The National Women’s Soccer League hasn’t outright canceled its 2020 season just yet, but given the current timeline of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, (California just issued a stay-at-home order until further notice) it would be foolish to assume they’ll be able to play as usual by April 18, four weeks away. Even closed-door games are probably a no-go, given the total shutdown of the other major sports leagues through the next several weeks at least. So what are some other options for the 2020 season?
Cancel the season outright
This option seems particularly unfathomable given the relative instability of NWSL compared to older, more established leagues. For some of the owners, an entire season without any revenue might be catastrophic. Would they keep players on salary? Would they have to lay off staff? If they’re not making money, can they continue to float costs until the 2021 season? That’s probably more feasible for some owners than others. It would also probably derail not a few fledgling careers; most of the players would need to find temporary jobs, and you can bet that some of them simply wouldn’t return. An interruption in league play would be a major stumbling block when the league needs continuity and consistency to keep establishing a presence.
Push the season later
Assuming the season gets played, a delayed start seems inevitable. But would they then play out the entire season? Some of it would probably also depend on whether the Olympics go on as planned, or if they’re delayed to 2021. But there’s a reason the NWSL season is played out in the window it is; you can’t start preseason sooner than March and you can’t play outdoor games later than October/November, because in some of the league’s markets, winter renders the outdoors a skin-chapping grey morass of nigh-uninhabitable bleakness (looking at you Chicago and New York). There’s also the issue of coordinating more dates with all the venues and possibly negotiating any changes to the league’s broadcast deal with CBS. Streaming games probably have more flexibility, but the deal does include four games on CBS itself and 14 games on CBS Sports Network, which might take some more reshuffling. And with all the sports canceled, they’ll definitely be pushing and shoving for room on the schedule during their return.
Play a shortened season
This could be a compromise that saves the majority of the season. If the league can start play by mid-to-late May, even with closed-door games, they only miss four to six weeks’ worth of play, so generally only two or three home games per team. They could make up at least one week by playing through the original planned Olympic break (again, some of this will depend on what happens with the Olympics) and maybe push the season later by a couple of weeks, cutting the loss to just two or three weeks of play. Would it unbalance things so that some teams face each other more or less than the rest? Sure. And ensuring everyone has the same number of home games could make this a very convoluted logistical problem, again given that they’d also have to reschedule with each venue. But it would at least provide a place for the players to play, get some revenue on the books once they start allowing crowds to gather again, and get the league on screens in front of eyeballs to maintain its footprint in the sporting landscape.
These are extraordinary times. The league will, presumably, try to make the best possible decision with the available information to prioritize fan and player safety. It’s completely normal to worry about how this will affect the future of a US women’s pro league that is still struggling to find solid footing, or to be disappointed in case of a full cancellation. You are allowed to feel your feelings when you lose something that brings you joy. We can be disappointed and understanding at the same time. Let’s also remember that we all have to do our best to slow the transmission of COVID-19 to avoid overwhelming our hospitals and to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. Soccer is everything, but everything is not soccer.