Plans to return National Women’s Soccer League competition by July continue to be discussed by owners and personnel, but questions remain as to what that will look like and whether it is the right decision.
The leading plan on the table, after weeks of discussing various options, is for a mini tournament to be held in Utah roughly in the time frame of the month of July. Steve Goff of the Washington Post first reported the potential tournament.
Some sources around the NWSL indicate to The Equalizer that the tournament is definitely happening, while others are more cautious — though, the latter group appears less skeptical of the news itself and more careful about buttoning up the details before revealing them publicly. It is unclear whether this would be the only NWSL competition of 2020 or if there would be additional competition later in the year.
The devil is in those details. One source who has seen the proposal described it as thorough and well thought-out. Others say there are pressing questions which still require answers.
Returning to competitive play by or around the end of June was the initial plan which NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird laid out to The Equalizer in an exclusive interview on April 1. Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler mentioned in an interview in the Chicago Sun-Times that the NWSL sees an opportunity in being one of the first sports leagues back on the field, and can more easily do so with only nine teams. It would, in theory, allow the league to capture an audience starving for sports at a time when there wouldn’t be much competition for attention.
“There are some silver linings,” Whisler told the Sun-Times in a story published April 25. “We’re smaller. We’re more nimble. We only have nine teams that we have to plan around. So our goal is to be the first ones playing again. It’s easy for us to pull off because we aren’t used to 40,000-plus crowds.”
Undoubtedly, sustaining the sport’s momentum from a defining 2019 helps drive this thinking. If the NWSL can get back on the field and expose its world-class product to a new, larger audience, it could capture long-term growth. In the short-term that would certainly fulfill contractual obligations to new TV partners CBS Sports and Twitch, as well as sponsorship agreements. (It’s unclear how local sponsorship could be fulfilled with a central tournament in one location, but there is some optimism about that.) That’s attention and revenue which the league and its teams — to varying degrees — could use.
The Salt Lake Tribune even reports that a limited number of fans might be allowed to attend games, opening up the possibility of needed ticket revenue. The aforementioned interview with Whisler cites this idea as well. Putting a low capacity limit (5,000 people, for example) on a 20,000-seat stadium is something the NWSL has explored at least at a conceptual level.
However, all of these hypotheticals come with significant questions and caveats, the most pressing of which revolve around the health of players and everyone involved in putting on an event (coaching staff, stadium staff, security, TV crews and beyond).
Will the product be world-class with such a short lead-up of training time? And what if the best players refuse to play? As Julie Foudy and Goff have reported, and The Equalizer can confirm, there are significant questions about whether some U.S. national team players — whose ‘club’ contracts are with U.S. Soccer and not with their respective NWSL teams — would even agree to participate. What does that mean for sponsor interest in the product? For quality of play? Even team roster maximums? And whether those declining to play (internationals or otherwise) get paid?
Answers to these questions are being worked on, league officials assure, but those in and around the discussions paint a still fluid picture.
Health factors represent the most important questions, and they range widely. What would COVID-19 testing look like, exactly? How would players be isolated from the outside world, and, perhaps most crucially, what is the plan for the inevitable: a player(s) testing positive for COVID-19? Would the player go into isolation or the entire team? And what about opponents exposed to that player(s)? The latter would effectively negate the ability to run a short-term tournament.
Long-term health implications being reported among those who contract COVID-19 further complicate the issue. The virus greatly impacts the respiratory system and could cause long-term damage to lungs; it goes without saying how detrimental that would be to the career of a professional athlete.
Those unknowns alone are loaded questions which Baird and team owners will need to be able to answer as thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible — to the players more so than fans. Even at a more basic level, there are questions around the workload on a player pool which has not properly trained in months, and how susceptible they would be to injuries. The men’s Bundesliga, which returned to action in Germany last week, is currently monitoring this very issue.
Furthermore, there is an understanding that Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, would host the majority of the games in the tournament, which would mean playing that heavy workload on artificial turf, a particularly thorny subject given the U.S. women’s team’s battle against the surface with its own federation and FIFA. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) recently approved the temporary use of five substitutes in a game to mitigate injury risk.
Why Utah? Good question. A combination of factors lead to this answer, and some clarity is still needed, but:
One, Utah is among the states with the lowest number of COVID-19 cases at the moment — particularly among NWSL markets. Team sports are beginning to resume there, though even a “yellow” level risk limits group gatherings to 50 people.
Two, there is access to centralized facilities for training and housing which Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen has control over, as detailed in the Salt Lake Tribune report. (A better question, perhaps, is why those facilities need to be utilized in July instead of September, for example, and whether that has to do with the return of the usual academy players in those dorms and at those facilities.)
Flying teams to one central location once is logically not as risky as teams flying to a new game site each week, but air travel comes with inherent risks based on the way COVID-19 spreads. Charter flights, which Meg Linehan reported are on the table, would go a long way in mitigating that risk.
In the end, the biggest question is whether this all is worth it, especially as many events — sports and otherwise — have called off plans entirely this year in order to focus on a return in 2021. Will anyone remember the results of this tournament in the long term? They’ll certainly remember if something goes wrong health-wise.
Players need to have their voices heard on this, and indications are that they are a big part of the discussion, even if not publicly yett. Recently leaked details of Major League Soccer’s plans for a tournament in Orlando lay out just how complicated the layers of the process are. Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya compared the plan to being isolated in a “luxurious prison.”
As of this writing, nothing is set in stone for the NWSL’s return to competition, but it is apparent that a tournament of some kind is more than likely to take place in July. Whether or not that is the correct decision, nobody will be able to say until some time after.