When the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) kicks off on March 24, it will have a new television contract. The game— a repeat of the 2017 championship match featuring the title-holding Portland Thorn visiting the North Carolina Courage—opens the league’s sixth season.

Lifetime is scheduled to broadcast 11 games in 2018. A video streaming service by Verizon,go90, is scheduled to carry several games per week. The NWSL started using go90 last year and it was an immediate bust. In addition to repeated technical difficulties, the league crippled its accessibility. On the other hand, Verizon entered into a multiyear sponsorship deal.

Where are the fans?

Attendance fell for the first time in league history in 2016, falling from an average of 5,558 tickets sold per game in 2016, to an average of 5,061 tickets sold per game by 2017. The Thorn saw an increase in attendance, last year, improving from 16,945 to 17,678. The Chicago Red Stars saw average attendance increased 6.4 percent from 2016. Sky Blue FC, who averaged only 2,613 fans per game in 2016, saw a nearly 21 percent increase in 2017. The Western New York Flash became the North Carolina Courage ahead of the 2017 season and, with the new ownership, North Carolina finished third in the league with an average attendance of 4,389 in 2017. The Flash averaged 3,868 in 2016.

Six teams saw declines in their average from the 2016 season: Kansas City (off 44 percent), Orlando (30 percent), Houston (20 percent), Boston (19 percent) and Seattle (12 percent).

Just play

The fall can be attributed to several factors. The Dash were ahead of pace at midseason (5,436 through their first five home matches), but got wrecked by weather rescheduling (4,163 total in two relocated matches). Another would be the lack of a World Cup or Olympic Games. These created bumps for 2015 and 2016. Finally, Megan Rapinoe’s political activism may have kept fans home.

In 2016 Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem as a “nod to [Colin] Kaepernick.” Rapinoe said she thought the reaction Kaepernick received was overtly racist.” However, when an owner ordered the national anthem be played before the players took the field, thus keeping Rapinoe from her protest, the soccer player’s objection suggested her actions were never about racial issues. She wanted attention on her and her sexuality.

Rapinoe said Washington owner Bill Lynch was homophobic. The Spirit has “gay players like everyone else,” she said after the game. “I don’t know if it was directly[aimed] at me because I’m gay and it’s a protest I am making as a gay woman.”

The Reign’s Rapinoe and teammate Jess Fishlock are members of Athletes Ally, a non-profit organization that fights homophobia and transphobia in sports. Houston’s Mana Shim; Orlando’s Sydney Luraux; and Washington’s Joanna Lohman are members. Many lesbians have played professional soccer and/or on the national teams. They play because they are great soccer players not because of their sexual orientation.