The National Women's Soccer League's Board of Governors just met with commissioner Jessica Berman over a two-day meeting, and she met with media on Thursday to further discuss several key points over the course of the meetings, and that included league expansion in 2024, future partnerships, the possible introduction of VAR, broadcast improvements and more.
"The last two days were really inspiring and infused a level of excitement into -- not just the league office -- but all of our teams, and really gave me a lot of confidence in our future. Everything that we've been talking about really got very real over the last two days and, I think what we learned is that everything that we've been working on in my very short period of time is being supported and that we're all rowing in the same direction. It's very exciting to see and excited to see where this all leads."
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Here are some main takeaways from Thursday's call:
Vetting for expansion in 2024
The possibility of expanding the league in 2024 becomes more concrete with each passing month it seems, from interests to potential new investor groups, to former franchises eager to rejoin NWSL. Excitement to enter the league has never been higher. An ownership group composed of former USWNT and professional league players Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborn, Danielle Slaton, and Aly Wagner have ambitions to bring a third team to California.
Meanwhile, new Real Salt Lake owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith had the option to bring the Utah Royals franchise back to life as early as 2023 when they purchased Utah Soccer Holdings, though the league has now confirmed there will be no expansion ahead of 2024. There have been reports of interest from more than a dozen markets for expansion into NWSL.
The league announced it will be working with sports, media, and entertainment investment firm Inner Circle Sports to represent and advise the league on expansion with an intent to expand to 14 teams in 2024. While the league has dealt with franchises relocating or folding in the past, any vetting of new teams would likely include scenarios to absorb a current franchise and relaunch a new team. This was the case with the Kansas City Current franchise who stepped into the midnight hour during the former Utah Royals expedition from the league in 2020.
Vetting markets and their facilities are a top priority for the league, as current teams still navigate scheduling times for practices, with shared facilities an unfortunate commonplace among multiple leagues utilizing them.
"Facilities will be on the list of among the highest priority as it relates to investors and the requirements that we put forward in our considerations for what makes the right type of expansion team," said Berman.
"We know in particular in NWSL how important that is, particularly in light of some of the sharing facilities that we have and the lack of control we have as it relates to scheduling. [I] think to the earlier question about what are the challenges with making a schedule, not having control over our facilities is a real major problem for us and creates obstacles in our planning process that we're working proactively to address. So, that will be high on the priority list, among others as we think about what makes the best expansion market."
The league will also take a close look at state laws and policies in how they will directly impact players in regard to body autonomy should certain markets not uphold the league's values.
"We have to look at that not just from an expansion perspective, but really, even our current landscape. It's one of the things that we're actually currently analyzing, which is looking even at our current markets to see where we have some differentiation between our values and what we stand behind, relative to where we have teams located currently, what are the solutions we can put in place that we feel comfortable we can commit to and execute on."
The league will implement broadcast improvements as soon as August 2022 by investing in resources to upgrade cameras, infrastructure and add staff to improve overall production.
"Even though the plan is currently in the air, and the season is underway, at the time that I joined the league, it is one of the areas that we felt immediate response was appropriate. So, we are moving forward with broadcast production enhancements for this season and the area that we felt was most important and efficient from an investment perspective, is to improve the quality of the cameras that are being used for our [Paramount+] production," said Berman.
"The broadcast has increased in viewership by 24% year over year. We have a lot of our fans who are watching on [Paramount+], and we want to make sure that the quality of the picture is appropriate. And that's where we're investing for the second half of the season. You'll be able to see those changes effective for the month of August through the end of the season."
The possibility of introducing VAR in 2023
The investment in more cameras for the league broadcasts could mean a pathway to introduce VAR into the league as early as 2023. The addition of more cameras for production would be the first step in gaging current infrastructure across NWSL to implement in-game technologies for future matches.
"As we look ahead to next season, particularly with the introduction of VAR, one of the things that we're looking at is to add cameras, and so not prepared to commit to how many or exactly what that looks like, but in order to implement VAR and to continue to enhance our broadcast production. We are looking at evaluating all of the costs associated with adding more cameras for all of our production."
Investment in officiating and the implementation of in-game technologies are two separate areas the league is looking at, but Berman believes that the two can be connected as the league continues to try and find solutions.
"We are still doing a lot of due diligence and homework on the implementation process as well as the investment. What we wanted to do with the release and the announcement that we sent out is really to begin to be responsive to what we know has been a historical challenge for us at the league. Based on the data and everything that I've learned over the last two and a half months, it's clear that instituting and implementing VAR is probably the single most important thing that we could do to improve the consistency and the quality of the officiating."
The NWSL is currently at the midway point of it's 22-game season as all 12 clubs continue to push through the month of July while several players are off competing in the Concacaf W Championship, the Euros, Copa America Feminina, and The Women's Africa Cup of Nations.
The regular season ends on October 2, and playoffs will begin on October 16 through the 23rd, concluding with the Championship final on October 29. A location for the final will be announced in the near future.
As always, you can catch NWSL action live on Paramount+.