Even though she got beaten to the punch by a couple of teammates, Carli Lloyd moving to Manchester City for a few months has been the buzz of American women’s soccer for nearly a week now. Perhaps it’s even because other teammates jumped to Europe before her - Crystal Dunn to Chelsea, Alex Morgan to Lyon, Heather O’Reilly to Arsenal - that Lloyd’s move is sending out so many tremors.
Lloyd gave an interview to the New York Times, telling Andrew Das, “Fans get attached to teams and players, and I’m sure there are some people unhappy that I will be missing a portion of the season. But at the end of the day, it’s my career. And I think it’s having a bigger impact on the women’s game by going than if I maybe stayed for these few months.”
She didn’t appear to expound on how her leaving NWSL was having an impact on the women’s game, but the very fact that it’s all anyone can talk about and that this article is being written about it perhaps underscores the point.
So what is Carli Lloyd’s move to Man City in terms of impact on the women’s game? Does it simply bring attention to two different women’s leagues as well as women’s Champions League? Is it a signal the ship is taking on water and the crew needs to start bailing and plugging the hole? Is it literally what it says on the tin, a player moving to another league for a short while, without any greater implication? Is it more a comment on the rise of the FAWSL rather than anything to do with NWSL?
The talk surrounding Lloyd’s move has almost entirely been a debate over the future of NWSL. There’s a persistent worry that NWSL losing big-name players is a signal the league is also losing quality and will reverse its current trend of slow growth, followed by the inevitable collapse of the league itself.
You can’t blame American woso fans for being a bit paranoid; they’ve already lost two leagues. But there are several factors working in their favor this time.
One, the financial involvement of US Soccer as it subsidizes salaries by paying national team players in NWSL. Yes, this point is a bit rocky as the parties continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, but USSF is not going to wholesale cut off support for a league that provides domestic stability for its players. It does USSF no good to see yet another domestic league fail and essentially ruin a huge chunk of its player development pool.
Two, the fact that NWSL is entering its fifth season having expanded from eight to 10 teams, and without losing any teams. Did one team have to move markets? Yes, but it did so in an encouraging way, with an interested and reputable investor ready to take on the team wholesale in a good market, as opposed to a last-minute scramble for an angel investor leading to sub-par vetting and a crisis down the line.
Three, a recent landmark three-year deal between the league and A+E Networks that has A+E taking a 25% stake in the league. NWSL will now have one game a week airing live on Lifetime, a channel that appears in 81.6% of American households, while A+E Networks itself was worth an estimated $26 billion in 2014.
So yes, perhaps Lloyd (and Dunn and O’Reilly) moving to FAWSL says less about the stability of NWSL and more about FAWSL becoming an attractive destination, as well as 2017 being in the dip between World Cup and Olympic years and allowing players a little more leeway to take risks.
There’s also the shift in thinking that has to take place for NWSL to eventually survive on its own. That time may be four or eight years away, but eventually the league will have to be able to attract interest as much on the merits of its non-NT players as on big names.
Of course NWSL isn’t the only league that has ever had the idea of flogging a famous name in order to draw crowds, and it’s not an invaluable strategy. If it works, it works, and a team with Alex Morgan on its roster would be foolish to overlook her ability to sell tickets. But now teams like Orlando and Houston can see what their brand will be without relying on big names as a marketing crutch.
The league also needs to see if it can draw in more big names like Amandine Henry to balance the scales. Players move around, whether for money or better training environments or to add to their game. There’s a lot less to worry about if for every Carli Lloyd that leaves, an Amandine Henry or Kim Little arrives. Of course, that requires being able to compete financially on top of maintaining the league’s parity. European players all cite the toughness and speed of NWSL as a drawing point; if, in the next couple of years, salaries at every level can become a bit more attractive, USWNT players leaving will likely be a nonissue.
2017 was always going to be a test without a major tournament to draw attention to the league. Big name players leaving, temporarily or otherwise, is part of that test. Challenges to the league help us interrogate the status quo, which in turns helps fans stay informed. We won’t get the complete answer until the season is over, but the information we have now indicates things just aren’t that bad. Carli Lloyd leaving for England is good for the women’s game - for her game, for FAWSL, and NWSL.