Don’t call it a comeback, but women’s soccer is coming back after being unable to start their 2020 season due to the coronavirus and I am screaming from the rooftops with unabashed joy. According to a report from The Athletic, the National Women’s Soccer League is poised to be the first American professional league to return to live games with the Challenge Cup, a months-long tournament, beginning June 27th. The NWSL will make a glorious return, in a controlled environment without fans, ending with a championship match that will also be broadcast nationally on CBS, a general win for the league.
In an abundance of good news, the NWSL Player’s Association was able to negotiate full pay for all NWSL players, including full health coverage for the remainder of 2020, regardless of whether they play a season or not. Players will be guaranteed their pre-pandemic pay, health benefits, and accommodations for parents including childcare and specific health safety plans, even if the team member chooses not to participate in the tournament.
Yael Averbuch, a soccer player and co-executive director of the Player’s Association, emphasized the importance of contract protection before being able to stage any sort of tournament, in an interview with The Athletic. “For players to feel comfortable leaving home for a couple of months to do a tournament, they needed to know that when they return to their home markets that they would still be taken care of,” she told Meg Linehan, “There’s just so many unknowns, so to secure some knowns for the players was really helpful.”
While there certainly are unknowns, the safe return of a soccer league is completely possible, as soccer fans have seen in Germany. Bundesliga and Frauen-Bundesliga, men and women’s leagues in Germany, both returned in early May to empty stadiums and with social distancing rules in place for players and coaching staff. Thus far the return has been a success.
But success on that level requires thorough planning, a set of parameters that the US and the NWSL have yet to provide. The league has not released a tournament schedule or a contingency plan for what will happen if covid-19 regulations change in Utah, where the tournament will be held. This is par for the course: Every season the league infamously takes an unreasonably long amount of time to release a schedule to the ire of fans. But this time around, unclear planning will be a burden largely to the players, as they have the power to decide whether they want to participate or not and measure the effects of that decision against the remainder of their careers.“This is a work in progress,” Averbuch reiterated, “We need to make sure that our players feel like they are being taken care of and being listened to and answered when there’s something of concern.”
It is likely that due to health concerns, some players will opt out of the tournament. It’s even been suggested that famous players, those who’ve secured endorsement contracts, might choose not to participate since having their face plastered on a Nike ad provides more job safety than a tournament–creating a situation where only the most economically vulnerable players may feel obligated to play under questionable conditions.
Yes, it is amazing that women’s soccer is returning and even more amazing that they are returning to guaranteed contracts. But the reality is the women’s team is still getting an unfair deal: They will play in unknown circumstances for a pre-pandemic salary that was already a paltry amount compared to what players in Major League Soccer are making. (And you would think with sponsors like Secret and P&G, it shouldn’t be impossible to scrounge up some hazard pay.) Either way, I will be safely and loudly rooting for SkyBlue FC, should they compete (and hopefully win) the Challenge Cup.