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Seriously, a fall-to-spring schedule for the NWSL? Maybe. The calendar crisis explained

Wondering how serious this is and how it could even work? Here, we simplify our in-depth, subscribers-only reporting to give you the high-level talking points.

© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

So, you heard about our reporting regarding the National Women’s Soccer League considering a fall-to-spring schedule in the future and you’re wondering: How could that work and have they lost their minds? 

I can’t answer the latter for certain, but the former is a topic clearly worth analyzing. 

For the full report from earlier this February, click here. The idea of a drastic schedule change might catch your attention, but what you need to know is this: regardless of what happens with the NWSL’s start and end dates, the league has a calendar crisis looming as FIFA pushes more programming centered around international play and the European season.

Is this fall-to-spring idea legit?

The idea is absolutely being taken seriously, according to several sources involved in and with knowledge of NWSL decision-making processes. Whereas in the past, the idea of playing through the U.S. winter might have been a nonstarter, it is among the various solutions the NWSL will explore further in the coming months.

That is not me being cheeky; it’s a realistic report on where things stand. Just to be clear and avoid any misattribution, this is not an imminent change coming, it is not in any final stages of approval, and it will require much more discussion and planning to happen. Right now, it’s an idea on the table. And it’s an idea being taken seriously.

How did we get to this discussion?

The schedule problem is a longstanding issue. In some ways, that is the short answer.

Let me again point you to this original reporting for the long answer to that. In short, the NWSL, which has historically acquiesced to U.S. Soccer, tried to take a stand over respecting FIFA dates in 2023. The U.S. women have long held camps and matches outside of those protected dates (and thus in further conflict with the NWSL).

In January, that hard line bubbled over into a quiet but important conflict that ultimately brought U.S. players to the table. The NWSL backed off, and U.S. players — and, importantly, other international players — were released by their clubs ahead of the Feb. 13 start date to the FIFA window. The U.S. started training one week earlier than that.

Crucially, the NWSL also backed off its stance to stick with the protected dates blocked off by FIFA for this summer’s World Cup and granted a June 26 release date to all international players in the league, not just the Americans. The World Cup begins on July 20.

This year, the NWSL will take two, separate weeks off for the World Cup — one more than the league did in each of 2015 and 2019 — but the context remains the same: the league, even to its core fanbase, is mostly irrelevant to a World Cup taking place at the same time. The latter attracts viewership now measured in the billions, according to FIFA.

Subscribers-only reading

What would a fall-to-spring season even look like?

In general, you’d be talking about a season that would begin in August or September and end in May or June. (So, copying Europe!) With the NWSL already in so many cold-weather markets, there would have to be a winter break built into the schedule. This is also part of the European setup, with Germany’s Bundesliga typically taking the longest break in January. Climates vary in all the comparable leagues, however, and there are also established soccer cultures used to that schedule.

Interestingly, the NWSL might be able to copy an impending (dare I say rival) league. The USL Super League is set to kick off as a second-division women’s league — a previously unfilled level in the pyramid in the U.S. — in August 2024. The Super League will follow the European calendar.

The proposed calendar for the USL Super League is an August start and June finish, with a winter break in December and January.

Taking that break would mitigate some issues in markets where snow is a major concern, but it would still put plenty of games at risk of being rescheduled and it could have serious, negative ramifications on attendance and fan support. Arguably, only five of the NWSL’s 12 current teams are in markets (North Carolina, Orlando, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles) where the winter months should not be major weather concerns.

But seriously, this is crazy right? Playing in February in Chicago or New Jersey or Seattle?

I’ve lived in New York and Connecticut my whole life, and I was just outside during a real temperature of -25 degrees Fahrenheit, so I don’t need anyone to remind me of the risks for a lot of existing markets. Yes, there would be bad weather. Miserable weather at times.

The flip side here is that the NWSL plays through the summer right now in markets where it can be frequently unsafe for athletes, and climate change is only going to make that worse in the long run. Houston and Orlando are particularly brutal in the summer thanks to the humidity, but those kinds of days are increasingly common in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., too. Every NWSL market could be susceptible to high summer temperatures.

It wasn’t long ago that the NWSL had a major problem on its hands by locking in 4 p.m. ET kickoffs for a TV slot on Lifetime and scheduling those games in markets that will almost certainly have dangerous temperatures and wet-bulb readings at that hour. Then Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly collapsed on the field and was treated for heat illness in 2017 playing in one of those very afternoon games in Houston (3 p.m. local kickoff time). Heat breaks have been omnipresent in the NWSL since.

Is there an alternative to this drastic change?

Of course! What that might be is anyone’s guess right now. There’s an argument for taking a summer break using the current calendar, if there is going to be a winter break anyway, but that won’t necessarily solve everything, and the break would be extensive, likely longer than anyone would want for a league-wide shut down. Using this World Cup as an example, the league would be dormant for a full two months to get from June 26 to the other side of the August 20 World Cup final. A winter break could be as short as a couple weeks, even if that would be ambitious.

There are considerations beyond just the literal calendar, too. Part of the USL Super League’s play in synchronizing with Europe is also lining up the cadence of transfer windows. Summer is often the busiest transfer window in Europe (where so many of the world’s best players are) because it is between seasons, rather than the mid-season winter transfer window.

Reverse that for the NWSL. Big summer moves mean major players arrive halfway through the NWSL season right now. World Cup years have historically killed major moves from happening. Many players don’t want to make such a drastic schedule change right before a World Cup, and teams don’t want to make a move for a player they might only get for a small portion of the season.

This topic is a calendar problem, but it is also a player-pool problem. The calendar relates to the attractiveness of the league to players, and even those within league headquarters are aware that there is a perception problem there as the NWSL tries to attract and retain top talent beyond the U.S. and Canadian pools.

What now?

In the coming months, the NWSL — which is to say: commissioner Jessica Berman, her growing staff, the NWSL Board of Governors (owners, in general), players associations for the NWSL and U.S. women, U.S. Soccer — will sit down to figure out how to move forward. Among the ideas that will be discussed is a drastic change to the domestic calendar. Whether or not it gets enough support, and how far down the line the idea gets, is to be determined. This much is certain: Those conversations are going to get heated, and whatever the solution is that comes from them will shape the future of the NWSL, for better or worse.  


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