In mid-June, a sports business reporter tweeted that ESPN was planning to run a two-hour special with commissioners of the National Basketball Association, National Football League, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, and the Women’s National Basketball Association about the return of sports during the pandemic. Within the hour, his mentions were full of angry fans:
“Ummm.... the @NWSL ?!”
“The NWSL exists also and is coming back before any of these leagues”
“Nice to see @espn is keeping up the tradition of ignoring the @NWSL”
These are typical responses from fans of the National Women’s Soccer League, which was the first contact sports league to return to play during the COVID-19 pandemic with its Challenge Cup. Erase the league from coverage of US sports, as many do, and they’ll be after you. The fan base is passionate about the league, dedicated to its growth, and extremely online. It gets results, too: in response to fan uproar and internal pressure, ESPN added an interview with NWSL and US Women’s National Team star Crystal Dunn to the special.
“I absolutely do think it makes a difference,” Leah, an NWSL fan who tweets as @mengesfc, told me. “You have a very outspoken group that may be smaller, but wants to see the sport grow, and knows people care.”
Despite being arguably the best and most competitive women’s professional soccer league in the world and home to global stars like Rose Lavelle, Christine Sinclair, and Debinha, coverage of the NWSL is limited. Women’s sports receive only 4 percent of sports media coverage overall, and in May 2020, only 7 percent of sports stories in major US newspapers focused on women, according to an analysis in the sports newsletter Power Plays. Two prior attempts at a women’s pro league in the US, both of which folded after three seasons, faced similar issues. Major sports outlets seemed to only pay attention if something was going wrong.
Without mainstream attention, NWSL fans and supporters have turned to social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter to build their own coverage and push for the type of recognition and attention they know the league needs. “The league has never really been on TV. So you’re watching games online,” says Meg Linehan, who covers the NWSL and the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) for The Athletic. “If I’m going to look up something about women’s soccer that I don’t know, honestly, sometimes my first stop is still the Twitter search bar.”
“The league has never really been on TV. So you’re watching games online.”
Social media also helps fans create a sports culture that’s different and more inclusive than those in more mainstream men’s sports. It offers a space to challenge stereotypes around female athletes and build a new idea of what a sports fan looks like. Fans and supporters are fiercely protective of that culture, even as they relish in the growth of the league.
“I don’t want to sound like a cheesy old white woman, but there really is something so beautiful about it,” Leah says. “I’m seeing all of this grow, and seeing it happen right in front of my eyes.”
Leah, who is 17 and lives outside of Cincinnati, went all-in on the Oregon-based Portland Thorns after seeing midfielder Tobin Heath play in a USWNT game in 2016. (She asked that I just use her first name because her parents don’t know about her Twitter account. “It’s one of those things where they might not fully understand. It’s very much just my thing,” she says.)
Her Twitter feed reflects her fierce loyalty to the Thorns, even though she lives over 2,000 miles away and has had to navigate some suspect streaming services, like Go90, to watch them play. She tweets her way through games, dunks on the North Carolina Courage (perennial league villains), broadcasts her love for players like Emily Menges and Gabby Seiler, and has created interpretive dances to particularly dramatic player tweets.
A lot of the current online fan culture for women’s soccer has its roots in Tumblr, says longtime women’s soccer reporter Kim McCauley.
Fans tended to use Tumblr to talk about their love of individual players, pore over their lives, and share fanfiction. The platform was particularly popular around 2012 and 2013 — the same time that WPS, a previous women’s professional league, folded. Fans also gathered on Twitter, where they tended to talk more about the games and sport itself.
“People were still really big fans of the players and of the women’s national team, but there was no professional league. There wasn’t a lot of regular coverage of these players, so fans had to kind of take it on themselves,” McCauley says.
Eventually, some fans started to migrate from Tumblr to Twitter. The funny, sarcastic tone of women’s soccer Twitter today partly came from the Tumblr side of the fandom, Linehan says. “It’s very much that we get to make fun of us, but you don’t get to make fun of us.”
A representative example: in the past week, fans have made nearly a dozen Twitter accounts for some of the more absurdist elements of the Challenge Cup. The playground behind the goal line at the stadium has an account, and it regularly talks to an account for the Utah sunset that falls over night games. Another points out the moments when the setting sun shines directly into the cameras streaming the games.
The online fan community is one of the biggest assets the league has, says Lindsay Barenz, the NWSL Media president. The fans keep everyone accountable — news outlets, broadcasters, and the league itself. “An element of having a very online fanbase is accountability,” she told me. “Mistakes don’t go unnoticed. That’s a weapon and a shield.” During the pandemic, it also made it easier for the league to adjust to a world without in-person events. “We were already there. Counterintuitively, while sports were shut down, teams flourished online,” Barenz says.
Organizing online, supporters have found creative ways to support the teams this month since they can’t be at games in person. This week, for example, the nearly 20,000-member Facebook group NWSL Supporters raised over $5,000 to cover the players’ coffee orders at the tournament’s on-site coffee truck.
Because the fan base and league are still small, in-jokes and memes tend to filter through the whole community — including up to the players. To a women’s soccer fan, for example, “knee injury” is code for pregnancy. When Sky Blue FC and USWNT star Carli Lloyd announced she’d miss the Challenge Cup due to a minor knee injury, she was in on the joke. “For those that think I’m pregnant, when I am....twitter will the first place I announce it,” she tweeted.
The interactions help fans feel like they really know the players. But that can make the line between what kind of player interactions are okay and which could be invasive feel blurry — and the two sides sometimes knock right up against each other.
The Orlando Pride had to withdraw from the Challenge Cup after some players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19. A handful of younger players had reportedly gone out to bars, which were open in Florida, where they may have picked up the virus. Within hours, fans had combed through Venmo and Instagram to identify the players they thought were the culprits — and blasted them on social media, without confirmation they were actually involved.
But a day or so later, an Orlando Pride fan who tweets as @kriegsleroux marshaled the fans to put together a website of personalized notes for each player on the team to show how much the fans still supported them. “We were so angry,” she told me. “But after that, it was heartbreaking to see them upset. They’d worked so hard.”
A different type of sports fan
For Leah, NWSL fandom helped her navigate her father’s battle with cancer and her own mental health struggles. Another fan started watching the league after getting out of an abusive relationship, and she told me the league helped her find joy again. Every fan I talked to stressed how welcoming the fandom is, particularly on social media. It’s home to people who may not necessarily feel welcome in other sports, like women and members of the LGBTQIA community. It helped Leah understand her own sexuality.
“I’m gay, and before that, I didn’t know,” she told me. “It was never anything that crossed my mind, but then I was in this world, where being gay was the new straight. It was very impactful for my journey with all of that.”
Research shows women and fans of women’s sports build online communities with different features than men do. “Women use [social media] as sites to develop different kinds of fan practices,” says Kim Toffoletti, who studies female sports fans at Deakin University in Australia. They use the spaces to uplift women’s sports and female athletes. Fans use Twitter for smart, detailed analyses of games and players — but don’t turn their nose up at anyone not on that level, and they avoid some of the toxic gatekeeping of men’s sports.
“I found the soccer community online, and they were just generally accepting, and they weren’t worried about how little I knew or how much I knew,” Layonnie, who tweets as @probablyatypo and lives in Virginia, told me. “I found the fandom online, and it was weird, because everyone was so inviting,” says Hope Ellenberger, who started watching soccer during the 2019 World Cup.
This is true offline as well. Each team has a dedicated supporters group that attends games, and they parallel the same inclusivity. “There are a lot of people who have this disdain for women’s sports, so there’s a kind of ‘us against the world’ mentality,” says Maggie Dziubek, an organizer for the Chicago Red Stars supporters group Chicago Local 134. “We want to create this different world, a world we want to live in.”
“We want to create this different world, a world we want to live in.”
The push for a more inclusive world is foundational to the fandom, and it reflects the fact that women’s sports are, in and of themselves, political. “As long as we’re calling women’s sports women’s sports, it’s inherently political,” Linehan says. Leagues like the NWSL and the WNBA, and all female athletes, have to constantly fight for the attention, coverage, and pay they deserve. Fans who push for progress on those issues are also outspoken about LGBTQIA rights, police brutality, and racism. “I appreciate the athletes’ activism. And I also appreciate our community of fans, who push that activism,” Layonnie told me.
Fans organized to sign petitions and donate to different organizations, and many have been vocally disappointed by white players who didn’t make strong statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They model off of players like Megan Rapinoe, who was the first white athlete to kneel with Colin Kaepernick. “It seems like, well, this is what we’re supposed to be doing,” Leah says. They’re monitoring which players are kneeling and which are not during the national anthem at the Challenge Cup, and leading calls for the league to stop playing it entirely.
Soccer in the US, though, is a predominately white space; the NWSL is about 75 percent white. The fan base can’t just be welcoming to white queer women. It has to expand to include everyone, Linehan notes. “There’s a lot of work to be done there, to be more inclusive and to appeal to Latinx and Black fans.”
Growing the game
The NWSL is in its eighth season, and it’s the only professional women’s soccer league in the US to make it this far. The NWSL continues to grow: this year, it signed a three-year TV deal with CBS, which marks the first time women’s professional club soccer will be on a major broadcast network. The opening game in the Challenge Cup, which aired on CBS, drew 572,000 viewers — a league record and a bigger audience than the men’s Premier League games the same week.
Fans are incredibly invested in the continued growth and survival of the league. Barenz says they use their online presence to promote NWSL sponsors, knowing they’re essential to its health. “My mentions are full of tweets that are saying, ‘Secret, I bought this deodorant because you’re a sponsor of the NWSL,’” she says. The league’s social media team clips all of those tweets and uses them in pitches to potential new sponsors. “Our fan base is absolutely essential in every conversation I have with any potential partner.”
There’s a sense among fans that everyone is in it together. Rivalries between clubs are ferocious, but they take a backseat when it comes time to grow the league and the sport. “I think that’s what makes it special and weird is that understanding that everyone really does have to work together to make this all work,” Linehan says.
Leah thinks that, within the next few years, she’ll shut her Twitter down. She just finished her junior year of high school, and she might make a more professional account before leaving for college — where she’s thinking about majoring in sports marketing. The community she found through @mengesfc, though, will always mean everything to her, she told me.
“With it I went from this little kid who thought she was straight, to this very outspoken young woman that really really values standing up for what’s right, and really, really has seen firsthand the power of the internet.”