Despite the NWSL Championship being held at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. — nowhere near the Portland Thorns or Kansas City Current’s hometowns — the event finally felt as big as it should thanks to local supporter groups, and one of the most passionate fanbases in sports. And that’s not to discount a record 915,000 viewers at home.

One of the failings of not just the NWSL, but past women’s soccer leagues, has been a lack of discernment. But this is the most competitive women’s league in the world, and has genuine stars spread among its 12 teams. You need look no further than the final matchup for evidence of how absurd this league can be, as Portland’s opponent, Kansas City, finished at the bottom of the table in 2021 – and better yet, reached the final without minutes from their star signings, decorated USWNT veterans Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams.

The key to all of this is the players. For this Championship weekend, the NWSL finally got this right, and as a result the weekend was given the stature and prominence it deserved.

What made this year feel different

Starting Thursday and leading right up until kickoff, the NWSL, partners and sponsors put together events that showcased and/or honored players. There was also the theme — from panelists (including Spirit owner Y. Michele Kang) to commissioner Jessica Berman’s halftime announcement that Ally bank was extending its partnership with the league — that the days of positioning the league as a beggar for charity are gone. Kang talked about sticking to her standard for a seven-figure front of shirt sponsor and being dismissed by some who claimed that the figure was more than DC United, the district’s men’s MLS team. (Kang stuck with her valuation and secured a seven-figure deal.)

This shift is only possible because the NWSL is finally valuing what it has in its players, and its fanbase. Further evidence was the honoring of the players who have been in the league since its first season in 2013. Twenty-one players were honored with varsity style letter jackets, complete with the crests of all the clubs they played for stitched down a sleeve. The players were honored again at halftime.

Before the match even kicked off, a Fan Fest was held outside the stadium. Fans got to walk around and mingle while multiple platforms were erected for events and live shows featuring players. In fact, if you were lucky and had a good eye, you may have even spotted a familiar face walking around, soaking up the atmosphere.

NWSL players have been through a lot, much of it documented, finally, and in a way that should force significant change. This championship weekend seemed like a catalyst, a turning point in which players get the treatment and respect they deserve as people, and the elevation and adulation their talent deserves.

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