The college draft has long been one of the marquee events on the National Women’s Soccer League calendar. But times are changing. In the years since the league changed the rules that required American players to use up their college eligibility players like Jaedyn Shaw and Alyssa Thompson have gone directly to the NWSL as teenagers and become stars. That combined with a more robust international market for clubs has combined to reduce the impact of the draft.
“What we’ve learned and observed probably over the last year or so is that there has been a leveling up of the games globally that is serving as a forcing function for us to recognize that we compete in a global landscape for talent,” commissioner Jessica Berman said Friday during her annual draft-day chat with media. “With that comes a lot of analysis about our approach and our policies and the best ways that we can compete for that talent.”
With that answer, Berman did not address the direct question of whether the league was considering alternatives that might replace the draft entirely before the end of the decade. It also did not indicate support for the draft as a permanent tentpole for the league.
“It’s been established internally and validated by our board that it is our stated vision to be the best league in the world. And we’ll continue to evaluate the ways in which we can compete and work closely with our Players Association to asses all of the mechanisms and levers that we can pull to both embrace and lean into the areas where we are different and have differentiators; parity, competitive balance, investment, and all those areas as well as think strategically about shifts that we may want to make in the future that allow for us to compete in more meaningful ways.”
In the short term, there does appear to be investment from the clubs in terms of the draft. Half of this year’s 14 1st Round picks were traded including the No. 5 pick moving twice. The No. 10 pick fetched a remarkable $175,000 in allocation money.
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Berman also addressed the future of youth academies, a mechanism that helped spawn exponential growth for Major League Soccer in recent years. Currently, teams are free to sign youth players but there is no direct line to an NWSL through an academy. MLS, which is in many more cities than NWSL has a home-grown rule that allows clubs to retain players who come up through their youth system.
“It is one of the areas we really hope to make progress on in 2024 as we chart our strategic initiatives. There are a bunch of clubs that are very interested in figuring out the most strategic ways to build academies or invest in youth.
“We also have to recognize that the culture of our country is quite different than Europe. We live in a world where it is entrepreneurial interests that control the youth system. We have to find ways to work with the systems that exist as opposed to being a force that is disruptive just for the sake of being disruptive.”
The latter was a shot at the pay-to-play mechanism that governs youth soccer in the United States. Berman mentioned U.S. Soccer as a necessary partner in navigating the landscape toward having fully built youth programs throughout the league and country. She also mentioned that some clubs are open to partnerships to create youth pathways meaning not every club necessarily needs to start its own academy from scratch.
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In other topics from Friday…
Safeguarding summit: “We hosted what I believe may be the first-ever professional sports league convening of a safeguarding summit. We brought in subject-matter experts to talk about systemic reform and to proactively provide the tools and resources to those who are on the ground and closest to the players and technical staff(s); to make sure that everybody has the tools and resources to show up and actually provide the kinds of safe, positive environments that we all expect in the NWSL. When we encountered some of our history and the challenges of the past we learned that there was no playbook in terms of how to create a best-in-class league in the policies, protocols, and procedures that are offered to technical staff. We believe we’re setting the standard, and we continue to create an open-source playbook so other leagues, both men’s and women’s, can learn from our experience and we can help our entire industry and ecosystem be the best it can be.
On new Thorns owners: “They first and foremost embody the values of our league in their humility and commitment to investing in this team and in their market. They want to do things the right way. They understand the long-term value of this investment, and they have a history of having done this in Sacramento (Kings, NBA) and in other businesses outside of sports. And they are the kinds of people who really level up our boardroom in a way that I have no doubt will make us smarter and better.
Berman added that while the league had hoped for a resolution to the sale of Seattle Reign FC by the end of 2023, she expects it to be finalized soon.
On direct-to-consumer games in 2024: Berman said details are to come on how fans can access 2024 games not scheduled for national broadcast but gave assurances that they will be easily accessible across the United States.
On salary transparency: “We’d have to think about the purpose of why we’d be doing that.”She added that any decisions would need to be addressed with the Players Association.
On the new 2024 schedule: Berman acknowledged the evergreen issue of stadium availability and said teams did not begin seriously discussing available dates until the third week of December. She added that the league would like to release the schedule ahead of the timeline established in 2023. By proximity to opening day, that would be on or before January 31.
On a league rebrand: The rebrand of the league is moving forward and is currently targeted for 2025.
On expansion: Berman said the league is in “active due diligence with many different groups from many different cities.” An announcement on a 16th NWSL club is not expected until the second part of this year. That club is expected to begin play alongside Boston in 2026.
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