With the calendar now on 2019, it is full steam ahead for what figures to be an important year for the National Women’s Soccer League. We’re beyond the point of constantly needing to say that the league has outlasted its predecessors, but is NWSL really here for good? What are the key issues the seven-year-old league is facing as we approach a World Cup and the end of the original, three-year agreement with A+E?
Here are 11 things I would like to see for the NWSL in 2019.
1) Really take advantage of the World Cup
The World Cup “bump” has been a phrase in vogue since the early days of Major League Soccer. The NWSL experienced said bump across the league in 2015 when the U.S. brought home the World Cup and fans flocked to see their world champions at various league venues. But many of those matches included nothing more than players waving to the crowd in their jeans and not playing soccer in their uniforms. Off the field, the lack of sponsorship money stemming from the World Cup led to a tense standoff during a national conference call between a reporter and then commissioner Jeff Plush.
Will the 2019 World Cup actually serve to move the league forward in a tangible way? Are there sponsors out there with money to spend, ones that are just waiting for the right opportunity to invest and that would be willing to make NWSL a partner? And will teams be prepared to take full advantage of any attendance bump? When Sky Blue FC drew their NWSL record attendance on August 22 of that year, not only was there no communication with any fans about season tickets, it wasn’t until December of that year that 2016 tickets went on sale.
This time around, the league is armed with a fully staffed NWSL Media operation and a real, live website instead of the skin-and-bones arrangement that was in place four years ago. In other words, they are in a much better place to take advantage of what will be the biggest profile the sport gets across a four-year period.
2) Develop a vision and share it with the world
At this point it seems like the NWSL is content to keep chugging along without a commissioner. We’re two months shy of two years since Plush announced he was stepping down, and managing director Amanda Duffy told media at the NWSL Championship in September that no candidates had been interviewed for the position. Earlier this week, a league spokesperson told The Equalizer that there were no new updates on the search. Duffy continues to be the highest-ranking person in the league office.
Less important than hiring someone and slapping a title on them is that NWSL have a person responsible to getting its message out to the public. This has long been among my biggest gripes with the league. Also in September, Duffy fielded what sounded like a throwaway question by revealing that non-televised matches will be streamed on Yahoo! Sports beginning in 2019. There has not been another word spoken about this since. A full announcement is expected in conjunction with the release of the season schedule and national television matches.
Duffy also acknowledged that roster sizes will be increasing. As I reported on a recent Equalizer Podcast, the new maximums will be 22 plus four practice players. But the league has not made a formal announcement there either and recently declined to confirm my reporting.
There are further changes coming to the NWSL office staff after next week’s draft. Every change is an opportunity to bring in a visionary and/or someone who can help portray that vision to the world. Fortune favors the bold and it is time for some bold planning and communication from NWSL.
3) Require owners to avail themselves once a year
There is much I detest about the NFL, but one thing the NWSL should easily borrow is the mandate that all owners make themselves available to the media at least once a year. Many NFL owners spend 364 days a year buried deep behind the scenes but they are forced to face the media on the 365th.
On the final day of the 2018 season, Sky Blue FC general manager Tony Novo was extremely gracious with his time for the assembled media, but that was off the cuff and only for those in attendance that day. Furthermore, there were some questions he was forced to defer since he is not the one who writes the checks. Sky Blue’s owners generally do not speak publicly about their team, but the firestorm that engulfed the club last summer deserved some discussion from the people at the top of the food chain. (Co-owner Phil Murphy spoke when asked about the situation during a political appearance.)
This is not to pick on Sky Blue. Every owner should be mandated to have open media access one a year. That way, they can be asked how much longer the Reign will be welcome at Memorial Stadium, who exactly is calling the shots in Orlando, and why exactly Bill Lynch decided to move that national anthem that night. (In Lynch’s case, multiple attempts to get him on record to discuss that matter or other matters pertaining to the Spirit were rejected.)
4) Get the expansion message straight
One of Jeff Plush’s favorite lines was to tell us about all the different groups that were interested in bringing a team into NWSL. Since he became the league’s first and so far only commissioner in early 2015, the league has brought in three new ownership groups while losing three ownership groups. In other words, Plush took over a nine-team league and four years later, we’re still at nine. Duffy has walked back some of the discussion about expanding the league, but it remains part of the long-term vision.
In the last year, FC Barcelona have stated their desire to join NWSL (again) and Vancouver Whitecaps FC were supposedly pretty far down the road to launching a team before negotiations took a detour. The league has refused to comment on any specific market or ownership group.
5) Blow out the NWSL Championship
This has been on my list for years. The NWSL Championship needs a catchy name, a new trophy, and some added events to make the whole thing feel like a big deal. The WoSoCo events run by Jen Cooper have become popular events (even when I’ve been involved) and are an easy starting point for NWSL to help promote and give itself added exposure. Putting the trophy on display or making league players available for appearances would also enhance the experience and likely sway neutral fans more toward attending than not.
And if I get veto power over one decision, it would be to never, ever return to the higher seed hosting the final.
6) Spoiler-free streams
In the YouTube era, the final score was never included in the description field, making it easy for fans who were unable to watch live to access the match free of any spoilers. Let’s hope the Yahoo! streaming deal includes a way to watch every match fresh without first having to navigate to a page that includes the scores.
7) Acknowledge that the league started in 2013
This is year three of the new web platform. It’s time to include statistics dating back to the start of the league in 2013. Even if the 2013-2015 stats are not as thorough as the ones already there, this is a league that requires new fans to survive. It should not be as difficult as it is to access any information from the first three seasons.
Also, go to the league site and find me a list of league champions or MVPs. Tweet me that link if you can find it.
8) Improved processes for coaching searches
There were three NWSL coaching vacancies this offseason. The Houston Dash made their hire in mid-December. The Spirit appear to have settled on their new on-field boss amidst an ownership change, and it’s radio silence out of Orlando with less than a week until the draft.
The two hires so far are both glaring for their lack of relative credentials. In Houston, James Clarkson made his name coaching the Dynamo Academy. Likely new Spirit coach Richie Burke was identified by new investor Steve Baldwin and has spent a majority of his time in the youth game. The Dash interviewed several candidates but by all accounts the Spirit did not. No one seems to have any idea what’s going on in Orlando. Pro Soccer USA reported Oct. 5 that the interview process was underway, but the quoted official in that piece, Niki Budalic, left the club in late November.
This all brings to mind two things. One is, why are teams so secretive about who they interview for head coaching positions? The second is, why does it seem teams are going with Hail Mary candidates instead of selecting from a pool of assistant and others who have been exposed to the pro or collegiate women’s games?
Some have suggested that NWSL adopt some form of the NFL’s Rooney Rule and require teams to interview at least one female candidate for certain positions, including the head coach. While I don’t necessarily align with this philosophically, it has helped in the NFL and if it opens the eyes of league owners to more qualified candidates, then maybe it is the way to go. The benefits would appear to far outweigh the drawbacks.
As for teams being more transparent about who they are and are not speaking to, that decision is theirs. Going public with coaching candidates would align NWSL clubs with some of their older and more stable sporting colleagues. And it just makes sense for a league that needs all of the publicity it can get.
9) The make-good policy
This is another one I’ve been on for many years, but the NWSL needs to adopt a make-good policy to expunge yellow card accumulation for good behavior. Yes, it’s not a particularly heavy lift to ask a player to get through 23 matches without five yellow cards (a fifth yellow in the 24th game does not equal a suspension), but in extreme cases, players wind up with three or four and then are hamstrung the rest of the season. Something as simple as playing five or even seven straight without a yellow should be enough to knock one off the total. That would ease some of the pressure on those closing in on a suspension. Absent that, a point system in which not all yellow cards are created equal would at least differentiate time-wasters from violent tacklers.
If you’re not sure, ask yourself this: Does the NWSL want the best players on the pitch or sitting out? The last thing we want is a Kadeisha Buchanan scenario, when at the 2016 Olympics it appeared the Canadian took an intentional yellow card to get her suspension out of the way before the start of the knockout round.
10) Some beautiful soccer
We’re all in this for the soccer, right? The Courage were a sight to behold in 2018, but they’ll have eight teams gunning for their crown. And all of the teams will have vastly different looks as the season progresses with World Cup absences and the like. As multiple coaches have said: “You’ll have your team before the World Cup, your team during the World Cup, and your team after the World Cup.”
So here’s hoping for more Sam Kerr magic, for the A-Rod/Press pairing in Utah to find its stride, for the youth movement in Washington to take hold, and for some fantastic soccer all around the league and many stoppage-time, result-changing goals between April and October.
11) Double down on the A+E deal
When NWSL brought A+E Network on board as a digital and television partner ahead of the 2017 season, it marked the start of a three-year agreement. This will be the third year. Let the speculation begin about where that partnership will stand a year from now.
The best-case scenario is that the league continues to grow, Lifetime and/or the ESPN partners continue to provide high-quality broadcasts, the new streaming deal is a hit, and the agreement gets extended.
On the flip side, what if another television partner comes along and wants to broadcast NWSL matches? Does the A+E ownership stake prevent FOX or NBC, for example, from ever getting involved in the broadcast game? And of course there is the possibility that A+E will want out, which could leave the league holding its hat and scrambling for survival. WUSA alumnae will remember that that league was built on television money, and when the bigwigs realized they were spending money on a product that was not going to return enough of that investment, they pulled out and the league died.
I don’t expect the NWSL to suffer the same fate, but I do believe we’ll be in a much different place next year than we are right now. And much of that will hinge on what happens after the A+E agreement is up at the end of 2019.
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