For a league that relocated one team in the winter
behind the 2016 and 2017 seasons and folded two more the next winter, the National Women's Soccer League has certainly managed to change course.
It got a big boost from the USA's victory at the 2019 Women's World Cup. But the USA also won the 2015 Women's World Cup, drawing considerably higher TV ratings, and the bump was much more modest.
Six of the nine NWSL teams broke club attendance records in the second half of the 2019 season, and the league seemed to have momentum heading into 2020.
It filled the vacant commissioner's position with the hiring of longtime sports executive Lisa Baird, whose first day on the job was March 10. The next day it announced CBS as its first national network broadcaster, and the day after that? The NWSL shut down, canceling the 2020 preseason schedule in the wake of the growing COVID-19 outbreak.
A few years earlier, a pandemic might have been the NWSL's death knell. But it is set to become the first U.S. pro team sport to return to play when its nine teams gather in Utah at the end of June for the NWSL Challenge Cup.
If all goes well, the NWSL will play 25 games June 27-July 26 behind closed doors at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
The plans aren't perfect.
The New York Times reported that the 25 games in Utah will be the only games the NWSL will play in 2020.
Players are not required to participate, and that includes U.S. national team players, who are undecided about playing, reported Yahoo Sports.
“Each player will have her own decision to make,” Baird said on a media conference call. “We will not require anybody to play in the tournament.”
And for all the protocols put into place by the 15 members of the NWSL medical task force to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak, there is no guarantee that something won't go wrong.
Still, there's a lot the NWSL got right.
All contracted NWSL players will be guaranteed their 2020 salary, housing and benefits as well as receive insurance coverage for the entire 2020 calendar year. And that's whether they play in the Challenge Cup or not.
The NWSL signed up P&G and Secret as presenting sponsors and announced a new multi-year partnership with Verizon.
“Our belief is it could — could — pay for itself,” Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen said of the tournament. “But that will be seen at the end, and there are always expenses that aren’t foreseen.”
(It helps that Hansen, a Utah real-estate billionaire, will accommodate players and staff for the nine teams at an “NWSL Village,” utilizing the dorms at the Zions Bank Training Center in Herriman, all the rooms at an Embassy Suites he owns near Sandy and apartments from his vast holdings around the Salt Lake City area.)
What isn't important is
that the NWSL will the first U.S. pro league that will be playing again, although that made Wednesday's announcement headline news. What is important that it's the first league to finalize a concrete
plan for return to play.
For once, the NWSL's small size -- it will add a 10th team in Louisville in 2021 -- was an asset.
"It's an enormous challenge to try and figure out a solution that's safe with nine teams," Baird said when asked by Soccer America about building a consensus among her owners. "Bigger leagues have an even harder challenge, I think. I can tell you I can get every single one of my 10 owners on the phone when I need them. They're incredibly responsive, and building consensus has been easier because I have an ownership group that realizes the greater win right now for the league and for Americans."
Baird said the league office has had 15 or more different work streams going on at the same time plus the Royals' staff handling all the logistical details for the nine teams that will begin setting up camp in Utah as soon as June 21.
"I think the secret is we've been small and nimble and agile," Baird added.
The strength of the momentum from 2019 can't be discounted, either.
"Our players want to play," said Baird. "They want to play safely and they wanted to be assured they could play safely, but they wanted to play. We wanted to come up with something for them because it's really about them and their play."
With everything happening in women's soccer and the year it had in 2019, she said this year was the year the momentum was supposed to pay off for the NWSL. And in its own way, it has.
"The fact that we have, I think, the best players on the planet in our league gives us a chance to pass on that momentum," Baird added. "Maybe not in the way we thought we would, but in a good way."