Lack of respect for NWSL is merely confirmation
When does first place mean almost nothing in sports?
If you’ve followed mainstream media coverage of the NWSL and the Challenge Cup, then you know the answer. When the eight-team, 23-game tournament started on June 27 in Herriman, Utah, the NWSL became the nation’s first pro team sport back in action and the first into a bubble.
But in recent weeks, sports reporting has focused on return-to-play scenarios and start dates for men’s pro leagues. On June 15, ESPN produced a “SportsCenter” special titled “The Return of Sports” that featured commissioners from the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS and WNBA. Noticeably and inexcusably missing from the guest list? NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird. After grassroots social media efforts called out the glaring omission, North Carolina Courage star Crystal Dunn was a late add to the program. A couple of weeks later, during an interview for Sports Business Journal’s “The Road Ahead” series, Baird joked that ESPN producers “now know where to find me.”
Over on CBSSports.com, the NWSL made the menu bar. But after the Challenge Cup opener, you couldn’t find any NWSL stories on the home page. That precious real estate went to updates about the revamped NBA and MLB schedules, NHL draft lottery, NASCAR, PGA Tour and college sports.
You could argue that the difficulties faced by other pro leagues made them more interesting case studies to cover. But that’s an embarrassingly weak argument. The subtext is so obvious it’s not even subtext: The NWSL doesn’t really count. It’s disappointing and frustrating, but not surprising that prejudice against women’s sports carried over into the pandemic. The lack of wider respect and recognition for the NWSL doesn’t reveal anything. It simply confirms what’s always been known.
When asked if the NWSL thought it would enjoy some kind of first-mover advantage as the first U.S. pro league back, Baird said, “Thank you for saying that.” Translation: Thank you for noticing and acknowledging it out loud. But it wasn’t her goal to be first. Baird described the quick switch from a six-month regular season to a one-month, Olympics-inspired tournament as a pragmatic decision that prioritized the health and safety of players.
“What I was thinking about was the whole solution,” said Baird. “It was more my looking at the spread in the incidents of COVID, and not that I knew anything about the future, but saying, ‘You know what? Let’s get back in, let’s do this soon. We want to be out there with soccer and I don’t know what the future in the fall holds.’”
Still, the NWSL clearly gained some benefit from being first. The Challenge Cup opener, in which the North Carolina Courage defeated the Portland Thorns, 2-1, was the most-watched game in league history, averaging 572,000 viewers on CBS. That’s 201% more than the previous record. (It was also the most-watched soccer match on U.S. television for the final week of June, finishing ahead of an English Premier League game between Manchester City and Chelsea on NBCSN.) In the days before the tournament started, the league added Google as a national sponsor and Sky Blue FC announced a new merchandise sales record. (The club had more than $30,000 in sales on June 25, nearly doubling its previous single-day mark.)
Tune into matches (which are being streamed on CBS All Access; the final will also be on CBS) and you see impressive, entertaining soccer. Sometimes the limited camera angles and sun glare during the late games leave the viewing experience lacking a certain professional quality, but it’s hard to complain for long with seeing Dunn, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Christine Sinclair and other top players in action. A diving header by Portland Thorns star Horan on July 5 was a highlight-worthy goal and made for perfect postgame show content.
All of the above — the temporary place on the menu bar; the viewership record; national sponsors signed during a pandemic — qualify as progress. But it’s the bare minimum that should be expected for the first U.S. pro team sport to return.
The NWSL deserves more from its broadcast partner and mainstream sports media. This is a familiar charge when it comes to women’s sports, but the numbers and the context surrounding the Challenge Cup demand revisiting it. The NWSL and the Challenge Cup are imminently news and coverage-worthy. If outlets can’t understand that, it’s not a failure of imagination. It approaches journalistic malpractice.
The NWSL shouldn’t have to wait until the Challenge Cup final for another live, national broadcast on CBS. The quarterfinals take place this Friday and Saturday. Why can’t some of those games get on the national broadcast schedule? Or, let’s rephrase that: Do you really need back-to-back episodes of “48 Hours” on Saturday night?
As is almost always true with the attention paid to women’s sports, change is a matter of choice. There’s no good reason NWSL stories can’t be placed more prominently on home pages. No good reason mainstream sports media outlets can’t publish pieces about NWSL players testing positive for COVID-19 or kneeling for the national anthem, as well as game stories and features. It’s not too late to make better choices about tournament coverage. Check out the tremendous work done by EqualizerSoccer.com to see the potential and possibilities.
Here’s something else to consider: If the next couple of weeks continue as scheduled, the NWSL will be the first pro team league to crown a champion, cautiously leading the way into a U.S. sports bubble and successfully coming out the other side. Coverage should recognize that accomplishment and all it took to get there.
Shira Springer (email@example.com) covers sports and society for NPR and WBUR, writes a column for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.