With 2021 blessedly behind us, it’s time for the world of women’s soccer to turn toward the new year with high hopes and lessons learned. The NWSL is moving into its tenth anniversary season (despite the lost 2020 regular season), and the stakes for a new start have never been higher.
The new year on the NWSL calendar will bring exciting soccer, fresh faces and a wealth of competition the now 12-team league has never seen before. But my NWSL New Year’s wishes are a bit bigger than what happens on the field, so let’s dive in.
The NWSL’s success in 2022 likely begins and ends with solidifying the league’s first Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NWSL Players Association. The negotiating process gained some clarity when the U.S. Soccer Federation ended its allocation funding at the end of 2021, meaning players contracted with the U.S. women’s national team could officially join the NWSLPA for the first time.
The CBA is going to be important in all elements of player experience. In order for the NWSL to maintain a functioning workplace, one has to think the league will need to finalize the CBA — or be making significant progress in negotiations — before players report to preseason camp on Feb. 1. The agreement is going to set minimum and maximum wages, define the terms of a free agency period and set other standards such as maternity protections and salary cap flexibility.
All of these matters must be sorted so that players don’t have questions about the league’s future going into the 2022 season. More importantly, for the sustainability of the league, owners need to provide the players with the confidence that they can internalize as a group. It could be some time before the NWSL releases the findings of the investigations it launched into the league’s and teams’ handling of abuse claims, and players need to feel like their voices are being heard by their employers. That comes from good-faith negotiating leading to real changes that benefit the league’s labor force.
Searching for basic levels of safety, a number of players have taken a chance on fresh starts within the league rather than leaving the country or the sport. It is now up to the NWSL to reward that faith, and they need to start by putting it in writing.
It’s a bit obvious that this wish is in reference to the ongoing saga of the Washington Spirit, now that the calendar has turned and Steve Baldwin has yet to commit to sell the team to minority owner Y. Michele Kang. As of this writing, Kang has the highest bid for Baldwin’s shares at $35 million, 40 percent more than the $25 million offer by billionaire Todd Boehly, Baldwin’s preferred buyer. Now, Baldwin’s fellow investors are pushing back, backing Kang (who also has the support of the players) and pressuring Baldwin to do his fiduciary duty and sell to the highest bidder.
Getting the Baldwin mess out of the league is paramount to both Spirit and league leadership, but it also speaks to a larger conflict the NWSL has to resolve: owners gripping tightly to situations that don’t serve players and fans. Baldwin is attempting to sell the Spirit to an outside buyer against the wishes of his players, and there are similar conflicts simmering elsewhere in the league.
Chicago Red Stars supporters group Chicago Local 134 has extended its ultimatum for majority owner Arnim Whisler to sell his shares in the club past the end of the year. Controversial signings by the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage have also led to discord between the clubs and their fans. The league hasn’t even begun to touch the sexual assault lawsuit in which new San Diego Wave FC owner Ron Burkle was named as a defendant. Burkle, who is also part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is being investigated for violating Pennsylvania whistle-blower laws after the wife of a former team employee accused former head coach Clark Donatelli of groping her.
The NWSL cannot handle another year of scandal, and the first place to establish stability is with the same owners who allowed abuse to continue under their watch for years. From this vantage point, allowing Baldwin to hold the Spirit hostage and Burkle to operate without investigation feels like more of the same. The league can mitigate unequal power dynamics by creating the strong CBA proposed above, but it also has to commit to turning over a new leaf at the ownership level or these problems will continue.
It’s not necessarily written in the history of the NWSL to send best wishes to expansion sides, but what is 2022 if not a year for something new? Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC are coming into the league carrying responsibilities greater than how many goals they score on the pitch, and it will be good for everybody if they hit the ground running in their first seasons.
The California teams have provided the NWSL with good press to close out a rough year and have clearly become a haven for players in need of fresh starts. Both clubs are women-led, and Angel City is women-owned, presenting a new way forward for a league struggling to reconcile its past.
They also have the potential to field two very exciting soccer teams, jumpstart a new regional rivalry, shake up the standings and provide a brilliant showcase for the league. Angel City’s first game at Banc of America Stadium is going to be the event of the season. One has to hope that CBS has the game circled in pen for a network television slot.
I’m not one for bold predictions, but I’d love (and expect) to see at least one of the California clubs in playoff contention by the end of the season. With a number of clubs entering new eras in 2022, the postseason race promises to be competitive and exhilarating.
Washington’s meeting with Chicago in the NWSL championship game was the culmination of a wild playoff race: The Houston Dash were eliminated in the last game of the season, the NWSL Shield-winning Thorns were dealt a massive upset and OL Reign were bounced on their home field. While the final was televised on CBS, the momentous games preceding it were relegated to cable at best (CBS Sports) and streaming services at worst (Twitch).
As advocates for women’s sports have been saying for years, putting games on national television not only provides the platform that elite play deserves but also helps tell the stories of the league to a wide audience. Imagine if the 525,000 people who tuned into the championship game had had weeks to learn about what makes Trinity Rodman special, or how Chicago’s midfield kept the team alive when injuries made their run seem impossible. It takes time and repetition to ingrain these narratives into the lives of casual sports fans, and that process goes hand-in-hand with TV coverage.
My wish is for CBS to air more NWSL games on the flagship network, but also to weave women’s stories into their Champions League coverage, Serie A coverage and beyond. Midge Purce did a brilliant job talking about the NWSL Championship during men’s Concacaf World Cup qualifying, and she’s not the only player with the ability to represent the league in that capacity. The league’s partnership with CBS has already paid dividends with strong viewership returns on TV and on Paramount+. Now, the network has the ability to take the ubiquity of the league in the soccer landscape to the next level, and it should take that responsibility seriously.
CBS should also work with the league to invest in and possibly even take over production responsibilities from Vista Worldlink, which has been handling game broadcasts for a number of years. Make the CBS deal a partnership in practice, not just in name, and people will watch.
It feels like this goal might be too lofty considering some of the larger issues the NWSL needs to resolve. But my genuine wish for longtime NWSL fans this year is that the league gets to a place where they can be content to support it again. I don’t want supporters to feel like they have to turn off parts of their brain in order to cheer for their team, or that they have to ignore issues that are important to them. Teams should not be asking their fans to betray causes they hold dear in order to find solace in the joy of sports.
Soccer — like all sports — is a capitalistic effort, and that effort isn’t going to align with the values of every fan who wants to buy a ticket to a game. But teams should be joining their fans in a commitment against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the locker room rather than resisting them. The NWSL has a minor miracle on its hands in a fan base that truly cares about these values, and leaning into them isn’t as difficult as those in positions of influence might lead you to believe.
So when I say I wish for peace of mind for the fan base, I say it knowing that not all sides are going to get what they want. But fewer unforced errors from the top, more success stories of supporting players and true accountability for wrongdoing would go a long way toward making sure the NWSL thrives, and doesn’t simply replace the fans who got the league here in the first place.
Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.