UPDATED 5/27 4:45 PM ET: added information from a conference call with league commissioner Lisa Baird, Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen, and NWSL medical task force member Dr. Daryl Osbahr.
UPDATED 5/27 6:45 PM ET: added information from a conference call with OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore and Lauren Barnes.
The National Women’s Soccer League has officially announced that they will host a month-long 25-game tournament in Utah, dubbing it the Challenge Cup, running from June 27 to July 26. The tournament, which will function as the 2020 NWSL season, will mostly be played at Zions Bank Stadium, with semifinal and finals games at Rio Tinto Stadium. The competition will follow a tournament format, with a preliminary round to determine seeding into a quarterfinal bracket, with eight of nine teams advancing. The tournament will stream mostly on CBS All Access and internationally on Twitch, with the opener and championship broadcasting live on CBS. The tournament also has several sponsors, including Budweiser, Verizon, and P&G.
The league has also made public their COVID-19 testing protocols, laying out procedures for preseason and tournament testing, as well as responses in case of a positive test. Testing will be conducted through ARUP Laboratories, which is a nonprofit arm of the University of Utah.
The NWSL Players Association, the USWNT Players ASsociation, and US Soccer have all made statements about the tournament.
U.S. Soccer is supportive of the NWSL's decision to bring professional women’s soccer back to the field. pic.twitter.com/SpoTAayyo0— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) May 27, 2020
The NWSLPA in particular said they gave “extensive feedback” on the league’s plans and negotiated several guarantees, including guaranteed income, housing, and insurance, even for players who have opted out. The USWNTPA has also made an agreement that players may opt out.
In a call after the announcement, Houston Dash head coach James Clarkson confirmed teams can dress 20 players for games and have five subs available, who are allowed to come on during three substitution windows designed to avoid disruption to the flow of the game, per new IFAB guidelines. In a conference call after the league announcement, OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said that the roster minimum will be 22 players and the maximum 28, including the presence of four supplemental players. Presumably, the league will also make tournament rules available at a future date; it’s understandable that their current focus was prioritizing health and safety and reassuring both participants and viewers that they had protocols in place to address these concerns.
In a conference call with media, league commissioner Lisa Baird, Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen, and NWSL medical task force member Dr. Daryl Osbahr, who is based in Orlando, spent nearly an hour answering further questions about the tournament. Baird said that the Challenge Cup planning had been ongoing for over two months as she and the ownership went through several scenarios, starting with a medical task force of 15 physicians, including team doctors. Ultimately, the league ended up with four bids, the winning one of which was, of course, Utah. Utah’s state sports commission had already been pioneering reopening some sports like golf and motocross, allowing the Royals organization to build on their planning. They also had access to lots of testing capacity through ARUP, with Hansen emphasizing that league testing, which will amount to hundreds if not thousands of tests weekly, will not take any tests away from Utah citizens. The tests are coming from out of state (though Hansen did not specify where) and will be paid for by NWSL’s player insurance.
Hansen described all the logistical bonuses Utah would be able to bring to the table: the organization has taken over an entire Embassy Suites and can offer apartment complexes to teams, has a large and small stadium available, has eight training fields available, and they can create an athlete village of sorts. Baird said that this would help players feel like they’re living in a small community rather than being trapped in isolation, while Hansen said that even if teams needed things from outside of the village, they could provide a concierge-type service where any requests could be brought to them, from snacks to ping-pong tables. Dr. Osbhar said they were also trying to get players to see themselves as part of the process of providing a protective environment, buying into the community for everyone’s safety. Hansen said that his organization is reinstating some full time salaries and recalling staff that had been previously furloughed to help with the tournament workload.
Baird mentioned a figure of around 230 players plus staff living in the village, although this figure may not be a total headcount since residents may also include families of players. Baird said that she had already been on one call with parents in the league to discuss accommodating families and childrearing, and all players with children will be allowed to bring their children and a caretaker. The league is also working with an immigration attorney to get visas for international players and make sure they’re all good with the recent Homeland Security exemption for athletes as essential personnel. Final rosters are due June 21. According to Predmore, the league is organizing charter flights for at least some of the teams, with Hansen himself making a private jet available to transport teams, allowing them to avoid the exposure risk of a commercial flight.
Baird also spoke extensively about having sponsors onboard, with Hansen mentioning the tournament might even pay for itself in sponsorship money. Baird said they didn’t want to be reliant on ticket revenue, and that guaranteeing player contracts whether they play or not made it even more important to get their financial ducks in a row with big-name sponsors. She did say that they league was sensitive to teams that have local sponsors in their market but didn’t comment just yet on how they would address that, given that the tournament would take place only in Utah, which isn’t ideal if you’re a Washington car dealership or a New Jersey sandwich shop.
Meanwhile, Baird said that in terms of the league’s broadcast deal with CBS, she has been “pushing them behind the scenes” to get more than the opener and championship on broadcast TV. But for now, the league has lined up some very big name sponsors, and Baird said they will continue to appeal to sponsors with the rising popularity of women’s sports. For her, the players had worked so hard to get to a point where it seemed like they would finally have their moment in the 2020 season, and Baird wanted to give them the chance to play - safely. She said the Challenge Cup would give audiences an exciting single-elimination knockout tournament that could help pay off the momentum the league has been building. “Being small and nimble has been to our advantage along the way this season,” Baird said, pointing out that with a smaller league, the logistics are easier, and she can get consensus from a smaller group of owners with less fuss.
But overall, everyone on the call sure to point out their guiding principle was safety first, and that public health officials had looked over their protocols, with Utah health officials signing off on the plans.
NWSL appears as though it will be the first US pro sports league to come back in any significant way, essentially being first to market. Being the only game in town, so to speak, could be a huge boost to the league, particularly if there are no other live sports on TV to compete with. Getting major sponsors onboard is also a big win, particularly with megabrand P&G coming onboard - perhaps a byproduct of Baird’s pre-existing relationships through her work on the US Olympic Committee, as P&G is a sponsor of the Olympic games.
Of course, as much as there are positives to celebrate, there are reciprocal concerns. The league has, of course, addressed some of these by publishing their positive test protocols, outlining how they would respond to low-risk and high-risk exposure situations and symptomatic and asymptomatic tests. The league is also requiring all players and staff to get tested before and through preseason, before travel to Utah, upon arrival to Utah, and regularly throughout the tournament. Everyone will be required to get two negative COVID-19 tests and one negative antibody test after traveling and within 24-48 hours of every game. The league also appears to have gone into relatively meticulous detail in their planning; reporting by The Athletic said the league has broken the tournament logistics down into multiple subcategories, including things like transportation. If you’re going to have a big event in these times, seeing evidence that the league is thinking about every single detail in depth is some reassurance.