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The NWSL has a weather problem that isn’t going away

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

June and July of 2019, the months that contained the Women’s World Cup in France, were the hottest in the Earth’s recorded history.

The heat wave in France from June 24 to the July 7, containing the latter stages of the tournament, killed 567 people in the country alone, according to the Ministry of Health. 

Undeterred, the tournament continued, with hydration breaks implemented for afternoon matches and with other games scheduled after sundown. The Netherlands, the only semifinalist to have played a daytime quarterfinal game (90 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff), were perhaps considered at a further disadvantage in the final after playing their semifinal in a match that went into extra time to determine the game-winner against Sweden. But Sweden also eventually defeated England, a team that played in the evening matches, in the third-place game.

However, despite the tournament coming to a close without a major weather event, it perhaps highlighted the growing urgency of heightened care that coincides with the realities of competing in an outdoor summer sport in this particular point of our planet’s history.

Hydration breaks themselves are a relatively new occurrence, first implemented in the 2014 Men’s World Cup in Brazil, to some controversy. Of course, soccer is not a sport that was intended to be interrupted, and anecdotal evidence by players and coaches alike presented some resistance to the idea. Some of that came from sports science, but it also highlighted the antiquated common knowledge that can encourage resistance to change. These are professional athletes, weather happens, and years of competition reward the idea that they should be able to deal with whatever conditions any particular match presents.

But hydration breaks actually hone in on an incredibly important factor with our changing climate, which is the wet-bulb test. The wet-bulb test, according to the National Women’s Soccer League‘s website, is: “A measure of heat stress in direct sunlight which takes into account air temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle, and cloud cover (solar radiation). This measurement differs from the Heat Index, which is an adjusted air temperature taking into account air temperature and humidity – i.e, what it “feels” like.”

The wet-bulb test focuses on what extreme heat and humidity combined do to the human body, which is obviously the most important factor in determining a climate’s viability for physical activity. But the growing concern is that our planet’s perimeters are going to morph in unexpected and serious ways. The test is essential, but what happens when we hit a threshold that can no longer be helped by three-minute breaks every half hour?

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First of all, to tackle the subject at all, one has to acknowledge that these are trends, the planet is getting hotter, and even our pastimes are going to have to adjust. Climate activists have preferred a succinct, if brutal, phrase to describe the predicament we’re in, that “climate change will kill us all, but it will kill some of us first.” That’s a heavy phrase to explain a monumental thing, so let’s co-opt the idea into a more focused window.

How about this: Climate change is coming for all of us, and that is going to eventually include our sports.

So, in whittling an impossible topic into an even more limited scope, let’s examine what this means for the NWSL. This league is a newcomer to the sports landscape, and from a climate perspective, it has unfortunately inherited the consequences of its predecessors without having the resources to combat them. In a series of events that are beginning to look like patterns, the NWSL has dealt with severe weather volatility for much of its existence, many of which exposed a lack of contingency plans.

In 2018, the air quality in a certain number of games in the Pacific Northwest, hosted both by the Seattle Reign FC and the Portland Thorns FC, were affected by smoke from wildfires in the area, a season that is getting longer over time. The league responded by adding additional hydration breaks (the science behind this tactic was unclear) to combat air quality levels that were considered unhealthy for physically demanding activities. Oxygen tanks were also made available.

Outside of the issues of air quality, the league has dealt with heat, hurricanes, snow storms, and flooding causing issues with playing surfaces, start-times and scheduling, which consequently can control the arc of players’ fitness and teams’ successes.

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And the league doesn’t have a great track record with responding to these crises quickly or with a great amount of clarity. The league’s Lifetime TV deal in 2017 forced kickoff for a certain number of games into a scorching mid-afternoon time slot without much concern, until Houston’s Rachel Daly passed out mid-game, causing the NWSL to create new hydration guidelines and an alteration to kickoff times.

Houston has continued to have problems with heat, even so far as it possibly rendering them at a competitive disadvantage. After a home match in early August, Dash captain Kealia Ohai told local reporters that there’s no getting used to the overwhelming humidity at home.

“It’s not necessarily an advantage to play in the heat every day, and then play a game,” she said. “It’s not like altitude when you adjust to it. You do get more used to it and it should be more of an advantage for us but you’re still playing in the heat every day.”

The issues facing the league in becoming better at planning for extreme climate are almost too many to list. One of which is simply that league arbitrators as scientific lay-people don’t know exactly what’s coming, or when. Overarching concerns like heavier precipitation cycles and long-term available oxygen are existential threats, and ones that will only become urgent to the point of action over time. The NWSL can only deal with what’s in front of it, and that forces all calls to become reactionary.

NWSL president Amanda Duffy (Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier)

There’s also the unfortunate reality that the NWSL simply doesn’t have the infinite time and resources of its predecessors. It’s bitterly unfair that this league can’t wait 100 years to deal with the consequences of consumption, and it’s also bitterly unfair that it lacks the capital and manpower to protect itself and its players from what’s ahead. Nevertheless, the primary mandate is the safety of players and fans, and eventually that is going to conflict with the NWSL’s market goals.

The updating of the league policy to consider extreme heat (and measuring that wet-bulb index) is incredibly important, and a good step towards preventing something severe from happening to an athlete. In practice, however, the wording is vague when it comes to game postponement and it frequently appears that teams do not feel empowered to make those calls on their own.

Last year, the North Carolina Courage were forced to give up a home semifinal due to Hurricane Florence, a redirection to Portland that even publicly one could see that the club vehemently opposed. Instead of making a call on the matter before the storm hit, the league monitored the situation closely, deciding to reschedule the match the Thursday before the originally proposed Sunday match.

At the time, Courage president Curt Johnson tweeted: “This decision puts great pressure on our staff/players/coaches etc to prepare for trip in midst of storm. No decision is better than bad (sic) one. Safety remains our priority for all involved. I’m baffled & disappointed for our Courage family.”

The Courage certainly wanted to host that semifinal, and losing it had financial ramifications, but additionally they didn’t want to have to travel in the middle of a hurricane on short notice to play a post-season game. Business interests appeared to conflict with safety concerns, which were then compounded by inactivity, which left everyone involved unhappy.

No, North Carolina’s dominance is not bad for the NWSL

The league’s preference to monitor weather events, as opposed to necessarily acting quickly on forecasts, continued into 2019. In April of this year, the Chicago Red Stars were scheduled to play a match against Reign FC that was eventually postponed due to heavy snow. The call came right at scheduled kickoff after much discussion from both teams (and some intervention from NWSL PA president Brooke Elby). During that process the concern was less that the league front office didn’t care about player safety, but that the lack of protocol itself for a snow issue that late in the year led to a frantic environment without a definite plan or even a chain of command.

Based on the NWSL rules and regulations, getting a game called off for weather requires coordination between the home team and away team, the assigned referees, those in charge of the broadcast or stream, and the league itself. This is easier to achieve with the long-standing protocols of something like a lightning delay. But when the issues are unexpected, like unsafe snow levels or low air quality, getting everyone on the same page on-site in addition to continuous contact with the necessary league staff can affect the ability to make a call based on safety.

Later this season, the league did react quickly to the possibility of Hurricane Dorian’s landfall, postponing the Washington Spirit’s match against the hosts Orlando Pride before the visiting team had to worry about travel and slotting the rescheduled match into an open international break on Oct. 5.

But they also struggled to react to the Houston Dash’s short-rest travel to Portland while the Houston area was inundated with 40 inches of rain, which trapped the team at their practice facility during a recovery day and forced them to catch an early-morning flight the next day to even be available for their match the against the Thorns the day after that. Houston keeper Jane Campbell had to tweet out a plea (for which she was later fined) to the league not to force them to sleep at an airport hotel in order to be able to catch that flight, though she said after the team’s match in Portland that once the NWSL realized the seriousness of the situation, they reacted appropriately.

There were also field issues pertaining to flooding (due to thunderstorms uncharacteristic to the area) at Tacoma’s Cheney Field, which required a rescheduling of Reign FC’s playoff-impacting match against the Utah Royals, which resulted in the mid-week match being pushed a week later, possibly affecting the trajectory of the 2019 season for both squads.

And this maybe leads to the larger predicament the NWSL finds itself in; the league is already understaffed, and it’s not equipped to intrinsically understand and react to the severity of every weather situation. They’re forced to rely on teams themselves, some science, and a large dose of common knowledge when reacting to major events without the benefit of years of protocol.

The league has struggled to expand in general, with a large wave coming in the next five years, but they’re going to have to take environmental concerns into account when they consider those bids. They also have to be receptive to the feedback they’re getting from teams in vulnerable parts of the country, whether that be the Dash or the Pride or anyone on the West Coast, and be ready to make decisions that don’t necessarily grow the game. It’s inefficient to worry about the future in astronomical terms, but considering basic alternate paths could be the step that saves the sport from disaster.

Those paths do possibly conflict with a league desperate for a share of the sports market. If the heat index can’t clear a number viable for physical activity during the day, NWSL games might have to start later at night, regardless of the financial hit from fans unwilling to stay at a game late at night.

Ultimately, if trends continue, the league is probably also going to have to take weather possibilities into account when constructing their schedule, which could possibly envision teams from hotter climates hitting road trips during the most intense months, or even altering the yearly calendar altogether. None of these possibilities are things anyone would want to be forced into in the best of circumstances, but if the NWSL is preparing for a long life, this might be the reality of the world in which it lives.

It’s also only fair to acknowledge that the NWSL is not alone in this. MLS has a similar schedule, and they play in similar parts of the country. MLB is dealing with different sport-specific challenges, but also have to consider months of high heat when scheduling games that are safe for players and fans.

It was knowledge from the men’s game that gave the NWSL a precedent to look to when implementing hydration breaks, and it’s only going to take more ongoing collaboration to find solutions to what seems to be an impossible problem. FIFA moving the 2022 Men’s World Cup to a winter schedule in order to hold the tournament in Qatar does not give a ton of hope that they are holding climate as a high priority over business concerns.

This past weekend, the NWSL Championship pregame featured an intense display of pyrotechnics, covering the playing surface in heavy smoke. Some players had to cover their faces with their jerseys and hands. Even with the smoke eventually dispersing, the 90 percent humidity throughout the match persisted (there were hydration breaks in both the first and second half).

And when Chicago defender Casey Short went down in the first half, it wasn’t because she’d rolled an ankle; she has asthma, and the conditions had triggered an attack. Add it to the list.

So, now we move into November, with another summer season finished. It will be easy to look at the past six months as a relative success, and consider weather issues to be a hill to climb another day. But as NWSL owners set expectations and rules for other important parts of league health, our ever-changing climate problem looms in the distance. The worst thing to do now is to wait for it to become a lethal one.

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