Welcome to the Lowdown, 2018 style. If you have been a regular reader, I hope you enjoy reading the column each week. If you’re new to the Lowdown, or to women’s soccer altogether, welcome. The Lowdown will be a weekly—or almost weekly—look inside NWSL. Like what you see? Don’t like what you see? Find me on Twitter @thedanlauletta.
To open the new year, here is my annual look at XI ways NWSL can be better. I left out the obvious – which is to figure out how to pay the players – more since that is a well-known issue but also one that is not easily achievable. My XI all have a reasonable chance of happening in 2018. We can check back at the end of the year to see how they all went. Here goes…
I. Let the seasons flow better
This has been a painfully slow offseason for NWSL with only one trade announced to this point (edit: make that two) and the major news centering on ownership groups that have been either insolvent (Boston) or untenable (Kansas City). But that aside, NWSL does tend to remain fairly relevant through its offseason despite the enormous length of it. The lack of activity this go-round is more likely than not to be an anomaly, and I expect a flurry of interesting moves approaching the draft and beyond.
That said, I would like to see the league make better use of the entire calendar and start to begin the news cycle of the new season before the previous one ends. Sure, there are major roadblocks in terms of creating a schedule, roster rules, and other logistical elements that make up a season, and I’m certainly not advocating for fast-tracking decisions just to stay relevant. But it wouldn’t kill the powers that be to use their platform at the NWSL Championship to offer a few hints about the following season.
Anything as simple as suggesting the number of games will stay the same, or a nugget about how the schedule will be adjusted to accommodate World Cup qualifying, would go a long way when it comes to bridging the engagement gap among fans and even media from one season to the next. There is enough evidence out there to be fairly certain the league is eyeing its first ever March kickoff. It’s January now. Some confirmation on that front would be nice.
An update on the commissioner search, now more than 10 months on and possibly in a holding pattern depending on who you speak to, would also be a nice bit of information to have. And while there might not be a commissioner, it is clear Amanda Duffy is the top dog at league headquarters at this point. Making Duffy available to the media—and by extension the fans—armed with an announcement or two in November or December would also help in this regard.
II. Find a pathway to the hearts of the casual fan
Let’s face it. Even among diehards, if you strip away the Lifetime matches, following NWSL in 2017 was a chore. The streams were less than reliable after we were told they would be better than ever. When they did work, go90 often ran up to 45 seconds behind, which made real-time engagement on social media more of a chore than it ever needs to be.
As sensational as the Lifetime broadcasts were, I’m not sure they have yet achieved the broader goal of reaching a wider audience than the fly-by-night but more expansive ESPN and FOX networks. Consider that the NWSL Championship was taken in by an average 132,000 viewers, less than the 180,000 that watched a year prior on FS1. And that was after broadcasting every Saturday during the regular season, save the three weeks off for FIFA windows.
This is a far more complicated situation than can be covered in a few paragraphs. But at the very least, I should be able to tell a friend, “Hey you should watch this game – here is when and here is how. And I expect you’ll be able to get through 90 minutes without having to call your techno-rage anonymous sponsor.” And in 2017, no one could have been all too confident in that.
III. No name changes during the season
I know this seems trivial and some of you take umbrage with what appears to be squashing the players’ rights to take on their married names. But the reality is, sports are about brand recognition. So let’s have everyone declare their name for the season and keep it that way. Name changes can then be approved during the offseason and a master list of all changes since 2013 should be posted somewhere on the league site.
IV. Give us more Jenn and Aly
The Lifetime team of Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner is fantastic. I’d like to see more of them. Never before has women’s soccer had a broadcast team so strong and so invested in the sport and, more importantly, to the league. It is difficult to find a better ambassador for women’s pro soccer than Hildreth, and there has never been a women’s soccer analyst quite like Wagner, who combines a shrewd knowledge of the game with an unwavering bluntness.
At the moment, the only times we see Hildreth and Wagner in an official capacity are during the broadcasts. How great would it be to have Wagner (who returns to the live stream of the draft next week) give us some midweek tactical chat either discussing all games from the prior weekend or maybe a deep dive into the next Game of the Week? Hildreth would be perfect to be a voice and/or face for deeper promotion of the league and Lifetime games. And I’m sure more creative minds than mine can come up with a few better ways to use them.
One of my longstanding issues with NWSL is that the league has no public face. There are not many better than Hildreth and Wagner to go out and sell the league and the sport.
V. The website has to be better
I’m going to qualify this one by saying that some of the people working on the new NWSL site have been friends of mine for a long time. They are working harder than you know. But the site needs to be better.
After four years of a patchwork site designed to get out the basics, the new media deal with A+E included a full redesign and a site geared to be a destination for fans. Unfortunately, it was a bear to navigate, the stats make it seem like the league has only been around since 2016, and the “read more” button makes reading content too difficult. Fully updated rosters and transactions are long overdue.
The caveat is that the A+E announcement was Feb. 2 of and the site had to be up and running in time for the season. That wasn’t enough time. Let’s hope they get the kinks worked out in time for 2018.
VI. The Referees need to be better
This is actually not a league-level issue. Professional Referees Organization (PRO) assigns and manages all of the match officials. Sometimes it feels like they can do no right, and that any close challenge in the box late in a close match will lead to calls for better officiating. But speaking to different people around the league, there is near universal belief that the referees are not very good.
The NWSL Championship did not help when the match devolved into a mess of injuries and un-carded fouls in the opening minutes. I’m not sure what to do about this, and I do believe players and coaches have a role beyond just bellyaching about every call, but it would be nice if this narrative dropped a few notches in the pecking order going forward.
VII. Double down on the NWSL Championship
Scuttlebutt is that NWSL is considering a return to the higher seed hosting its final match, possibly with some qualifications for standards that could pass hosting privileges down to the visiting team. Officially, Managing Director of Operations Amanda Duffy said no decision has been made. If I had a vote, it would be for the league to double down and pull out all the stops to make their showcase match a showcase event.
For starters, and I’ve been on this for years, let’s give the game a name. NWSL Championship is too cumbersome, and it’s unclear whether it is the official name of the match or just a generic term for the final. Even NWSL Cup runs off the tongue better than NWSL Championship.
For one out-of-the-box idea, how about the DiCicco Cup? Former USWNT coach Tony DiCicco was commissioner of WUSA, a coach in WPS, and a consultant and broadcaster in NWSL until he passed away earlier this year. I, for one, cannot think of a better person to honor with their name on the championship trophy (which also needs a redesign). The DiCicco name also carries with it free publicity for the match, and I’m quite certain his family would jump in and help legitimize it.
Beyond the name, before pulling the plug on putting the event in a pre-determined city, the league would be better served spending some more time and energy marketing it. The site and date for 2017 was a half-hearted announcement during halftime of an April match on Lifetime and for reasons that are difficult to fathom, tickets were not put on sale until August. This should be set up early enough to allow a ticket to be included in season ticket packages.
When the date was set, it quickly came to light that the match was going heads-up against a Pride parade in town on the same day. There wasn’t an ounce of cross promotion with the Pride group nor any acknowledgement by the league of logistical issues that made it tougher than normal to travel to the stadium that day.
DiCicco Cup week (or whatever we’re going to call it) should be supplemented by displaying the (bigger and better) trophy somewhere in the city, appearances by local players if the home team is not in the match, and league promotion and support of Jen Cooper’s Women’s Soccer Conference (WoSoCo.) Training sessions open to fans the day before the match was a great start, but only announced a few days beforehand. Make that a staple that people can look forward to and plan around for a full year.
If all this happens and the match still can’t generate better crowds than the last two in Houston and Orlando, respectively, I will gladly stand down on this. But first, NWSL should do everything in its power to make the final match of the season a destination for the biggest, most dedicated fans and more.
VIII. Lifetime Midweek Game of the Month
Few phrases have made soccer fans cringe over the last two decades as much as “midweek matches.” There weren’t a ton in NWSL last season, and we’re expecting about the same in 2018. Can they be spread out enough so that Lifetime can take one Wednesday a month and make a big deal out of a match? Tell me you wouldn’t be watching!
IX. Goal and Save of the Year—and not by fan vote
Does this one really require any further explanation? It’s too easy to implement and would be too much of a hit to not do it.
X. The yellow card make-good policy
This one is also rather straightforward. Yes, NWSL needs a system that punishes chronic yellow-card offenders. But there is also no reason that a player sitting on four (five equals an automatic, one-match suspension) need to do so for the rest of the regular season.
Think about it: If a player gets four yellows in the opening eight matches she will have to play 15 straight with no bookings (no accumulation suspensions are issued for yellow cards in the regular-season finale) to avoid a week off. Not only is that patently unfair to the player (who admittedly shouldn’t have four in eight matches to start with), but it risks taking important players out of matches in a league where missing players has been a problem for most of its existence.
There are multiple ways to go about this. My top suggestion is to simply allow a certain number of cards to drop off the tally after a certain number of games or minutes played without one. I would also advocate for a points system wherein all yellow cards are not created equal. After all, why should a dangerous, open-field foul count the same toward a mandatory suspension as a little bit of time-wasting in stoppage time? Whatever the case, this needs to change.
XI. Make the Shield matter
There is nothing worse than putting a trophy on offer and trying to make a big deal out of it and then have nobody want it. And it’s not that NWSL teams don’t want to finish first—the sophomoric notion that it comes with a guarantee of not winning the
DiCicco Cup NWSL Championship aside—it’s that they would rather rest and refresh for the playoffs than push tired players to win what is considered the secondary trophy.
I won’t contradict my own point about the NWSL Championship and suggest that the final match not be the ultimate prize. But there has to be a way to incentivize the Shield so that teams are not resting starters instead of “going for it.”
One of these days, qualification into an international club championship would be a nice Easter egg to offer the Shield winner. Until that happens, financial bonuses to the team and/or players would be a good start. Team bonuses could include added cap space or international slots. Or maybe something radical like first choice in certain scheduling elements such as when to play midweek matches or which teams to host twice and visit twice in the current setup.
Speaking of midweek matches…one other way to help with the Shield would be to take them out of September. The FIFA window already hurts the end of the regular season, but if every team had its last four of five matches strictly on weekends it would limit coach’s need to rest regulars with playoffs looming.
One way or another, clinching the Shield should be one of the top moments of the NWSL season.