.
Orlando Pride is the only other club to hold the same kit sponsor throughout their existence (2016-present). They share the same kit sponsor as their affiliate, Orlando City SC of Major League Soccer.
In their NWSL debut season, Sky Blue FC truly had a noteworthy kit sponsor in 2ND FLOOR: Youth Helpline. The kit featured the helpline's phone number affixed on both home and away kits.
The club then rolled with Meridian Health for the majority of the decade with the health care company rebranding in 2016 following the merger between Hackensack University Medical Center and Meridian Health. The team went with an entirely different partner for the 2019 season before returning to its long-time kit sponsor.
After the 2018 season, Washington Spirit majority-owner Bill Lynch, who also owns ProChain Solutions, sold a majority stake in the team.
Beginning with the 2019 season, the club has expanded its national reach and recognition in regards to kit sponsorships.
Zulily's partnership with OL Reign (beginning in 2019) ran parallel with their kit sponsorship deal with Seattle Sounders FC. While Seattle's deal is ongoing, OL Reign will not be sporting the eCommerce/retail company this season.
Houston Dash tapped MD Anderson as their kit sponsor. The partnership expands to their affiliate, Houston Dynamo, and throughout BBVA Stadium.
Continental Tire's kit sponsorship deal with the North Carolina Courage is a further alignment towards strategically entrenching the brand within the landscape of American soccer as the company also serves as a key partner with MLS.
GE Appliances announced a loaded partnership with Racing Louisville FC. The club, which will make its league debut this season, also shares the front-of-kit sponsor with their affiliate Louisville City FC.
The newly-minted club also holds PNC Bank as a back-of-kit sponsor.
Uniforms have been a burgeoning source of investment opportunity amongst NWSL clubs. Throughout the league's history, clubs have utilized additional parts of the kit for sponsorship opportunity:
Back-of-kit: Chicago Red Stars (past: Mazda of Orlando Park, current: Magellan), Portland Thorns FC (past: Jersey Mike's Subs)
Sleeve: Houston Dash (past: BBVA, Lifetime), Portland Thorns FC (past: Tillamook, current: TikTok)
Training kits: Portland Thorns FC (current: Social CBD), Sky Blue FC (past: NJM Insurance), OL Reign (past: MultiCare)
*Furthered to this roster of kit sponsorships is that of incoming Angel City FC. A year ahead of their debut beginning during the 2022 season, the club has forged relationships with DoorDash and Birdies as their front-of-kit and sleeve sponsors respectively.
The season is right around the corner. The 2021 Challenge Cup presented by Secret will build upon the league's successful progress from last year. With purpose-driven partnership at the forefront and a new dynamic of ownership groups supporting ever-growing clubs, the league is in prime position to continue its success within the global soccer landscape.
Max Simpson contributes a variety of content to The Sponsorship Space, covering areas such as experiential marketing, activation analysis, and illustrating the "why" behind interesting partnerships.