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  • Writer's pictureOllie Cad

“Borderline Criminal”: The NWSL Season Schedule and its Grueling Consequences

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

What is the NWSL?

Photo Credit: NWSL

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) founded in 2012 is a 12-team league based in the United States dedicated to facilitating women’s professional soccer. After a series of iterations and two prior league folds, the NWSL is the most successful attempt at integrating women’s soccer into the US at a professional level. The league brings in international players and for the past nine years has fostered a growing women’s soccer culture globally. While the NWSL and its contributions to the culture of women’s soccer have been monumental, it isn’t a monolith for progress in women’s sports. Not nearly close. Among many of the issues associated with the NWSL (field conditions, funding, player salaries, abusive coaches, poor refereeing, etc.), one of the most prevailing ones this 2022 regular season has been the league’s schedule.

Scheduling may seem like a front office responsibility that doesn’t leave the confines of an excel spreadsheet, but for professional athletes as well as fans, scheduling is one of the contributing factors to satisfaction and success. This article seeks to investigate some of the consequences that come with a schedule that doesn’t properly suit the players or enable a healthy league experience for everyone involved.

Preseason vs Regular Season

Photo Credit: Fox Soccer

One of the major contributing factors to consider when looking at the NWSL’s scheduling is the Challenge Cup. The NWSL Challenge Cup was inaugurated in 2020 as a preseason tournament to signify the return to professional soccer after delays due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. 2022 marked the third Challenge Cup before beginning the 2022 regular NWSL season. While the Cup introduced a way for players to ease back into the game in 2020 after a series of lockdowns prevented professional women’s soccer in the US from starting again, its existence in 2022 and scheduling impacts seem counter-productive and not conducive to player morale and health.

The scheduling for the Challenge Cup overlapped with the beginning of the 2022 regular season, making many fans speculate about how detrimental it could be for players to play games so frequently. The league saw an abundance of injuries during this hectic schedule overlap that fans feel could’ve been prevented by giving players more breathing room between matches. Regular-season performances by the teams that excelled in the Challenge Cup were also inconsistent; while the North Carolina Courage won the 2022 Challenge Cup, as of match week 5, they have won no games in the 2022 regular season and sit at the bottom of the standings. How did the Challenge Cup manage to be such a poor performance predictor for the regular season?

Fans have suggested that a solution for this preseason overlap would be to do away with the Challenge Cup entirely, citing that its purpose has been fulfilled. Others suggest creating a longer gap between the preseason and regular-season games to prioritize player safety.

Either way, the scheduling issue with the NWSL is intimately related to the Challenge Cup, and in order to create a safer and more energetic environment for players and viewers alike, there needs to be a change.

How can the NWSL incorporate a preseason tournament that puts player safety at its forefront? If player safety isn’t the current highest priority, what does that say about how women’s soccer players are treated and scheduled? Is this poor scheduling unique to the NWSL and how does that reflect or reveal any biases? These are questions fans and players are left reeling with after this year's Challenge Cup.

Player Constancy and Safety

Tweet Credit: @ScoutRipley on Twitter

The NWSL’s worst-kept secret is how grueling its schedule is for its players. One look at any team’s schedule, especially those who had to have games rescheduled, and it’s evident that the pace of the schedule is unsustainable. The most vocal about this problem is the Washington Spirit. Since the regular season started and until June 17, the Spirit will have less than six days between every match. Combine this schedule with the overlap between the aforementioned Challenge Cup final and the regular-season opener for absolute catastrophe. Since the Challenge Cup began, four regular starters were put on the injury list. According to head coach Kris Ward, the rest of the team has only been able to have one large-group training session. This is due to both the team’s constant traveling and the fear of overworking uninjured players. Compare this situation to OL Reign or Portland, who had over a week of rest before they played the Spirit. In Ward’s own words, this stark contrast is “borderline criminal, frankly.”

Washington Spirit Injury report for May 18, 2022
Photo Credit: Washington Spirit

The poor scheduling reflects on the pitch in absolute exhaustion and potential injury. Exhaustion for both teams on the pitch often leads to poor decision-making. Players may go into dangerous challenges simply because they’re too tired to realize the potential harm they may be inflicting. If not properly refereed, these challenges can add up. This not only slows the game down but increases the likelihood of horrifying injuries like Jordan Baggett’s concussion in the 2022 Challenge Cup final. Furthermore, the lack of available training time means that players are more likely to get injured from the sheer fact of not being able to stay fit. There is no way to stay fit as a team if the group can only train together once. Even with rotation, someone is always playing more minutes than they should.

Match Quality

Given the intense schedule and potential lack of training, it follows that some matches don’t live up to their potential. If both sides are absolutely exhausted and over-rotated, nobody is having fun. Matches turn into tactical battles or a war of attrition (or both.) Take the 0-0 draw between the Spirit and OL Reign on May 22, 2022. It became obvious as the game wore on that both sides were just trying to survive for the remainder of the match. It was certainly not the fireworks-infused, white-knuckled matchup many tuned in for. Furthermore, the rate of injury in games with tired players is much higher, which slows the game down immensely. Nobody wants to watch players writhing in pain while they get medical attention. This happens more when players are three games deep in a two-week period.

Photo Credit: @EqualizerSoccer on Twitter

New viewers will not be getting the best of the NWSL if they tune in to a game full of winded players and injuries. Instead of getting dazzling goals from the likes of Margaret Purce or Jess Fishlock, they’ll get Purce and Fishlock trying to work through cramps and injuries. Who wants to follow that? If the NWSL continues to create a substandard product by scheduling so poorly, nobody will bother to support them. All at the cost of the players.

Viewer Experience and Accessibility

For a league that aims to widen the viewing audience of women’s professional soccer, the scheduling and its subsequent effect on viewer accessibility is a hindrance to this ultimate goal. In a recent partnership with Twitch, the NWSL has offered international viewers a chance to view games in a legal way that directly profits the league and its players as well as gives new viewers a platform to begin watching. US citizens are offered access to games on the streaming service Paramount+.

Photo Credit: NWSL

However, the movement from televised content to streaming platforms removes women’s soccer from the traditional cable TV format and makes it less likely for new viewers to casually access and stumble upon these games. The NWSL and its fan base are far-reaching but also largely a self-containing atmosphere; any attempt to get into women’s professional soccer in the US has to be purposeful, a consequence of the choice of these streaming platforms. The NWSL loses some of its credibility with its inability to create a viewing platform that invites new viewers who were previously well-removed from the league. While streaming platforms seem to be the enduring present and far-future of content consumption, sports are consistently still associated with traditional cable TV and are privileged in that coveted position; audiences are more likely to still have a couple of main cable TV channels than a subscription to every streaming platform.

When games are televised on cable networks like CBS Sports, the game coverage seems to suffer from a lack of clear scheduling. On May 13, 2022, the NWSL had scheduled a very much anticipated game between the Portland Thorns and OL Reign to air on CBS Sports instead of Paramount+. However, instead of the game, CBS Sports aired a bullfighting competition, leaving Americans and Canadians that couldn’t access Twitch unable to watch the game at all. Many people were outraged by the scheduling error, including Portland Thorns player Crystal Dunn who expressed her frustration on Twitter. This situation was especially frustrating for NWSL fans who paid for Paramount+ in order to access these games whereas other leagues in Europe aren’t behind a paywall. The intersection between curating paid content for fans and not delivering when offering free content is what makes the scheduling issue so frustrating.

Scheduling and streaming also affect the viewer experience. While an aspect of fan culture is having a favorite team or player, one of the more appealing aspects of the league is the ability to follow the many clubs and players within it. However, games are frequently scheduled conflicting with each other, forcing fans to choose which matches to follow and when. This schedule clashing prevents the curation of a competitive culture where fans are free to familiarize themselves with the teams.

Screenshot by Savannah Miscik

Stream quality has also been a constant complaint from fans at home. The audio and camera quality has come under scrutiny, with some fans even calling for a more reliable partnership with platforms to allow for better quality. However, near the beginning of the Challenge Cup stream quality wasn’t an issue for Canadian fans because they were barred from the Twitch streams. In an issue that was amended later into the regular season, Canadians were prevented from joining international viewers on the Twitch stream and also didn’t have access to American exclusive content on Paramount+. Less than a year after the Canadian Women’s National Team won the Olympic gold medal match and many calls to bring the NWSL to Toronto, the exclusion of Canadian fans seemed to be detrimental to fostering a wider range of viewers.

What Next?

While amendments in NWSL scheduling don’t seem to be possible for the 2022 regular season, fans and players alike are vocal about a change in the near future. Hopefully, the league can move its scheduling aspirations toward player health and safety first, ultimately benefiting all parties involved.

This article was written by both Savannah Miscik and Ollie Cadete.


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