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The NWSL Championship is finally a big-time event

… but there are still improvements to be made.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The National Women’s Soccer League offseason is in full swing with the two expansion teams announcing their arrivals with some flashy trades.

But before we move on, let’s take one final look back at the NWSL Championship, which NJ/NY Gotham FC won, 2-1 over OL Reign for Gotham’s first league title.

It is finally an event

The NWSL Championship is finally an event. It was poignant that OL Reign were at the game since they participated in 2014 and 2015 and three current players — Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe — and head coach Laura Harvey were all part of that team. They all remember the impromptu media session under rainy bleachers at Seattle Pacific University. That was 2014, a year before NWSL gave us the slip by making the late change to the pre-determined final venue and put the game on a Thursday night.

That was the turning point though, albeit a narrow turn that took awhile to complete. There was some buzz during that September/October week in 2015. Subsequent finals in Houston and Orlando missed the mark for a variety of reasons we don’t need to revisit here. The two years after that saw home sides — Portland in 2018, North Carolina in 2019 — reach the final. And then COVID.

The years since the pandemic have brought a seismic change to the NWSL Championship. Whether it was the player-driven venue change in 2021 to avoid a morning local kick in Portland, a rallying cry after the Paul Riley abuse story broke or just the physical and financial convenience of Louisville, fans turned up for that match. The atmosphere inside Lynn Family Stadium was off the charts that day. Last year in Washington D.C. and this time around in San Diego maintained the trend.

San Diego was also plastered with NWSL Championship signage from the airport to light poles and city buses. It felt like a real event in a city that had its arms open to embrace it. Media Day was held at a downtown venue with rental prices starting at $6,500 (and the total cost of the event was almost certainly exponentially more than that; a league spokesperson declined to specify).

There is still a long way to go. The city could be announced sooner. Hotel blocs could help ease cost for travelers and build additional camaraderie. And the inner workings of Media Day need some tweaking. The Fan Zone — a remarkable success — should shut down at least 20 minutes ahead of kickoff to try and have everyone in their seats by the time the players walk out. The skills competition was a nice addition but was announced late and happened far away from the main hub of activity. But all in all, the NWSL Championship is now a full-blown event, and that is a great thing for NWSL and its fans.

This one was memorable

Like all events — and yes I have been to them all — some are more memorable than others. From the Rapinoe-v-Krieger narrative to the heartbreaking early end for Rapinoe all the way to the circus ending with a midfielder playing in goal, this one created a basket of memories to last a lifetime. For media, and hopefully some who read about it, Rapinoe stamped it all by unexpectedly showing up at the press conference and mixed zone after the match.

After arriving home and watching a good bit of the broadcast, it struck me as the most authentic soccer production I have seen this league put on. Short of brief pregame interviews with Gotham investor Eli Manning and Ally CMO Andrea Brimmer, the show was free of tiresome platitudes about what the players deserve and focused on the whos, whats and hows the match would play out. When one of the CBS cameras showed Rapinoe’s fiancé Sue Bird in her box looking all sort of awkward not long after the injury, it represented a step toward what the country’s most successful sports leagues show on television. The handling of the sub situation at the end was a bit of a fire drill with some inaccurate information shared, and while it certainly could have been better, it was likely not on the Bingo card of likely possibilities during production meetings.

There was a pre-match show on Golazo, a pre-game show on CBS, an extended window through the trophy lift despite the unusual amount of stoppage time (there were other plans entirely in the event of extra time), and then more follow-up coverage on Golazo. This was a big deal, and unlike the days of yore, the airing of the game was not followed by an immediate return to the ether where the only means of extending the party was on Twitter or calling some friends. The pregame show even managed to feature interviews with players from both teams despite substantial pushback from at least one of them.

Viewership was down

According to numbers released by CBS, television viewership was down about 10% from last year’s record of more than 900,000 homes tuning in. This number is partly mitigated by the cloudy nature of streaming numbers. And while it is not what anyone wanted to see — especially with the magical million number seemingly in reach — it is also not the end of the world.

Reasons for the drop-off are speculative at best, and sometimes come down to sheer randomness. Portland not being in the game could have been one factor. Rapinoe’s early exit could have been another in that people may have flipped elsewhere or not tuned in later after hearing the news. In some instances, it may be that more people congregated together rather than watching alone. One disappointing metric is that New York City did not come in among the top 10 markets.

But then, the aftermath

One of NWSL’s least admirable traits so far is an utter inability to take something good and actually make the best of it. Gotham won a popular championship (anecdotally, they appeared to be favored among neutrals in San Diego for the weekend despite Rapinoe’s presence on the other side) and paid it off at home by doing…absolutely nothing.

A 1 a.m. ET email went out during the Wednesday/Thursday overnight with information about a trophy tour—beginning barely eight hours later. Players were scheduled to be available for interviews around 11:15 a.m. ET. There were no fan events planned.

A long-struggling club that just had its moment in the sun promptly stomped on much of the momentum it gathered in recent weeks, and there seems to be no good explanation for it.

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