Jeff Plush, the National Women's Soccer League's newest leader, faces many challenges as he gets ready for his first season at the helm. With the league's college draft set for next Friday in Philadelphia, he won't have a lot of time to catch his breath before the season kicks into gear.
Plush, a veteran's of Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids front office with more than 20 years of operating experience in the sport and live entertainment industry, was named to replace Cheryl Bailey. Bailey guided the league, the third version of professional women's soccer in the U.S., through its first two seasons before stepping down in November 2014.
"I am thrilled and quite frankly humbled to have this opportunity to be the Commissioner of the National Women's Soccer League," said Plush in a prepared statement. "I am truly excited to build on the great work that has already been accomplished in the last two years. I am extremely passionate about this sport and very excited to be a part of the women's game, especially with the exemplary young women that play in this league who continually demonstrate a commitment to their fans and communities. With the continued dedication of our owners, players, coaches and staffs along with the support of the Canadian, Mexican and U.S. Federations, we will continue to grow this amazing product into a sustainable and vibrant league."
Plush's first year won't be without challenges. The league is still unbalanced with nine teams. There will be a two-week hiatus for the Women's World Cup in mid-June, and many of the league's star players (mostly from the U.S. national team) will be gone for an undetermined amount of time in the walk-up to the tournament. League attendance was about 3,000 for eight of the teams with only Portland in double figures, averaging 13,000 a match. The television contract, always a key for advertisers and investors, is minimal at best. There is still no team in Los Angeles, one of the biggest media markets in the country.
These are not new challenges, and there are bright spots, stability for one. Going into the league's third season, no teams have dropped out, something which both the WUSA and WPS could not say. Last season, the league added the Houston Dash. While they finished last in the league, were second in attendance, averaging about 4,500 a match. The Women's World Cup should generate some added interest in the women's game as long as the U.S. does well. That happened in 2012 when the Olympic gold medal translated into added excitement and attendance for the women's game.
Bailey should take a bow for presiding over the league for the inaugural two seasons. Her experience as an administrator with the US women's team was certainly a plus. Thus far, the business model has kept everyone's heads above water, but this third season will be crucial to the NWSL. Both of the now defunct women's leagues struggled in their third season, which eventually led to their folding.
Plush has had success in the US Soccer community. He was the Colorado Rapids' managing director from 2006-2011 and helped the club win the only MLS Cup title in franchise history in 2010. He has also served on the Board of Governors of Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, while also serving on the Board of Directors for the global media business of London-based Arsenal Football Club of the English Premier League. Before being named NWSL Commissioner, Plush was a managing partner in the Helium Sports Group, a sports consulting organization.
It should be an interesting year for Plush and the NWSL as women's professional soccer looks to become a permanent fixture in America's sport landscape.