August 11, 2022
The rise of Liga MX Femenil: Mexico women’s soccer working toward global relevance

Mariana Gutiérrez, head of Liga MX Femenil, smiles as she describes the future she envisions for the league. 

“It would look like Mexico would be qualified, (advancing) to the semifinals in the World Cup for the national team,” she said. “If that happens it’s because we have a very strong league. I imagine top players playing in Mexico. I imagine having U-13, U-15, U-17, U-20 in our league. I imagine having huge attendance in all of the stadiums.”

Liga MX Femenil has already grown tremendously in just six years. It evolved from a U-23 league which, for the sake of player-pool development, allowed only Mexican-born players with two overage players per roster to bringing in Mexican dual nationals and gradually increasing the age cap until the overage restriction was removed in its fourth season, and now allowing four foreign-born players per team. Spanish superstar Jenni Hermoso has signed for last season’s championship runner-up Pachuca for a rumored six-figure salary. The Pachuca vs. Chivas final last year sold 45,000 tickets at Estadio Akron. The league’s television ratings, Gutiérrez said, do better in Mexico than NFL and MLB on pay TV channels like ESPN and Fox. 

Where do they build from here? Gutiérrez broke things down into two basic categories: increase the value of the league, and increase the quality of play. 

The league has been proactive since its inception in shepherding the quality of play toward a long-term goal of being internationally competitive. The dream Gutiérrez described encompasses the whole ecosystem of women’s soccer in Mexico, from youth to pro to national team. She is highly aware that what the league does ripples out into every level of soccer in the country — all by design.

“We don’t have Title IX,” she said, in describing the pathways for girls and women in Mexico. So in collaboration with the Mexican Football Federation, they’re trying to build a more stable pathway. The federation will initially help build up to the U-15 level, according to Gutiérrez, scouting girls down to around age 12, then holding an invitational tournament for them. The clubs will help fill in the developmental age groups after that — the league is starting a U-17 competition as well this year.

“It used to be, national teams were scouting players (like) ‘I want this player, and you and you.’ And there were no synergies, no communication, anything with clubs. Now they are scouting the same players to give them a pathway,” said Gutiérrez. 

Last May, the league also approved a new rule that requires teams to give young players, currently those born from 2003-2006, at least 1,000 total minutes of play, with teams adding a maximum of 180 minutes per game. So even if a team fields 11 players in the birthdate range for 90 minutes, they’ll still only earn 180 minutes toward the requirement. 

“That rule is made for helping the transition of young players into the field, into the match day,” said Guitérrez. “It’s not fair that you have a 15 or 16 year old only being debuted in a huge stadium with a lot of fans, and you didn’t go through the process of developing how to speak to the media, how to play with a senior team top star. They have to live a process.” 

In that same May session, the league approved the use of VAR in playoffs and a formalized policy for roster relief in the event of a player going on maternity leave. 

Gutiérrez cautioned patience, though. While the league has added more and more parts of the player pathway relatively quickly, that doesn’t mean the product on the field will improve overnight. 

“Building the pathway, the footprint, it will take us longer because you cannot skip the process,” she said. “And you don’t want to forget that you’re working with little human beings. … Football players are football players and human beings. So we have to make it work on the pitch and off the pitch.”

Eventually Gutiérrez wants Liga MX Femenil clubs to be able to regularly hang with the clubs often mentioned as the best in the world, like Barcelona, Wolfsburg, Chelsea, and Lyon. The league is looking to its next-door neighbor first in that regard, building out an ongoing partnership with NWSL. That relationship had to pause while NWSL went through a rotating door of interim commissioners, Gutiérrez said, and she’s been giving newly-named commissioner Jessica Berman some time to settle into the role. There’s plenty of time for that partnership; Gutiérrez said, “For the league, it’s one of the priorities. But in the long term.” 

Berman agreed on a later media call that a partnership with Liga MX Femenil was part of the NWSL’s overall strategy in approaching the international landscape. “We have had some very preliminary and introductory conversations, at least at the enterprise league level, since I’ve been here for two-and-a-half months. And we’re excited to explore that, given the connectivity and our proximity geographically,” said Berman.

Multiple Liga MX Femenil teams are already set to play in front of U.S. audiences, with Rayadas playing in the International Women’s Cup alongside Lyon, Chelsea, and the Portland Thorns. Competing tournament The Women’s Cup will include Club América with Racing Louisville, OL Reign, Tokyo Verdy Beleza, AC Milan, and Tottenham Hotspur. And Tigres will play in a home-and-away pair of friendlies against Angel City FC, first traveling to Los Angeles in 2022, then hosting them in 2023. 

“What we want to do is build strategies that add value for both leagues, and for all of our clubs,” said Gutiérrez of building a more formal relationship with the NWSL. “It’s tricky, because we have different calendars, we have different systems (of) competitions.”

International competition is important for the league to be able to measure its standard of play, said Gutiérrez, noting that Club América would soon be playing a friendly against Bayer Leverkusen. It’s also important, she thinks, to find the balance between Mexican players leaving for other leagues and Liga MX Femenil both retaining the best Mexican players and attracting top international talent.

“It’s a priority that the best, top players come to Mexico,” she said. “Not that our best players go to NWSL or to the FA WSL.” And not just come on short-term contracts that may see the player leaving after six months, but that players come to Liga MX Femenil and stay. At the same time, she likes seeing someone like María Sánchez go to the Houston Dash and doing what’s best for her own career and development.

“Eventually, they will come back,” she said. “In order for the top players to come to Mexico and play, the first thing is our best players have to go and perform in other leagues. Because our sports level is in development, and we can’t compete against the United States just in five years.” 

She knows they have to continuously ask themselves what they need to build that players will find attractive, thus the emphasis on becoming a big global brand.

On the league valuation side, they’re taking a few important immediate steps — among them is centralizing the league’s assets. Previous to this, each club would negotiate their own media rights deals with broadcasters, resulting in a patchwork of coverage with some teams on Fox, some on ESPN, and streaming coverage on OTT service ViX. But after centralization, the league will be able to make deals that cover as many teams as possible. Not just for broadcast, but for sponsors as well; Gutiérrez pointed to the NWSL being able to negotiate with Nike as an example of what they’d like to be able to do.

Long-term sustainability is something Gutiérrez emphasized over and over again. It’s part of why they structured the league the way they did, with each existing men’s Liga MX team required to also run a senior women’s team. While there is certainly a difference between the biggest and lowest spenders in the league, Gutiérrez said that it also safeguards against an independent investor suddenly collapsing. She isn’t necessarily opposed to independent investors, just against instability.

“Sometimes they ask me, ‘Mariana, why don’t you have standalone teams?’ But in Mexico, we are not yet there,” she said. Something that’s awesome in NWSL, you have all these investors, like you have people from Silicon Valley, you have Hollywood stars, and you have a bunch of diversity in those stakeholders that can take the league to a whole new level. But in Mexico, we don’t have those stakeholders.” 

“What would happen if (in) the next year, you have a team that folds?” she asked. “It happened to NWSL. Western New York Flash is one of those things I have in my mind, (like) ‘Please never let that happen in Mexico.’ Imagine celebrating the championship and next week it’s, ‘Hey, guys, we’re gonna fold.’” 

While the Flash technically were sold to North Carolina instead of “folding,” her point stands — a championship team was essentially gone from its market overnight.

There might indeed be a worrisome level of fan backlash. Liga MX Femenil is particularly popular with younger audiences, which Gutiérrez said was one of their larger sources of leverage. 

“In Mexico, football is religion, you breathe football,” she said. “And fans don’t care if it’s men or women. They care about the game — the young fans.” 

While she couldn’t disclose exact financial figures, they do have some data to show the league’s growing popularity in terms of the financial value of its broadcast deals, as well as increasing average attendances and live streaming audiences on Facebook. 

There is still an imbalance in the level of investment between the top and bottom teams, but Gutiérrez pointed out that this is a reality in every league. Tigres might be the most dominant and well-known team at the moment but, in the same way, so is Lyon in D1F or Barcelona in the Primera Iberdrola or Wolfsburg in the Frauen Bundesliga. Liga MX Femenil has also already had multiple champions in its short history between Tigres, Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Club América.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns over the imbalance, among them bringing up average player salaries — particularly when some players may make as little as USD$340/month, with “very few players” making over $5,000/month, according to ESPN’s Cesar Hernandez. 

Gutiérrez said that increased sponsorship deals are a top priority over the next three to five years, partly in order to address the need for better salaries. She has also seen a general change in attitude from the league’s stakeholders over the past five years. 

“Because at the beginning, it was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re spending so much money and all of these costs,’ and now they see it as an investment. They see the possibility of building a new (product),” she said.

So while there are haves and have-nots, Gutiérrez seems to think that the league’s stakeholders see the women’s league as being additive, instead of a burden, and this will translate into further progress. At the very least, they’re motivated to make a profit, and to do so, they have to be willing to invest. 

“I’ve never met a club that their main goal isn’t to win something,” she said. “Maybe it’s not a championship, maybe it’s to win money. ‘I will develop players and then I will sell them.’ They have their strategies. And those strategies, always, always the main incentive is going to be the fans. You don’t want to lose fans. You want to gain fans, and within the women’s league, clubs gain the possibility to add more fans.”

Gutiérrez’s vision of long-term growth for Liga MX Femenil may become all the more important as the Mexican women’s national team has now missed out on another World Cup, failing to qualify directly from the CONCACAF W Championship, and then losing 1-0 to the United States in heartbreaking fashion in a must-win game that would have sent them to an intercontinental playoff for one of three wild card spots. Afterwards, head coach Monica Vergara asked the assembled media to continue supporting women’s soccer in Mexico, to continue supporting the next generation of players. That absolutely has to include Liga MX Femenil and its pathway, in partnership with the federation, from youth to senior club teams and eventually the national team. 

“I imagine taking my children to an international match,” said Gutiérrez, describing the next 10 years of Liga MX Femenil. “An international competition between, I don’t know, Angel City, against even Real Madrid, Barcelona. A big, big Club World Cup. I imagine that and I imagine Mexico winning those championships. Then I imagine my kids going to those stadiums and watching Noemí Villalobos, or Renatta Cota from our U-18 teams raising the big cup, the championship,  the World Cup. That’s the world I imagine. It’s very ambitious, but if I don’t believe that, how can I share that and make it contagious to others to believe we can make it so?” 

(Photo: Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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