As the NWSL heads toward it’s 6th season–3 years longer than WUSA or WPS went before folding–now is the time to start building the sorts of traditions that are meant to truly last.
The logical place to focus our attention for this sort of developments is the final week before the Final. While some, including some British NWSL coaches, might wish the league would abolish the playoffs all together, I don’t see the league removing the playoff system going forward. So assuming the playoffs are here to stay, those days are prime territory for some innovation.
While it’s true that fans can only stay in the host city for so long, that’s still a lot of time in which to take advantage of events that might be offered. Make the events exciting enough and people might come just for them, even if they’re not especially interested in watching the final live.
So how would I set up these underused days heading toward the championship game? I’m glad you asked.
Day 1: (Likely Wednesday) The NWSL All Star Game
This is not a new idea or one I haven’t spoken about before. I have wanted an NWSL All Star game for as long as I’ve been covering the league. And there is no better time to have it than in the days leading up to the final.
Think about what it would mean. A game to exhibit the best of the best in the league playing against each other. And in a context where it’s okay to focus on the fun more than the outcome. An All Star game doesn’t have to rise to the stakes of the game coming a few days later. And that’s a good thing.
Here’s the basics of an idea: In early July the league would start allowing fan voting on the All Stars. Set it up however you like–by team or position or something else. The point is to give fans a direct say in who gets to head to game.
Each team would be made up of 17 players, 11 starters and 6 subs. The fans get to vote on 20 of the 34 spots with the coaches picking the reminding spots to make sure that they didn’t have 17 attacking players and no goalkeepers on their roster.
The teams could be broken up in several different ways: east vs the rest of the league, north vs south(ish), or US eligible players vs the world. Even taking the teams that finished 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 would work. The sky is the limit for how they split up the teams.
Two rules I would put in place to make sure that things weren’t slanted too much one way or another. Each team gets 4 spots for USWNT federation players, and every team must have at least one player represented in the game.
If a player who made an All Star roster is playing in the final, they can be replaced, either by the coach or simply by taking the next highest voted player from the same position. Not a hard fix to having a few out due to playing in the title game.
How do we pick the coaches? The two that didn’t make the final the year before? The two that did? Pull two names out of a hat on a livestream? Have fans vote? Doesn’t matter so long as they are willing to play along with the more relaxed feeling this game should have.
Day 2: (Likely Thursday) The NWSL Media Day
Media day is one of the best and strangest days of the year for those of us involved in writing about the NWSL and covering the teams.
Think of it like this. It’s media speed dating. All of the players are seated at tables, usually paired off together as a starter and a non starter, and the journalists move around the room, talking to players and trying to get quotes for pre-final pieces.
It is a surreal experience. And one that is shockingly effective for getting access to players and finding some interesting quotes to help punch up our pre game pieces.
There is nothing I really would change here with one exception from the 2017 media day. Media day needs to happen at least 48 hours before the final. Writers need to have time to digest the conversations we’ve had with players and write more thoughtful pieces. This year it was the day before the final and it was a difficult task for many of us to manage to get everything accomplished.
Day 3: (Likely Friday) The NWSL Awards Gala
Outside of the draft and the championship, the league has no real statement event. While I think the All Star game can help, even better would be a true annual awards gala, hosted the night before the final.
Think of how cool this could be. All of the nominated players, media from all over the world, league officials, and maybe even some season ticket holders of the ten different clubs, all together for an evening of awards, and a celebration of the league. The awards ceremony could be live streamed so fans from around the country and really the world could watch as Rookie of the Year or MVP is handed out right there. Right now, awards are announced by an email and a tweet from the league. That’s fine, but this would would add real weight to the news.
There are models out there for the league to look at when putting an event like this together. Our own Luis Hernandez even pointed out that Orlando City and the Orlando Pride have a yearly awards gala. While their $300 price tag for a table might be a little high for the NWSL, I do think they could get away with tickets in the $50 to $100 range for media and a select number of season ticket holding fans who would want to be there.
It would also give the league a chance to add more awards. Assist of the Year, Goal of the Year, Save of the Year, Unsung Hero of the Year could join the current cast of awards in the program. Players, coaches, general managers or team owners, even some media could step up to present awards. Maybe the league could event persuade Aly Wagner and Jenn Hildreth to host the event before calling the final the next day.
This type of event would requite planning and preparation, all of these events would, but it would be something that the league could use as a way to thank the players, teams, media and season ticket holders in a way that they currently don’t have a way to do.
Day 4: (Likely Saturday) The NWSL Championship
You know, the reason we’re all in (insert hopefully predetermined location here) in the first place.
By in large I think the NWSL does a pretty great job with the final itself. I wouldn’t change much that they are already well aware of and will likely tighten up going forward. Hopefully they can work on getting the time of the game a bit later in the day, though I wouldn’t hold my breathe there.
The NWSL needs to make the final more than just a game and a fan zone before it. They can elevate the event and spectacle that it should be by adding in either the all star game or the gala, both would be even better, to the run up to the championship game. They don’t need to break the bank to make the days leading up to the final worth it for fans and media to show up for. It would just take a bit of planning in advance to keep the costs down.
The league has proven it came improve year after year and that is is around to stay. Now is the time to start making the types of changes that make one of the two biggest events of the year even better.