The NWSL is adding four teams in the next three seasons. Yet while the expansion may seem rapid, it’s actually a measured pace, according to commissioner Jessica Berman.

Speaking on the latest episode of Just Women’s Sports‘ “Snacks” podcast, Berman talked about the plans for expansion, which include new teams in Utah and the San Francisco Bay Area in 2024 and in Boston and one additional city in 2026. That comes on top of the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC, which joined the NWSL in 2022.

The 12-team league is sensitive to concerns about expanding too quickly, and that is the reason why just four teams are slated for the next few seasons, Berman said.

“I think one of the reasons we’re only expanding by two teams in 2024, and two teams in 2026, is because of that concern,” she said. “Like, if we didn’t have that concern, we would just do it now.”

Berman also revealed that the league recently had a meeting about expansion with “preliminary interests.” So even though the league isn’t currently in an expansion process beyond 2026, they’re still “very actively circling the hoop.”

“We could expand easily for 2024, not to 14 teams, but easily to 20,” she said. “Teams if we felt like the business could absorb it, if we thought it was strategic, if we felt like there was the right player pool to support it most importantly, because we have to make sure the quality of the game stays at the top. But we’re not doing that. There’s a reason we’re not doing that. And it’s because of the concerns of growing too quickly.”

One trend alongside the league’s expansion has been an increase in valuation of existing teams, and therefore in the buy-in price for expansion teams. A new broadcast deal could bring those valuations even higher, while Angel City FC is reportedly the highest-valued women’s club in sports.

“Everyone who’s investing, even teams that are not experiencing the incredible growth that Angel City is, is demonstrating … that $53 million is what they should pay for an NWSL team,” Berman said. “The rest of our owners, especially the ones who have been in it, have been at it for a while — they didn’t come to lose. They now see a world that is materially different in upside than what they thought was possible.”

And now, she says, the job is to ensure that both existing teams and those entering the league are competing not just on the field but off it. Currently the league is working on creating a department to help share best business practices around the league.

“There’s always, in every league, a top third and a middle third and a bottom third. That just exists in every league,” she said. “It’s our job to keep the top third raising the bar and bring up the bottom third, in all of the key areas from a business and player experience perspective. They want to compete, they just need a path to get there.

“We are uniquely positioned to facilitate that sharing. Our teams don’t compete in business — they compete on the pitch, but they don’t compete in business. So, we should be embracing the opportunity to make sure all of our clubs, like it is the true rising tide, lifts all boats. That is what we are doing.”

Ahead of the 2023 Challenge Cup final, the NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman called the year of 2023 an “inflection point for women’s soccer” — and she discussed the ways in which the league is looking to capitalize on the moment.

Expansion plans for 2026

The NWSL plans to add two more teams for the 2026 season, Berman confirmed to reporters Friday. She first shared the timeline for the next round of expansion in May, and that remains the goal.

Boston has been tabbed as an expansion destination, the Wall Street Journal reported in January, though the NWSL has not confirmed its selection. Berman declined to comment Friday, only saying the league hopes to share more details “soon.”

The NWSL expanded to 12 teams in 2022, when California-based clubs Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC joined the league. The newcomers proved wildly successful in their inaugural seasons, as Los Angeles-based Angel City averaged more than 19,000 fans per game and San Diego reached the playoff semifinals (and set the postseason attendance record to boot).

New media rights deals

The NWSL expects to announce its next broadcast deals during the 2023 postseason, Berman said. Increased viewership for the 2023 season — by 20% on CBS and by 50% on Paramount+ — is giving the league a boost during the negotiations, according to the commissioner.

“We’re very bullish and hopeful we will end up with deals that will make our fans super excited and will allow us to continue the growth of the league,” she said.

The league’s current broadcast rights deal expires at the end of the current season.

Record attendance marks

With four matches left in the regular season, the NWSL has set a new attendance record, surpassed the 1 million mark for 2023. The league also surpassed 1 million fans in 2022.

The record total of 1,060,978 includes the first 18 weeks of the regular season but not the Challenge Cup tournament. Across the league, 11 regular-season matches have seen more than 20,000 fans, compared to just four matches last season.

With an average of 20,194 fans per home match, the San Diego Wave are on pace to set an NWSL record. San Diego also will host the NWSL Championship at 32,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium.

“We expect the building to be sold out,” Berman said.

This weekend, the NWSL begins the very first season of its VAR era. The league made one of the biggest investments in its 11-year history to bring the quality of officiating up to speed with the action on the pitch.

VAR has not come without its controversies in the world of global football, but when used with a light touch, it can greatly reduce the debates around missed calls and focus attention back on the pitch in a positive way.

What is VAR?

VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee, technology that assists the center official by using video replay. VAR has been used in a limited capacity in the men’s game since 2016, with MLS becoming the first domestic league to use it for a full season in 2017. Since then, it’s become a tool worldwide, with its most high-profile usage in the women’s game prior to 2023 coming at the 2019 World Cup.

With season kickoff this weekend, the NWSL becomes the first women’s domestic league to implement the technology, in an attempt to reduce clear and obvious errors in the course of a match. VAR requires training additional staff, which the league began in September, to observe monitors throughout the game. The VAR official communicates with the center official through a headset, allowing procedures like goal and foul checks to happen in real time. There is also a VAR monitor at midfield that the center official can access themselves upon consulting with the VAR crew.

VAR reviews will be shown both in NWSL stadiums in real time and on the broadcast.

What will VAR review in the NWSL?

The short answer is: not everything. The goal of VAR is to make sure the officials get the big moments of the game right, not to re-litigate every foul or out-of-bounds play. The incidents VAR will review in the NWSL are goals/no goals, penalties/non-penalties, direct red card given/missed and mistaken identity.

Under the umbrella of goals/no goals lies offside calls, which will be made based on what the VAR crew sees through at least five different camera angles, as NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman explained. VAR sometimes means that assistant referees will delay raising the offside flag if a goal-scoring opportunity is imminent and the call is close. Officials operate with the understanding that calling a play dead could have more detrimental effects on a match than letting the play finish before allowing VAR to determine if a goal was in fact offside. Other actions that could disallow a goal are a foul or handball in the build-up to the scoring opportunity.

Determining penalties/non-penalties will include handballs in the box and fouls. VAR can be used to determine whether the severity of contact inside the penalty area is worthy of a blown whistle, as well as where exactly those infractions occurred. In order to overturn a call on the field, what is seen on the VAR monitor has to clearly and obviously run counter to what the center official saw in real time; angles too close to call defer to the original call.

VAR only gets involved in player cards when a direct red card might be warranted due to dangerous play. Yellow cards are not reviewable, which means that a second yellow card leading to an accumulated red card is also not reviewable — only if the infraction itself is worthy of a straight red. VAR can, however, determine that an action originally given a yellow card is worthy of a direct red card.

In the case of mistaken identity, VAR can be used to make sure discipline like a yellow card was issued to the correct player, but not whether the offense was worthy of a yellow card.

The gray area

VAR implementations in other leagues and tournaments have gotten very literal, and in 2019 the women’s game saw how matches can get out of hand when center officials are pushed out of their element by backseat-driving from the replay monitor. For NWSL, successful VAR hinges on “clear and obvious error.” If, for whatever reason, the video quality or angle is inconclusive, the center official will not be overruled, and in some cases a VAR review will not even be recommended. In many ways, that allows the game to play out in the way it was intended, with limited breaks.

This does mean that NWSL will not have the benefit of goal-line technology, something MLS does not use either, and will have to rely on cameras for close calls on the goal line.

Ultimately, the platonic ideal of VAR is a tool that makes sure the big decisions are correct, while still empowering live officials to make the calls they need and let the game of soccer flow the way it’s intended. There will still be close calls and differing interpretations of the rules, but a less intrusive VAR approach has been well-received in MLS, and the NWSL hopes its usage follows suit.

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

One of the first things Jessica Berman told CBS and Ally Financial when she stepped into the role of NWSL commissioner in April was that having the league championship on primetime was a priority moving forward.

So, they made it happen.

For the first time in the league’s 10-year history, the 2022 Ally Financial NWSL Championship will air on primetime, with CBS broadcasting the game at 8 p.m. ET on Oct. 29 from Audi Field in Washington, D.C. The stadium features a grass field and holds 20,000 fans.

“What I’ve heard from our players is that in order for them to deliver on their value proposition and to maximize their potential, they need first-class facilities and they need to feel like they’re being treated like the first-class athletes that they are, and for them, being on primetime is really important,” Berman told Just Women’s Sports.

Last season, players criticized the league and CBS for originally scheduling the championship game for 9 a.m. local time on a turf field in Portland, Ore. The match was eventually moved to 12 p.m. local time in Louisville, K.Y.

This year’s final was originally scheduled to kick off at noon ET before it moved into the 8 p.m. slot, the league said in a press release Tuesday.

“We point to some of the record viewership that we’ve had already with our partnership with the NWSL,” said CBS’ head of programming Dan Weinberg. “We’re proud of that. We think this is the next step in that.”

CBS’ streaming service, Paramount+, will offer exclusive pre-match coverage at 7 p.m. ET and will also serve as an alternative viewing platform for the match. International viewers will be able to watch the game live on Twitch.

For Berman, the first benefit to being on primetime is showcasing the NWSL to a broader audience. Most games during the regular season are only available to viewers with a Paramount+ subscription, making it harder for the league to attract new or casual fans. The championship’s primetime national television slot will give people who may have never seen an NWSL game the opportunity to watch the league’s best compete.

Last year’s championship game drew an average of 525,000 viewers on CBS, marking a 216 percent increase from the ratings of the 2019 NWSL Championship.

“You’re gonna get anyone that likes sports to get interested, and the more people that we can get to put eyes on NWSL and to see the caliber of play and just to see how exciting this game is just gives us a much better chance to have a really strong long-term trajectory in terms of audience growth and expansion of what we all want to see this league be,” said Andrea Brimmer, Ally’s chief marketing offer and public relations officer.

“I think we’re all going to get behind it big time and make a big push so that we get a lot of eyeballs and a lot of people there.”

The historic move will mark the end of Berman’s first year as NWSL commissioner. Having stepped into the position in the midst of a league-wide abuse scandal, Berman emphasizes the importance of being surrounded by partners like CBS and Ally, who share the league’s values and are willing to take new approaches to help it grow.

“We need people to be courageous and bold,” said Berman, who views the championship game milestone as scratching the surface of what she hopes to accomplish with the NWSL.

“We have a lot of catching up to do, like we should be bigger than we already are,” she added. “We need our partners to be like-minded in the way they show up on behalf of the league … [I’m] so excited to have CBS and Ally be the ones who are fireside, making this happen.”

In addition to the championship game, CBS aired a regular-season match in June and is scheduled to broadcast one more on Sept. 10 between the Washington Spirit and San Diego Wave.

The NWSL quarterfinals will air on CBS Sports Network and Paramount+ during the weekend of Oct. 15, and the semifinals will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network the weekend of Oct. 22. All matches will also stream internationally on Twitch.

On Aug. 31, tickets will go on sale for the championship game at Audi Field, home of the defending NWSL champion Washington Spirit.

“We’re always excited to crown champions on CBS. It’s what we do,” Weinberg said. “We’re super excited to do it with the NWSL again this year. Doing it in primetime, I think, ramps things up even more from a visibility standpoint, from an exposure standpoint. Really thrilled that the piece came into place. We think it’s good for everybody, frankly.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.