The League That Couldn’t: Why the NWSL Is Its Own Worst Enemy

What if the people who are paid to care about women’s football cared even a tenth as much as its fans? What would that look like?

Another day, another SNAFU. Now in its third year, the pre-season Chaos Cup, formally known as the Challenge Cup, has reached the playoffs. OL Reign, under the returning management of the revered Laura Harvey, rose unbeaten to clinch the #1 seed in the Western division, with an unbeaten run against their three fellow West Coast teams. The division includes two new expansion teams, the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC, both of whom found themselves repeatedly up against a ferocious and stacked Seattle team with an axe to grind after missing out a place in the championship final last November. Nabbing the #1 seed parked them firmly in the semifinal, and earned them the right to host it on home ground. But nothing’s ever straightforward in the Chaos League, and a huge scheduling FUBAR on the part of the NWSL has left the Reign scratching around for a venue, because Lumen Field is not available.

There’s much at stake for the Reign. While this preseason tournament is not overly important in and of itself, there’s two points to absorb: the winners earn a chunk of change, which is not meaningless in underpaid women’s sports (many of these players have second jobs). And OL Reign moved to a new stadium this year. In the upgrade of all upgrades, made possible by their newish French owners, the Puget Sound team left behind their intimate, Tacoma-based Cheney Stadium, which seats 6,500 and doubles as a baseball field (with the unreliable playing surface that comes with such frequent changeovers), and are enjoying a triumphant homecoming at Seattle’s vast, downtown Lumen Field, home of the MLS’s Seattle Sounders and the NFL’s Seahawks. This is an enormous, well-equipped space to fill, and it will take the Lyon-owned team an unguessable number of seasons to grow their audience to something near filling Lumen’s 72,000 seats – hated neighbours the Portland Thorns lead the league in topping a typical 20k on a good day. A running start is essential for the Reign to build momentum, and a semifinal is exactly the sort of occasion to bring in curious new city folk, as well as fans from further afield.

Art by Tushar Dey

Why can’t they use their own stadium? Because, despite citing “venue availability issues” it seems abundantly clear that the NWSL screwed up the scheduling. First: the regular season begins before the tournament ends, leaving little time between games of each type. If you’re going to overlap the two, a tournament could have been spread manageably throughout the year (like the FA Cup), not squished up against the face of the incoming season. To add weight to that point, pre-season training and the tournament itself – a veritable battle royale of over 100 yellow and red cards – have seen clubs rack up injuries, arguably in part thanks to the very tight schedule. It’s far from an ideal start to the season.

Second, the league seems set on a particular date for the semi-finals, and a CONCACAF Champions League final is happening at Lumen Field that day. As the final group results trickled in, the #1 seed faced the prospect of playing ‘at home’ at their biggest rivals’ house, in front of an enemy crowd far bigger than they can yet command, or on the East Coast, with a very short turnaround between this and their league games. 

What could be done instead? Negotiations could happen for the match to be played earlier in the day – same day double-headers are hard work to deliver, but Lumen Field proved they could do it with last summer’s joyous double-derby day as the Portland Thorns and Timbers faced their Seattle rivals. They could look at other venues in or around Seattle – less impressive than Lumen Field, to be sure, but still delivering a home game to a home crowd. There’s the issue of venues not being league-approved, but as the NWSL were responsible for booking the venue in the first place, perhaps they could take a pragmatic view and examine other options on a case-by-case basis. They could – hear me out – have changed the damn date. Give the players time to exhale and revisit the playoffs when the calendar allows.

We don’t know much about the conversations behind closed doors, though rumours abound, because the league haven’t told us, talked to the media, or owned up to their mistake. The introduction of a new commissioner, Jessica Berman, following Lisa Baird’s resignation in disgrace last year, offered hope, but is the new boss the same as the old boss? The sly wording in the news story on their website pushes blame toward the Reign and Lumen Field but neither the club nor their host venue planned the Challenge Cup schedule – as Laura Harvey quipped recently, it’s “above [their] pay grade”. We do know that venue restrictions and logistics wiped some of the above ideas off the table, and that OL Reign pursued other ideas (including a date change) but couldn’t get agreement from the NWSL on any of them.  

A club source explained:

“As soon as it became apparent that OL Reign could have home field advantage, but that Lumen Field was unavailable, the club started to search for solutions which ranged from moving the date of the game to finding an alternate venue. OL Reign dedicated countless hours to solving this issue, but no mutual agreeable solutions have been found with the league.”

The Reign will now lose their hard-earned home advantage and instead face formidable 2021 Championship winners the Washington Spirit (unbeaten since August 2021) at the DMV team’s secondary, 5000-cap venue, Segra Field in Leesburg, Virginia; the Spirit also don’t have access to their usual venue, Audi Field, that day – another central scheduling failure. That now seems to have been resolved, with both teams working with the NWSL to push it through, and the match will take place at Audi Field. They will stay on the East Coast after their season opener against the same team the previous weekend, and then schlep coast-to-coast for a home game the following weekend. Goodbye to the home advantage and a home crowd seeing their team potentially romp to the final; goodbye to the gate and merch revenue for the #1 seeded Western club; goodbye to a valuable opportunity to grow that make-or-break audience in their giant new stadium, thanks entirely to shenanigans or negligence that the league simply won’t own up to.

NWSL fans rag on the league a lot. Does the league care? Probably not. Many of the most vocal critics, myself included, don’t hate the NWSL. It’s just that we love the game. We love the players. We love our clubs, when they are all that they’re capable of and do right by their players and fans. And we know that women’s football remains the underdog compared to the lavishly nurtured men’s game. We spend our money and time to support its growth, and in a 12-team league stretched out across a continent-sized country, many of us travel as many miles as we can afford to do it. We want these mostly underpaid players, in an undervalued league in a male dominated industry, to have the resources they need to play the game we and they love. Instead, they play in a league that can’t get out of its own way, where drama is as frequent off the grass as on it.

The frustration derives, above all, from the fact that this sort of screw-up feels par for the course. The last few years have seen horrors including, but not limited to: a slew of high-profile personnel disgraces, as coaches and technical staff were fired from multiple teams following resurfaced abuse, discrimination and harassment allegations that the NWSL failed to seriously investigate (at the time of writing, Houston Dash’s coach James Clarkson has just been suspended as part of an ongoing investigation into harassment, abuse and discrimination); their toothlessness as the Washington Spirit’s mulish majority owner, Steve Baldwin, pursued an ugly campaign against minority owner Y Michele Kang, who ultimately checkmated him and bought his controlling stake; a failure to protect players and their families from racist or sexist treatment at the venues they play at; deeply questionable Disciplinary Committee decisions that have left individuals penalised for altercations started by other players (many fans have observed the racial disparities in players’ outcomes); a long wrangle over a collective bargaining agreement that would be fair to players whose pitiful starting salaries were not sustainable for a professional athlete in a league without free agency; and still, ten years after this league began, a perennially poor broadcast product. 

A heated recent game between the Reign and the Wave (arguably pronounced Wahvey, if you’re very On Twitter) saw fans at home, and even the teams’ injured players, miss the first thirteen minutes of the game due to mystery technical difficulties. In that time, the Reign’s Ally Watt, who missed most of her first two pro seasons due to an ACL that felled her in her first pro game, scored her first ever NWSL goal, unrecorded by the NWSL’s broadcast team. Fans in Canada struggle to access games because the league’s CBS deal doesn’t include them. Here in the UK and around the world, fans gratefully watch games on the league’s Twitch channels, but we get no pre- or post-game content, or anything during half-time, and we too suffered the stream outage last week. In the regular season’s opening games this weekend, multiple games were dogged by glitchy stream quality that severely impacted fans’ ability to follow the action.

Again, I say: we do not hate the NWSL per se. They are far from the only league at fault, and the global game is riddled with issues from abuse and underfunding to broadcast accessibility. Women’s football has a long way to go. But until very recently, they were structurally tied to the most successful national team in the world. We hate how their failures and seeming indifference continually place world-class players at a disadvantage, and have inevitably driven some players out of the game altogether. Maybe we should take heart from the clean-out of rotten, abusive coaches in the last couple of years, resulting in part from the work of the league Players’ Association, and pray that better days are on their way – but a major scheduling fumble like this, and the intractability of the league toward finding a fair solution, are not encouraging signs.

There are two NWSLs: the collective of beloved teams and players that command our attention every week, and the overwhelmingly white boardroom of executives who are sure they know better than players, managers, clubs or fans, while doing everything to demonstrate the polar opposite. As the season drew to a close last year, fan discussion flared around whether the league could even survive to another season. Its ten years far exceed the tenure of the previous two attempts at a US women’s pro league, and mismanagement, negligence and a lack of inclusivity have fans howling on the daily. Of course it’s not new for fans to resent a league. This writer also works with a sixth-tier club in the UK’s infamous National League, which is dogged with accusations of corruption. We know sports industries are an ethical quagmire and dark doings behind closed doors are a frequent source of the rot.

But the women’s game, stifled by male-led federations and sexist governance for so many decades, needs to grow now. Consider the explosive success of the last Women’s World Cup, and the growing status and broadcast power of leagues around the world, including the French D1F, Mexico’s Liga MX Femenil, and the UK’s WSL which got a major broadcast investment recently. Reflect on Barcelona breaking two global attendance records in quick succession in the last month, exceeding a dazzling 91,600 last week. The time is now, and yesterday, to seize the momentum and build on the rise in interest and support for the women’s game. The intensity of a deeply engaged, growing fandom, which holds leagues’ and clubs’ feet to the fire loudly and regularly, shows a ravenous appetite for women’s football. 

Instead, the league that calls itself the most competitive in the world, which should treat its players and clubs with pride and respect, is actively crushing the advantages its teams have earned by their own success, and blocking their ability to grow their audiences and generate the revenue that should make the league a compelling prospect for fans, players and sponsors alike. They don’t even seem to be very good at crisis management, showing little ability to resolve the problems that happen on their watch or use their comms to restore any lost faith from the disillusioned fans whose money they cheerfully solicit. Moving the game to a larger venue in DC is a step in the right direction, and will certainly be better for Spirit fans, but it must still be rather galling for fans in Seattle who will be left watching from afar, and the club, who earned the right to a very different playoffs experience. At the time of publishing, the Spirit had just handed the Reign a 2-1 defeat on the road in their opening duel of the season, and the two teams will face each other on the same field in a couple of days for the semifinal. So much for home advantage.

The carelessness is unsustainable. This league should be building its next ten years; instead its clubs and players are left firefighting. If the executives at the NWSL aren’t willing to make serious attempts to fix the problems they’ve fostered or created, they ought to be asking themselves why they’re in the room at all. Until then, many fans and players will continue to feel held to ransom by a boardroom that seems caught in a pattern between self-interest, incompetence and indifference.

Gen Williams

Having survived fifteen years in the music industry, Gen works in comms and sits on the board of her local club's Supporters' Trust. With a passion for women's game, she follows far too many teams, including OL Reign, the USWNT and her beloved Dulwich Hamlet, and has an expensive habit of getting on planes for the football.