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Some concerns about NWSL’s proposed summer tournament

The league has proposed moving teams to Utah to compete, but there are questions that need answering first.

After a couple of weeks of speculation, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the National Women’s Soccer League has decided to move to a tournament format this summer, bringing all clubs to compete in Utah. Alex Vejar reported for the Trib that the tournament would last just under a month and play out at Rio Tinto Stadium and Zions Bank Stadium. Rio Tinto is, of course, the home stadium of the Utah Royals, while Zions Bank hosts USL side Real Monarchs.

This tournament format would run from late June to late July, and would likely have eight of nine teams advance into a quarterfinal round, an unfortunately absurd side effect of trying to put nine teams into a workable tournament format.

There’s nothing actually concrete at the moment; this all seems to be in the proposal stage, which is fine. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming. But as teams continue to make trades and the league has allowed individual workouts, it feels as though NWSL may be trying to get to market first. Being the only sports show in town would certainly be a power move in trying to draw more eyeballs to the league, particularly in these trying economic times. But there are a lot of questions that should be answered first before anyone sets foot on a field in a uniform.*

How will NWSL handle testing?

According to the Trib, there would be “regular” testing, although we don’t have details on what, exactly “regular” means or if this even refers to fully testing for coronavirus, as opposed to things like checking temperatures. Will there be daily testing for hundreds of players and staff? After games or practices? Who will pay for the tests and their processing? Will the league be taking tests and lab facilities out of the hands of Utah citizens, where it’s already been reported that low-income communities are struggling to access regular testing?

Hopefully, by any start date, whether that’s late June or beyond, testing will be both plentiful and rapid, allowing anyone there for the tournament to know within hours whether they’re positive or negative. But that also requires us to ask what the league would do in a positive-test situation.

What are the league’s contingency plans?

God forbid that this tournament lead to another outbreak, or that even one person gets sick. But would the league have a worst-case contingency plan? Surely that would be a requirement - whether from the players and staff themselves or from government officials in Utah - for being allowed to go forward with any kind of competition. This seems like exactly the kind of situation where it’s prudent to plan for the worst but hope for the best. What would happen if (god forbid) someone got sick? Would they shut the whole thing down? Would they re-test everyone twice (to help weed out false positives) and then resume with any teams that got the all clear? Would there be a mechanism for anyone to withdraw, with or without penalty?

Would anyone be allowed to opt out?

We’ve already heard the buzz that some USWNT players aren’t onboard with the current proposal. And you have to think that at least some of the players simply wouldn’t be able to accept the level of risk, no matter how small. What about players who already have pre-existing issues? Remember pyrotechnics at the 2019 NWSL championship setting off poor Casey Short’s asthma? Haven’t her lungs suffered enough?

What about staffers who are immunocompromised? What about anyone who simply cannot take the risk? Will these people still get paid, or is their livelihood contingent on them traveling and working under these suboptimal conditions? When your choices are pay rent but risk getting sick versus stay at home but starve, it really doesn’t seem like there’s any choice at all. It is undeniable that all the clubs and the league itself are also in a financial bind, just like most other businesses during this time, and they’re probably doing the best they can with the resources they have left, particularly given the lack of government help for both individuals and businesses struggling financially.

If fans are allowed in, who gets to watch?

Also being floated is the vague hope that small numbers of fans might be allowed to eventually watch some of the tournament, depending on state guidelines. If that does happen, who decides which fans are allowed in? Would it be first-come first-serve or would richer fans with more expensive ticket packages get preference? Will these spectators also be tested, or at least have their temperature taken before entry? Stadiums probably wouldn’t open concessions, but having fans present probably means some level of staff and security on site as well, which again ups the number of people gathered and increase the odds of exposure, although a couple hundred people spread out over a cavernous stadium might be logistically doable.

There are a lot of moving pieces here. It’s not just the sheer logistics, it’s the human element, with different motivations and cost-benefit analyses among different segments. What seems reasonable to a pro athlete who has been denied their main or only source of work may not be reasonable to someone else. It’s not just about getting to play, but about going back to work and all the associated labor issues therein. Hopefully, that’s where the NWSL Players Association is able to be a strong voice for their members, providing a united front with the USWNT Players Association.

In summary, this is a real doggone turd of a situation to have to be in, and hopefully everyone will do their best to extend as much grace as possible, with health and safety as the number one priority by far.

*AfXI asked the league about each of these questions, but a spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.