After much social media fervor, ranging from jokes to genuine frustration, the schedule for the much anticipated 2023 NWSL Regular Season was finally announced. The season is set to kickoff March 25th, meaning the schedule was released an absurd 45 days before the first kickoffs of the new season.
This is not an uncommon problem with the league. Year after year fans, players and journalists beg for the schedule, to the point where it became a worn out joke of people asking/pestering The Athletic writer, Meg Linehan, for the schedule. There were even t-shirts.
While the jokes are fun, there are real consequences for the league continuing this trend, and NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman is aware. She wrote on Twitter, “Grateful that this day [schedule release] is finally upon us...there are not enough words permitted on Twitter to explain ‘the why’ but it doesn't much matter -- fact is, it took too long. Thank you for your passion and for holding us accountable. We will do better. And, our social team = the best!”
Attendance is key for professional sports teams, particularly soccer teams. The entire atmosphere of soccer matches is part of the experience, not only for fans lucky enough to live close to a team, but for fans who want to travel and support their team away in other cities.
In a country as sprawling as the U.S., the NWSL currently is only easily accessible as a live event in 12 cities. There are fans of various teams around the country who need to be able to plan to see the teams and players they want to support.
It’s also difficult for sales teams across the league to pitch coming to games when they can’t tell potential season ticket holders when games will occur. Building excitement for an opening day is a key strategy, as is spotlighting matchups throughout the calendar to promote – Pride Day, Pups At The Pitch, etc. With such a late announcement, sales departments across the league will be scrambling to piece together a cohesive package to get as many people in the stadium for home games as they can.
While it’s good Berman is aware of the issue, unfortunately her front office wasn’t able to get ahead of the problem this year. One of the problems for the NWSL is that many of the teams do not own the venues in which they play. Eight of the 12 teams (with Kansas City exiting this group when their new stadium opens in 2024) share a stadium with men’s teams in Major League Soccer. Three teams share their venue with men’s teams from the second division of men’s soccer, the United Soccer League.
Scheduling a 22-game regular season with all of the factors at play isn’t easy. However, MLS, which starts its season at the end of the month, had their schedule finalized and released on December 20. The USL, which will begin its season in early March, announced their full slate January 9.
It’s possible that the NWSL front office, which is being rebuilt after a slew of unsuccessful and ineffective Commissioners, do not yet have the people in the building to handle such a project in a timely fashion. It’s also possible that expansion teams unfamiliar with the process have been slow to piece together their itineraries.
Whatever the reason, Berman seems aware of the issue and, hopefully, what’s needed to fix it ahead of next year’s schedule release.
In addition to the loss of revenue by potential fans and season ticket holders choosing to spend their dollars elsewhere, releasing a schedule this late is a tentacle of the league’s prior mismanagement and wrongheaded quest for survival, instead of a push to thrive.
Through investigations and punishments, players, team staff and supporters have been through a lot with this league. Now that pages are finally starting to turn, any link to past mindsets that created dangerous work environments must be shunned.
There’s substantive work such as rooting out bad actors, implementing policies and delivering consequences – all of which has been done and is an ongoing process. But there’s also attention to detail and an increased level of professionalism that must become a standard. Unfortunately, late schedule releases are still a relic of an awful past.
Next year, two expansion teams (California's Bay Area and Utah) will be joining the league. Finding the right people and processes to welcome them now must be top of Jessica Berman’s mind, so that delayed schedule releases can finally become a thing of the past.