NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) season kicks off on Saturday with the Portland Thorns out to defend their title and the top-flight American division eager to pounce on the momentum of this year's Women's World Cup.
Commissioner Jessica Berman expects 25% to 30% of the league's players will travel to the quadrennial tournament, which runs from July 20 to Aug. 20 in Australia and New Zealand, and plans to make the most of the prime showcase.
"(There will be) promotion and messaging around making sure that both domestically and internationally for the players - who we know have very strong followings, who are going to be competing on an international stage at the Women's World Cup - that people know that they can watch those players both leading into and following the event," Berman told Reuters.
"That's really what our entire promotional efforts and messaging are going to be around."
The timing could scarcely be better for the NWSL, which is looking to move forward after damning revelations of widespread abuse and misconduct that cast a pall over its 10th anniversary season last year.
It marked a devastating chapter for a league that's has been on an otherwise positive trajectory, attracting thousands of new fans since the United States collected their fourth World Cup title in 2019.
An average of 915,000 viewers tuned in to the championship match during prime time last year on CBS, a roughly 71% boost over the prior year's final, which was relegated to a 12 noon ET time slot on the same network.
The league is "bullish" as it seeks a new broadcast deal when its existing contract expires at the end of the year.
"Despite the fact that we, under our current deal, we only have a handful of opportunities to be on linear TV, we know that we've really over performed any of the projections that anyone would have associated with the NWSL," said Berman.
"When we put our property in a time, place and space that people are able to watch and find us, they are interested and tune in and want to watch."
The league announced this month the return in 2024 of the Utah Royals as an expansion franchise.
Several of the Portland Thorns players are also expected to travel to the World Cup, including Americans Crystal Dunn and Becky Sauerbrunn, along with Canadian Christine Sinclair, who holds the record for most international goals.
Critically for Portland, last season's MVP Sophia Smith is back in the mix after recovering from an injury that kept her out since November.
She scored with a shot to the bottom right corner in the 73rd minute of last week's 4-1 preseason win over the U.S. women's under-23 team.
But the game came with a cost for the Thorns when star Canadian forward Janine Beckie tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The injury will sideline her for the season and the World Cup.
The NWSL season kicks off on Saturday with the North Carolina Courage playing at home against the Kansas City Current and the Chicago Red Stars traveling to San Diego to take on Wave FC.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Toby Davis)