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Five things we learned from the NWSL Challenge Cup

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People want to watch knockout soccer.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Championship Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The NWSL Challenge Cup wrapped up on Sunday with the Houston Dash taking home the inaugural trophy thanks to a 2-0 victory over the Chicago Red Stars. It wasn’t a result anyone predicted going into the tournament (Houston was at one point +2000 to win it all), but for the first time since 2017 a new team took home a trophy in the NWSL (or the first the first time since 2014 if you consider the NC Courage and WNY Flash to be one continuous club.)

The tournament was a great success – the bubble remained intact, TV ratings were outstanding, and the league even announced further expansion and growth plans during the event. Houston and Sky Blue FC both showed big improvement after poor seasons last year, and after the Courage were shockingly knocked out in the quarterfinals there was no clear favorite and every team had a legitimate argument for why they might win it all. Here are my top five takeaways from the event.

1. It is possible to stage a tournament safely in a pandemic

The NWSL being the first team sport to return to play in the United States was both an exciting proposition and a harrowing one. No one was completely sure how the event would turn out, how the safety protocols would work, how remote media would connect with teams to do the usual press conferences and postgame interviews, and how ready the nation was to watch sports again.

The league wrote up myriad protocols and policies to ensure the safety of the event, and thankfully many of them never had to be dusted off once filed since the entire tournament finished safety and with zero positive coronavirus tests or breaches within the bubble. There were several unfortunate injuries, but nothing beyond what would be expected proportionally relative to a full season of play. Media coverage was ultimately enhanced, because a more diverse and global array of reporters was able to join press conferences and ask questions not just of the team they typically cover, but of every team at the tournament.

2. One month of isolation is about all that players can safely handle

We talked about this after the final group stage game, when Bethany Balcer exited the match against Portland late in the first half due to what she later revealed was a panic attack. Players around the league have spoken similarly about the stress and anxiety of living in the tournament bubble, isolated from family and friends, the comforts of home, and even the luxury of just leaving the hotel to take a walk or get an espresso. Julie Ertz revealed after the final that there was a mental health professional and therapy services on site, and this was the first time she felt the need to use them in a tournament environment. Other players at each club shared similar feelings, and on their social media you could see the absolute joy of each and every one when they returned home to see family and pets, and even just in getting a favorite dish from a local restaurant or going for a walk to the park.

There’s been some discussion about potentially staging another tournament later this fall if conditions and logistics allow, but it seems clear that if there are to be more games this year they will need to be in home markets or with significantly more provisions for player welfare. It does no good to keep your athletes safe from coronavirus if they’re mentally unable to give their best. I’m sure that the NWSL will be closely watching how the WNBA, NBA and NHL bubbles work over the next few months to see what those leagues have learned from the NWSL’s experience, since each of them will be isolated for far longer.

3. If you air it, they will watch

We already saw the tournament opener attract 572,000 viewers on CBS, which easily shattered the prior all-time broadcast viewership record for the NWSL, but the Challenge Cup final set a new bar. 653,000 viewers tuned in to the final on CBS, plus many more streaming on CBS All Access and Twitch. To put that into context, the only soccer game to outdraw that number all week was Manchester United vs. Leicester City on NBC on Sunday morning, which reached 750k viewers.

This was with next-to-no coverage by major sports media outlets, limited advertising and cross-promotion beyond social media, and most of the tournament airing behind a streaming paywall. Imagine what the number might have been if even the semifinals were also broadcast on CBS, if the game was in a prime time slot, or if there was more than a cursory 5-minute pre- and post-game show on the same channel as the match itself.

Even with those impediments, it’s hard to argue that the Challenge Cup was anything but a big success for CBS, and it’s clear that it still has significant room to grow if given the level of investment, time and media attention it deserves. It also raises questions about what numbers the league could have reached years ago, had Lifetime, Fox Sports, ESPN or Yahoo put more investment into the product when they had the broadcast rights.

4. We need more tournaments for women

There’s nothing quite like the excitement of a do-or-die game. Sure, they’re often cagey, careful, tactical affairs where neither team wants to take risks in attack that might lead to a counter-attacking goal against, but seeing how teams adapt is part of the thrill. You often hear coaches and commentators talk about how experience playing in knockout games is a huge benefit to certain teams or players, but with only three NWSL playoff games each year and a limited number of international stars getting to participate in tournaments like the World Cup or Euros, that experience is hard to come by.

I wouldn’t advocate for trying to replicate this exact format in future years, but creating some form of cup competition to mirror what exists in Europe and on the men’s side in the United States would be an attractive proposition. There is (or was) an approximate equivalent of the US Open Cup on the women’s side, but it’s only open to amateur and semi-pro teams and gets minimal interest and participation due to the expenses involved for teams that are already operating on a shoestring budget. Adding NWSL teams to that tournament and getting formal sanctioning from USSF as an Open Cup could boost its cachet and attract sponsors to underwrite it, which would in turn enable more lower-division teams to compete.

Alternately, with the Australian W-League season no longer aligning with the NWSL off-season and new allowances within the NWSL roster rules for year-round housing, there are opportunities to stage a tournament in the winter in non-snowy climates. Even if some players are away on loan or transfer to other clubs before the tournament starts, additional games present an opportunity for depth players to get minutes and show what they can do. A tournament like this could even turn into a Concacaf Champions League by adding Liga MX Femenil teams.

5. Stars old and new shone brightly

With several US National Team players absent, other stars sidelined by injuries, and a short turnaround between games, roster rotation was a major factor in the tournament. Several young players made a name for themselves in the past month, including the Portland Thorns backup goalkeeping duo of Bella Bixby and Britt Eckerstrom, Washington Spirit forward Ashley Sanchez, and Sky Blue FC midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe.

Even some veteran players saw their stock rise dramatically in this tournament. Shea Groom was the championship game MVP and scored three goals for Houston in the tournament after nearly quitting the sport at a low point two years ago. Casey Short reminded us why she should be in contention for the US Women’s National Team with a solid defensive performance and goal for Chicago, and OL Reign’s Steph Cox was a maestro with her service, creating 8 chances to lead the team and barely putting a foot wrong on defense during her four appearances.

Bonus: NWSL players know how to party