Although its women’s football team has an admirable record in international play, professional women’s football has had difficulty becoming established in the US. The 1999 World Cup featuring the star Mia Hamm and a game-winning penalty kick by Brandi Chastain led to the launch of Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), but attendances dwindled following the 2001 inaugural season and the league failed after only three seasons of play. A new league, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), was launched in 2009, but it also struggled, with several franchises closing, attendances falling sharply over its three seasons of operation, and the league receiving little television exposure.
The exciting play of the American team in the 2011 World Cup brought women’s football in the US attention not seen since the 1999 World Cup. The team’s quarterfinal match was particularly dramatic as they defeated Brazil in a penalty shootout after Abby Wambach scored the tying goal 122 minutes into the match. The semifinal match against France was also hotly contested until two late goals, including the go-ahead score by Wambach, gave the US a 3-1 win. These striking victories caught Americans’ attention and led the final match loss to Japan to be viewed by some 13.5 million people, thereby making it the second most watched women’s football match in US history. The match’s rating of 8.6 (the percentage of households with televisions that are tuned to the match) topped the 8.4 average rating of the 2010 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers. The team’s dramatic tournament performance turned the players into celebrities, leading, for example, to a joint appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” by Hope Solo and Abby Wambach and to Solo’s becoming a contestant on “Dancing With The Stars.” Solo, Wambach, and other US players garnered endorsement deals with companies such as Bank of America and Gatorade.
It is reasonable to think that the dramatic games in the World Cup and the accompanying publicity might increase fan interest in the WPS and lead to a much-needed boost in attendance for the struggling league. That is the issue examined in my recent paper with two of my students (LeFeuvre et al. 2013).
The paper’s regression analysis uses match level attendance data from the 2009-2011 WPS seasons and is similar to those of Jewell and Molina (2005) and Lawson et al. (2008). The key variable in the model is a dummy variable for matches played after the 2011 World Cup; if the World Cup increased attendance at WPS matches, then the estimated coefficient on this variable will be positive. To account for other factors that might affect attendance, the model also includes variables such as measures of the quality of the home and visiting teams, the amount of precipitation that occurs on the day of the match, and controls for home city factors such as population differences. Controls for the day of the week, the month of the season, and the season are also included. The results indicate that the World Cup’s publicity had a large effect on WPS attendance – holding other factors constant, matches played after the World Cup saw their attendance roughly double.
Superstar effects are a well-known factor affecting fans’ interest in sports events (e.g. Hausman and Leonard, 1997; Lucifora and Simmons, 2004; Berri et al., 2004; Berri and Schmidt, 2006; Brandes et al., 2008; Lawson et al., 2008). Hence, our paper extends our basic attendance analysis to allow for the possibility of superstar effects.
The possibility of superstar effects in WPS attendance is suggested by the specification of the attendance model which includes controls for visiting team effects and finds large attendance bumps associated with games featuring the LA Sol, the Western New York Flash, and magicJack (a team named after an internet telephony device created by the team’s owner). All of these teams featured players that might have been expected to have superstar effects associated with them. Brazilian forward Marta was widely regarded as the best player in the world over the period the WPS was in existence. She was the leading scorer in each of the WPS’s three seasons and her teams advanced to the WPS championship match in all three seasons, winning two. She played for two of the three teams with large visiting team effects, the Los Angeles Sol (during 2009, its only year in existence) and the Western New York Flash (during 2011, its only year in existence). As for magicJack, it also existed only one year, playing in 2011 with a home field in Boca Raton, Florida. magicJack featured the American stars Abby Wambach and Hope Solo who, as noted above, received much publicity following the dramatic 2011 World Cup.
Extending the analysis to include an attendance effect associated with Marta requires the straightforward addition of a simple dummy variable taking a value of one for matches she played. Estimating attendance effects for Solo and Wambach is more complicated. Prior to 2011, they played for separate teams (Wambach for the Washington Freedom and Solo for St. Louis and Atlanta). Moreover, while Solo and Wambach were probably the best known American players prior to the World Cup, any superstar effects associated with them might arise primarily from the publicity accompanying the World Cup. To estimate possible superstar effects associated with Solo and Wambach, four additional dummy variables are added to the estimation: Solo2009/10, taking a value of one for 2009-2010 season matches played by Hope Solo; Wambach2009/10, taking a value of one for 2009-2010 matches played by Abby Wambach; SoloWambach2011, taking a value of one for magicJack played before the 2011 World Cup; and SoloWambach2011*PostWC, taking a value of one for magicJack matches played after the 2011 World Cup. This approach allows Solo and Wambach to have separate superstar effects prior to 2011. It also allows estimation of separate pre- and post-World Cup effects for Solo and Wambach (combined) in 2011.
Estimating the model with superstar effects finds that Marta is associated with a roughly 12% increase in attendance or about 500 additional fans measured at the mean attendance. There is no evidence of a superstar effect for either Abby Wambach or Hope Solo prior to the 2011 World Cup. After the tournament, however, attendance at matches featuring Solo and Wambach increases by about one-third, but this effect is not statistically significant at conventional levels.
We find that the 2011 Women’s World Cup roughly doubled attendance at WPS matches, particularly those featuring Hope Solo and Abby Wambach. Whether this boost in fan interest would have continued into a 2012 season is unknown because the WPS folded following the 2011 season because of a legal dispute between the league and the magicJack franchise. At the time of writing, however, the National Women’s Soccer League – a third attempt at professional women’s football in the US – has launched its initial season. It is too early to tell if the new league will prove more durable than its predecessors.
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