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NWSL Challenge Cup takeaways: Rethinking the format in 2024

Captain Denise O’Sullivan and the North Carolina Courage raise the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup trophy. (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

After the final whistle blew in North Carolina’s 2-0 Challenge Cup final victory over Racing Louisville on Saturday, the collective energy held both jubilation and relief. The Challenge Cup is a recent staple of the NWSL calendar, an in-season competition that has uplifted and strained the boundaries of what a domestic competition can look like in the U.S.

With changes to the Challenge Cup possibly on the horizon in 2024, let’s take a look at what the 2023 competition meant not just for its winner, but also the NWSL as a whole.

North Carolina is going to be just fine

With record prize money on the line, sometimes the main takeaway from a Cup competition begins and ends with the winner. This year, the Courage took the crown, adding a second-straight Challenge Cup title to their long list of NWSL championship wins and earning a payout from the $1 million prize pool. The win can serve as a galvanizing force for a talented squad firmly in the mix for a playoff spot, currently in third place in the regular season standings.

The Courage’s past success rightfully looms large over everything the current team does. What head coach Sean Nahas has managed to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time is to mold a group that plays with the same core, on-field values as the titans of 2017-19, while letting his current roster be themselves.

Brazil superstar Kerolin was her typical excellent self on Saturday, but the young players around her are the foundation of what North Carolina hopes will turn into many trophies in the future. It’s no secret the Courage have lost an immense amount of talent through requested trades and free agency in recent years, but their acquisitions have quietly come together to form a balanced group ready to prove itself. Brianna Pinto’s game-winner in the team’s Challenge Cup semifinal gave the team a necessary boost, and 19-year-old midfielder Manaka Matsukubo enjoyed her star moment with a brilliant strike to seal the victory in the final and win MVP.

In 2022, the tolls of North Carolina’s Challenge Cup victory early in the regular season appeared to haunt them as they fell out of playoff contention. This year, it could be the force that propels them to new heights.

A change in format is probably necessary

There have been reports that 2023 was the final iteration of the Challenge Cup in its current format, and issues during the knockout rounds highlighted why the NWSL is likely rethinking the future of the competition. Originally created to replace a COVID-19 pandemic-disrupted regular season in 2020, and then to mitigate regular season risks in 2021, the Cup has been an awkward fit the last two years.

Managers across the league have bemoaned the strain on their limited squad depth when adding games to the schedule. Though a more balanced approach to mid-week games softened the blow in 2023, a number of clubs seemed to prioritize simple rotation over going far in the Challenge Cup. It’s hard to fault managers for favoring the prizes of the regular season, but those decisions did produce an element of viewership fatigue.

That fatigue extended to players themselves, as travel and TV issues pervaded what was supposed to be the crowning week for the Cup. A 12:30 ET broadcast slot on CBS strained the concept of the top seed hosting the final — OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer noted on social media that if the West Coast club had taken the top spot, they would have been forced to travel cross-country on short rest anyway. The Courage, who did end up hosting the final, then dealt with a short turnaround to drum up local support for an extra game put on the schedule at the last minute.

As fate would have it, the Challenge Cup never made it all the way through its network TV time slot, with a weather delay pushing the match to digital streaming services. The NWSL should realistically look for more programming than a one 22-game season, but as it negotiates new broadcasting deals, this competitive sacrifice at the hands of short-term TV goals would be better left in the past.

The Challenge Cup also has its uses

Despite lingering logistical problems, the Challenge Cup did showcase its value during a major tournament year. The NWSL took just two match weekends off during the World Cup, but the Cup allowed them to avoid regular season matches from July 10 to Aug. 17, meaning that international stars missed far fewer season games than in previous cycles.

The flexibility provided by the Challenge Cup has brought about one of the closest Shield and playoff races in history. Instead of teams being punished for losing their stars during the World Cup, they got to welcome those players back with the league table mostly intact. That approach preserves the integrity of the competition and keeps top players who don’t want to miss their national team camps or club games happy.

The Challenge Cup also provides an NWSL-sanctioned opportunity to win another trophy, which should be prioritized even if the format of the tournament changes in the future. Players often talk about domestic or regional competitions as a draw of playing in Europe, and the NWSL will need to continue to keep pace with their international counterparts. Opening a Cup up to lower-tier club teams in the U.S., or even expanding to other regions in the Western Hemisphere (particularly Liga MX Femenil), would help add prestige to trophy opportunities outside of the NWSL Shield and championship title.

The NWSL doesn’t have the ability to create a Champions League on its own: Concacaf would have to help make that a reality. But they can look to create competitive variety for fans to enjoy and cater to advantages elsewhere. Racing Louisville’s run to the Cup final is one that clubs should be trying to emulate, rather than shy away from.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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