Let’s get this out of the way: Everyone finds something to hate about the National Women’s Soccer League schedule. It is a rite of passage for every coach to dissect the list of games that lands in their inbox and opine that their team absolutely has the worst travel schedule, or the least balance to spread out back-to-back opponents or who knows what — maybe the font used for the document. The schedule is a rallying cry.
Much of those feelings are entrenched in the league’s culture due to a decade of frustration around the schedule. It always gets released later than anyone wants, creating logistical annoyances for coaches, players, fans and media alike.
It always has some point of congestion in the calendar that drives coaches nuts. In most years, that has included an unnecessary slew of midweek games that made teams play three games in seven days, with travel. The NWSL rectified some of those issues in recent years but effectively repeated them by staging a drawn-out Challenge Cup, which has been reduced this year to a single, season-opening game.
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It was clear last year that the NWSL had made a good-faith effort to listen to stakeholders about how to improve the regular-season schedule. Not playing through FIFA windows was the major piece, alongside no weekday games; the tactic holds this year with a break for the Olympics. (There will be an international tournament, however.)
One of last year’s major victories is gone in 2024 — at least, as it stands — and it’s a major disappointment: There will not be simultaneous kickoffs for the final day of the NWSL regular season in early November.
Last year eight teams entered the final weekend in contention for the final four playoff spots. The Shield still needed to be decided, too. What played out was a level of drama unprecedented to even the chaotic NWSL, all packed into two hours. The Shield changed hands as the Portland Thorns got smacked in Los Angeles, 5-1, by Angel City FC, and teams fell out of the playoffs in real time as they scoreboard-watched games across the country. It is the kind of tradition seen by other leagues globally and perfectly suited for the parity of the NWSL.
The one thing missing was ample TV coverage. The league previously had an exclusive contract with CBS Sports, meaning most of the games streamed only on Paramount+. A whip-around show on CBS Sports Network provided live check-ins and table updates, the kind of drama to be expected from a big-time league.
Having more of those games on dedicated channels would have increased the visibility of all them and the league-wide drama taking place. That is one of many reasons why the NWSL’s recent announcement of a record media rights deal with four different media partners was so exciting. The combination of ESPN properties, CBS properties, ION and Amazon Prime have enough channels (streaming only in Amazon’s case, but with major reach) to feature all seven games simultaneously on the final day of the season.
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That will not happen as it stands. The final weekend of the NWSL regular season will be played out over three days from Nov. 1 to Nov. 3, with Amazon Prime getting its Friday night slot, ION airing a tripleheader the next night and ESPN rounding out the season with a doubleheader on Sunday, Nov. 3. It will likely mean what could have been another amazing day of drama — the type of stuff that, when packaged right and promoted, builds fandom through lasting memories of intense moments — will be anticlimactic. That’s what happened two years ago, when the league could have had major drama but played out the final weekend over three days. Most of the scenarios had been eliminated by the time Sunday arrived.
There is a strong likelihood that the league will have those tight races for playoff spots and the Shield, especially with the expanded playoff field of eight teams. The final weekend of the season has had significant playoff implications since the league expanded the postseason field to six teams in 2021; each of the past two years has seen the Shield change hands on the final weekend. The NWSL’s trademarks are parity and drama, and nothing better bottles that into a two-hour window than simultaneous kickoffs on the final day of the regular season. Decision Day 2023 proved that. TV schedules are tough to coordinate, especially with four players at the table, but the absence of another Decision Day come November will be a significant miss for everyone.
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