One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

Impetus’ North American correspondent, Catherine Paquette details the quite staggering arrangements for this year’s NWSL Championship Final which has been saddled with arguably the least player and fan friendly kick-off time of any major women’s football match ever.

All leagues conclude their season with a team as their champion.  For the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), this champion is selected in a slightly different manner to European football.  

While a trophy is awarded to the team who accumulates the most points in the NWSL’s 24 game season, a championship game and trophy at the conclusion of a short post-regular season playoff also exists.  One could easily argue that that the regular season trophy, known as the NWSL Shield, is more difficult to achieve than the championship trophy as it requires greater consistency and success over several months and not just a few post-season games.  

However, for the NWSL’s clubs, players and fans it is the Championship that is the real prize.  Four teams have previously won it: the now defunct Western New York Flash and FC Kansas City, and the still existing North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns. This season’s championship was meant to be its most exciting one to date, with a longer post-season play-off structure expanded to include six teams and three rounds, thus making the route to the championship game also more difficult than ever.

Last week, less than two months away from the end of the regular season, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird appeared during the half-time show of the CBS’s live coverage of the Orlando Pride-Houston Dash game to announce the hosts, date and time of this year’s championship game.  

Above: Providence Park, Portland. The venue for the NWSL Championship Final for the third time in nine years. Photo: footballgroundguide.com

The first part of her announcement, the championship game’s hosts, should have been the main cause of annoyance or controversy with NWSL players and fans. Again the game will take place in Portland, who have already hosted the championship game twice in the previous eight years it has been held.  

While it has now been reported that the Portland Thorns were the only club to submit a final bid to be hosts, due to venue restrictions of other clubs, fans of opposition teams are rightfully annoyed at the idea of the Thorns once again possibly having a home advantage.  

Moreover, NWSL players who have long been advocating for better playing conditions including the elimination of any matches on turf playing surfaces, are dissatisfied with this selection.  Portland’s Providence Park stadium is one of two artificial surfaces that remains in the NWSL, the other being the Washington Spirit’s part-time home at Segra Field. 

However, it was the latter part of commissioner Baird’s statement that created the real controversy.  The championship game for the winner of this year’s 2021 season will take place at 9am local time.  Yes, you read that right, at 9am.  

Once again, for those unfamiliar with the NWSL post-season structure and the championship game’s importance to North American sports, this championship game is meant to be the epitome of the season. It is meant to be the year’s top occasion, its crowning moment, its Super Bowl. 

The NWSL currently has a broadcasting deal with CBS and it has been reported that the 12pm eastern time slot, 9am local on the west coast where the final will be held, was previously agreed upon.  CBS also covers college American football in the autumn, with those games monopolizing the afternoon Saturday schedules starting at noon on the east coast, the same start time as this match.  The college games have long been scheduled across most of the broadcaster’s multiple platforms & channels.  

Above: The 2019 NWSL Championship Trophy. Photo: Fran Stuchbury.

Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, stated when discussing the 9am kick-off: “Yeah, I think the location should be taken up with the NWSL.  We didn’t choose the location, and we’re trying to make sure that we can give the most exposure that we can to the championship game, and that happens to necessitate a noon start.  So, you know, I understand the dissatisfaction out there.

“That is the hand that we have been dealt and we’re going to make the most of it.  But we have a program schedule that is pretty full.  It’s not that we don’t value women’s soccer, I think our commitment to women’s soccer, especially with the broadcast window that we’ve given the league, I think, is pretty illustrative of the fact that we do value it.  But as far as the location, again we didn’t we didn’t chose the location, the NWSL did.”

With this broadcast scheduling limitation, one has to ask why the initial television deal did not include an assurance of an appropriate time for the final depending on host selection.  It is difficult to imagine any men’s professional league being given a 9am start, especially for their championship game.  Television is important, but again, one has to question why they could not do better. 

NWSL players have not played at 9am since they were children, for the obvious reason that no elite or professional athlete should be asked to compete at their optimal performance so early in the morning.  

This start time will result in a pre-game wakeup at 5am, a pre-game meal at 6:30 am, a stadium arrival at 7:45 am and a pre-game warm up at 8:15 am  On a day where the sun is expected to start rising at 7:17am, just imagine the crews preparing the stadium, under the floodlights, because it is just too early to see anything.

Above: North Carolina Courage’s Jessica McDonald has taken to social media to speak of her astonishment at the announcement of the venue and kick-off time of this year’s NWSL Championship Final. Photo: Lewis Gettier/ISI Photos/Getty Images.

Baird’s announcement has prompted players and managers from all around the world to question the decision and to call for a change.  World Cup winner and North Carolina Courage striker Jessica McDonald stated: 

Olympic gold medal winner and Manchester City attacker Janine Beckie also tweeted of her astonishment at the arrangements for the final:

Paul Riley the manager of the North Carolina Courage, who are the current NWSL Shield and Championship holders, simply stated:

“There’s not one league in the world that will play a championship game at 9am but unfortunately we are.  Two teams are going to be in it playing at 9am which is sad when you consider what a big league it is in the world and how it is revered and stuff like that.  But anyway, that’s probably for another day.”

To be ‘fair’ to the NWSL’s current scheduled time, this is not the first top women’s football competition scheduling blunder this year.  The women’s Gold Medal match of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was originally supposed to take place at 11am local time.  

The same concerns over player performance, combined with concerns over player welfare as the temperatures were meant to be in the high 30os (100oF), were raised. The inequity with the men’s time, who were scheduled to play at a more suitable 8:30pm, was also questioned. The game was eventually moved to 9pm that night.  

A number of UEFA Women’s Champions League first round group stage qualification games were also given early starts this year, as early as 11am local time – during the working week.  Again this was not ideal, but it was also not 9am.

Above: The NWSL’s decision for a 9am Championship Final kick off has led to widespread anger. Photo: Getty Images.

It is also not be the first time a major women’s final will take place around this time. The 2003 Women’s World Cup final, held in the United States, was scheduled at 10am.  It was a fantastic match between Sweden and eventual winners Germany.  But this isn’t 2003.  The world has moved on and seemingly progressed.  

This current 9am start shows that it hasn’t progressed enough. If the women’s game is to grow it must be given the circumstances to do so.  One cannot expect the best product to arise, or for it to be profitable, if it is not scheduled at times that are optimal for both players and fans. 

Clearly discussions still need to be had about the respect that women and those who support them should be given.  These are professional athletes and their gender should not result in them playing at the same time as young Sunday league players.  A 9am start is insulting to players who have spent ten months building to a championship game as well as to the fans that have supported them along the way.

Women’s football and women’s sport deserves better.  If that cannot be given by the broadcaster in question, and supported by the league, then changes need to be made in leadership so that basic respect for proper competition can be a primary driver of those in NWSL decision making positions. 

Until that happens it is difficult for proponents of the National Women’s Soccer League to state it is one of the best league in the world.  The 9am start proves they are far from this.

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