After quietly planning over the last few weeks, the National Women’s Soccer League made a very loud move Wednesday by announcing a plan to be the first major American sports league to resume a season halted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The NWSL intends to kick off a 25-game tournament with all nine of its teams in the Salt Lake City area on June 27. Each team will play four games to set standings, then the top eight teams will advance to one-game playoff rounds. The final is scheduled for July 26. The average interval between games will be around three days.
Teams are expected to arrive in Utah by June 24, according to a rulebook made public by the league Wednesday morning. The league will pay for each team to have a 35-person traveling party, up to 28 players and seven staffers. Anyone else who goes would be at the team’s “discretion and expense.”
Until teams head to Utah, they will remain in their markets to practice — if they’re allowed to do so by local laws.
Tacoma, Wash.-based OL Reign said they had to leave their home county to hold the small-group training sessions the NWSL permitted this week. The Chicago Red Stars had to leave the state. Northern New Jersey-based Sky Blue, part-owned by Gov. Phil Murphy, got on the field for the first time this spring on Wednesday.
Teams that complete five days of small-group sessions (no more than eight players each) can begin full-team practices Saturday.
For a while, the league was resolute in taking its time to return. Commissioner Lisa Baird, who started the job just two days before the pandemic fully struck, didn’t hesitate to repeatedly push back the dates when teams could practice, not just imagine playing games.
But the wall started cracking in late April when Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler told the Chicago Sun-Times that the league hoped to become the nation’s first to resume. By the middle of this month, the league had developed the Utah plan, first reported by the Washington Post. On Monday, The Athletic reported the details before they became official.
Now the league can finally make use of its new broadcast deal with CBS and Twitch. CBS will broadcast the tournament opener and final on its flagship network. All games will be carried on CBS’ subscription streaming platform, CBS All Access, with some tape-delayed re-airs on CBS Sports Network. Twitch will stream games internationally.
Could the league get more live games on regular TV if there’s demand?
“I don’t know at this point,” Baird said. “I’m passionate about getting our women in front of as many fans as possible, so you can be sure I will be pushing them behind the scenes. But we’re really pleased with the plans that they have right now.”
There are presenting sponsors in Procter & Gamble and Secret deodorant, and the league announced a renewed partnership with Verizon. Those are the first sponsorship deals of Baird’s tenure.
“Our belief is it [the tournament] could -- could -- pay for itself,” Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen said. “But that will be seen at the end.”
It would be a milestone moment if he’s proven right. Even the possibility is a sign of progress.
Players will be based mainly in Herriman, Utah, where MLS team Real Salt Lake has its youth academy. RSL and the NWSL’s Utah Royals are part of the same organization, under Hansen’s ownership.
Almost all games will be played at the RSL academy’s 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium, an artificial turf venue. The semifinals and final will be on real grass at the Utah Royals’ home, Rio Tinto Stadium, in Sandy. All games will be played without fans.
Practice sessions will be split between the academy and the Royals’ practice field, located just south of Rio Tinto.
Hansen said housing arrangements will span the academy’s dorms, an apartment complex nearby he owns nearby, and a 192-room Embassy Suites hotel he owns near Sandy. There will be recreational activities on the grounds, and an easy way to get snacks and other items delivered.
"Anything they need, we've just kind of opened the checkbook and said 'Get whatever they need,' " Hansen said.
Will the tournament be the NWSL’s only games of the year? Baird said that decision hasn’t been made yet, but the league is “open to” playing more games later in the year.
“I think like many businesses and many leagues around the United States, they’re planning for what they can do now,” she said. “What I can assure you is that between us, the NWSLPA [and] our owners, anything that we do in the fall will be guided by the care [for] and safety of our players, and of course what happens with state and local public health guidance.”
Whatever the stakes are on the field, they’re highest for the players who will risk their welfare and health — indeed, potentially their lives — to play sports during the pandemic.
According to the league’s testing protocol, everyone who will travel to Utah will be tested weekly before leaving, then on arrival, then within 24 to 48 hours of each game. Players arriving from international destinations must quarantine for seven days and test negative twice before being allowed to practice. If a player or staff member tests positive, they must be quarantined immediately and facilities will be closed.
The protocol includes a seven-page rulebook on sanitizing everything from laundry to weight rooms to hotels and transportation.
The league also said that “high-risk contacts” of players or staff who test positive — including roommates under the tournament housing plan — “cannot return to practice until 14 days have passed since the date of exposure to COVID-19 positive individual and contact has not subsequently developed symptoms.”
A survey of the league’s players obtained by The Athletic showed that while a plurality said they’re concerned, a slim majority responded neutral, unsure, or unconcerned. (It also showed they haven’t done a great job of social distancing, which is its own story.)
“Players, from what I hear, they want to play,” Baird said. “They want to play safely and they wanted to be assured they could play safely, but they wanted to play ... and we wanted to come up with something for them.”
NWSL Players Association executive directors Yael Averbuch and Brooke Elby said in a statement that their union, “working closely alongside NWSL, is excited to provide players the opportunity to return to sport, while also securing compensation and other necessities to make sure players’ concerns, feedback, and safety are at the forefront of all conversations."
The union’s gains include guaranteed salary, housing, and benefits for all players involved in the tournament, insurance for the full calendar year, and accommodations for players with children.
“As the plans for the tournament unfolded, it was our priority as the NWSLPA to protect our players, and we feel that NWSL shares those values,” Averbuch and Elby said.
Baird noted that she held a conference call with the league’s mothers, and specifically confirmed that “moms will be able to have their children and their caregiver join them.”
Players can also opt out of going to Utah if they choose, and still get paid. That includes the league’s U.S. and Canadian national team stars. All 23 players from last year’s World-Cup winning U.S. squad play in the NWSL, as do many top Canadians.
“Each player has her own decision to make,” Baird said. “There will not be any sanctions.”
The big U.S. stars are not part of the NWSLPA because their contracts are paid by the U.S. Soccer Federation (and they’re above the NWSL maximum).
Both the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. women’s team’s players union confirmed that those players can opt out. Yahoo! Sports reported that some already have, though their names aren’t known. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that seven U.S. players declined over the weekend, including “five regulars.”
Reports so far have said that Washington’s Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan and North Carolina’s Jessica McDonald have said yes. Baird said the tournament roster deadline is June 21, which is the first day teams are set to arrive in Utah. The Reign are allowed to go earlier, though, because they can’t train in their market.
OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore, whose team includes Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long, said that “for the most part, the star players know what they’re getting themselves into. ... I think it’s reasonable to say there’s been overwhelming support there.”
Asked specifically about Rapinoe, Predmore said “she’s got time to make up her mind.”