The National Women’s Soccer League is on the cusp of announcing it will return with a tournament-style competition in late June, making it the first American sports league to return during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there are still more questions than answers, even as sources told Yahoo Sports an official announcement could come as early as Tuesday.
The tournament, sources said, would begin the last week of June and run until late July in Utah. The first part of the tournament, which would feature the same round-robin format of a World Cup group stage, would be hosted at Zions Bank Stadium, home of the USL’s Real Monarchs. The semifinals and final to crown a league champion would be played at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of the Utah Royals NWSL team.
Under the proposed plan, teams would take charter flights from their home markets to Utah and players would be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival, multiple sources said. A few days later, they would be tested again, and continue to be tested twice per week throughout the competition. Antibody tests to identify which players have had COVID-19 already are also being evaluated, sources said.
While questions still remain, like what would happen if a player gets COVID-19 during the tournament, the league and stakeholders have been working at a furious pace over the last several days to provide satisfactory answers. Even just a week ago, sources were skeptical this plan was feasible, but now they say this tournament is expected to happen.
NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird had an all-player call on May 15 where an initial plan was outlined. Since then, there’s been a series of meetings and calls with various stakeholders to iron out the finer details, with more discussions planned in the coming days.
Where NWSL and USWNT players stand
The plan will only move forward if players are on board. All NWSL players have the choice to opt out, sources said, and several USWNT veterans are expected to decline to participate.
At least five USWNT players have opposed the plan internally, sources said, while at least three others have voiced support. But most players remain undecided and are waiting for additional details before making a final decision.
The divide of players who don’t want to participate tends to grow by age — the older players who are at greater risk of injury and are aiming for a spot at next year’s Olympics are less likely to participate.
One player-side source expressed hope to Yahoo Sports that U.S. Soccer would refuse to give its blessing to the tournament, giving USWNT players an out without being subject to criticism from fans. But U.S. Soccer, which has been accused in the past of meddling in league scheduling too much, is leaving it up to the NWSL to develop and execute this plan.
U.S. Soccer’s medical staff raised early concerns to the NWSL about the proposal, which the NWSL has responded to, a source said. Federation officials will make sure players are aware of any remaining concerns the federation has, but will ultimately let players decide on their own whether to participate or not.
The Bundesliga saw a rash of injuries in its first week back, raising the concerns that NWSL players will be even more susceptible playing on the artificial turf fields provided in Utah. The players might also have to play games as often as every three days at altitude, leaving some worried about fatigue and load management, sources said.
FIFA has increased the number of per-game substitutions from three to five because of schedule congestion related to the pandemic. The NWSL also has a minimum roster size of 22 players this season, per the USWNT’s collective bargaining agreement. But some players are concerned that won’t be enough to prevent injury.
If a player gets injured during the tournament, then there are concerns that surgeries will be harder to schedule if hospitals continue to limit non-essential services during the pandemic. The recovery process, including physical therapy, could be similarly hampered.
For USWNT players, opting out of this tournament is surely an easier decision than for other NWSL players. The USWNT collective bargaining agreement — the one players have sued U.S. Soccer over — means 17 of them are still being paid $100,000 salaries by the federation even though the national team is not playing games.
Every player on the USWNT — even ones without national team contracts — also earns a salary of at least $72,500 for NWSL allocation. Per the USWNT’s CBA, the federation has to keep paying those NWSL salaries even if the 2020 season features no games as long the league still exists.
For non-USWNT players, the NWSL does not have a union that collectively bargains player contracts, but the NWSL Players Association does offer strength in numbers.
NWSL contracts do not have specific language that covers a pandemic, and if the NWSL declined to pay players who opt out of the tournament, a legal tussle could follow. So far amid the NWSL’s suspension, players have continued to be paid and there has not been an indication the league is looking at halting payments.
But for young rank-and-file NWSL players eager to break into their national teams or attract the interest of European clubs, the incentives may be enough for them to opt into this proposed tournament in Utah.
Why kick off so soon?
Some players and stakeholders support the plan but have expressed concern it is coming together too quickly and should be postponed. But there are a number of factors, multiple sources said, that are driving the league’s push to kick off in June.
First, the Premier Lacrosse League has a similar tournament planned at the same Utah venues running from July 25 to Aug. 9, according to three sources. That means the NWSL would have to play into September if it wanted to use those facilities but wait until after June. (The PLL has publicly announced the dates for its “Championship Series” tournament, but has not yet confirmed where it will be played.)
Dell Loy Hansen, owner of the Utah Royals and a real estate mogul, has offered tournament facilities to the NWSL on what sources described as a subsidized basis, making Utah the most attractive site over the other host options available.
Additionally, the NWSL is also eager to be one of the first sports leagues back when there will be few other live sports commanding public attention.
Arnim Whisler, owner of the Chicago Red Stars, said in April the NWSL wanted to be the first pro sports league to return, and multiple sources said his comments reflect sentiments shared by others within the league. Other owners were more reticent initially, but have been swayed by the safety measures proposed and because governors are allowing states to re-open.
CBS Sports, which holds the television rights to the NWSL, is excited about the plan, multiple sources said, but the broadcast rights for the NWSL are not valuable enough on their own to make staging the tournament worth it. The sources said the NWSL has lined up new, significant sponsorships around the tournament and Baird has done well to court high-level partners since coming on board in March.
It’s unclear if new sponsors would be as enthusiastic about a tournament staged in a more crowded sports landscape. A source said the tournament will be a test run for sponsors who may be considering a longer-term deal.
The appetite for live sports may still be strong by the fall, especially if sports leagues turn to one-off tournaments, rather than sustained seasons, which would be over by then. But some decision-makers have also expressed a latent fear that a resurgence of the novel coronavirus in the fall could trigger a spike in cases, as is seen in the seasonal flu. That could lead to another shutdown that would again put all sports on hold.
That possibility underlines the key caveat in this proposal: There are no definitive answers or blueprints for the NWSL to follow. Much about the coronavirus remains unknown because it’s new to humans, and the testing landscape in the U.S. is very different than other countries that have already welcomed back sports. Even as countries like Germany and South Korea bring sports back, it’s clear the NWSL and other American leagues need to find their own way forward.
But sources connected to the NWSL have for weeks said that the league’s return would be dictated by advice from health experts, and it appears enough players, owners and administrators are comfortable enough with that advice to move forward.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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