The National Women’s Soccer League on Wednesday laid out an formidable, and probably dangerous, plan to return to the sector late subsequent month for its first video games of a season that was supposed to start out in April however ended up stalled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the schedule that league officers outlined Wednesday morning, the 9 N.W.S.L. groups would collect in Utah in late June and full their total season as a 25-game match over 30 days.
The proposed occasion, to be known as the N.W.S.L. Challenge Cup, will likely be an Olympic-style match with a group-play stage after which an eight-team knockout match. The video games — the primary is ready for June 27 — would be the league’s first competitors since last October’s championship game, and will succeed only through a mix of careful planning, extensive virus testing, strict health protocols and no small amount of good fortune.
And all of it depends on the players’ willingness to participate, the absence of new outbreaks and hundreds of tests before and after the games arrive in Utah.
“Each player will have her own decision to make,” Lisa Baird, the N.W.S.L.’s new commissioner, said on a conference call. “We will not require anybody to play in the tournament.”
Whether a player decides to participate or not, she will receive her full salary as well as her medical and housing benefits for the 2020 season, Yael Averbuch, the executive director of the N.W.S.L. Players Association, said in a telephone interview.
All of the matches will be played in the Salt Lake City suburbs of Herriman and Sandy, the home of one of the league’s teams, Utah Royals F.C.
Under the format the N.W.S.L. has proposed, each team would play four games at the 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman to determine seedings for an eight-team knockout round that will follow. The semifinals and final (set for July 26) would be played at the larger Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, the home of the Royals.
No fans will be allowed to attend the games. CBS will broadcast the tournament opener and the final, and the other games will be shown live on the CBS All Access streaming platform.
Dell Loy Hansen, the Utah Royals owner, and his organization will be the de facto host. Hansen, who also owns the Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake and the two Utah stadiums, will use his team’s expansive training complex to accommodate all of the teams’ training and competition needs.
The N.W.S.L., which had considered proposals from three other potential host cities, plans to partner with two area hotels to house all nine teams and their staff members in what the league is calling the N.W.S.L. Village — a quasi-quarantine effort that aims to lessen the risk of coronavirus infection for all involved.
“We want them to stay in the environment, but we want the environment not to feel like a restriction,” Baird said.
Hansen, who also spoke on the conference call, estimated that the village setup would include about 300 players and 500 administrative staff members. Players, for the most part, will not be joined by their families, but those with children will be allowed to bring them, and any necessary caregivers.
The hotels will have spaces for leisure and recreational time, and hotel staff members will be on hand to accommodate non-soccer requests — whatever it takes, basically, to keep the players on site.
“We just kind of opened the checkbook and said, ‘Get whatever they need,’” Hansen said.
Details of the event are not final. As recently as Tuesday, league officials and the associations representing the league’s rank-and-file players and the members of the United States women’s national team were still negotiating testing and isolation protocols, best practices to avoid contracting or spreading the virus, and off-the-field guarantees for the teams and their players both during pretournament camps in their home cities and at the Utah event itself.
“Our hope is we are able to work with the league to make sure that as many players as possible feel that this is a not only a safe but exciting thing to participate in,” Averbuch said. “But there are players with unique health situations, family situations, who may decide not to participate, and that’s totally fine.”
Rosters will be finalized by June 21, which is the first day teams will be allowed to arrive in Utah. Baird said the league was working with an immigration lawyer to secure visas for its international players amid new global travel restrictions.
It is unclear how many members of the U.S. women’s national team, who represent the bulk of the league’s best players and marquee attractions, will take part. The team members remain split on playing, according to two people with knowledge of their plans, with some eager to get back on the field and others wary of the health and injury risks of a compressed season played — except for the semifinals and final — on artificial turf and during a pandemic.
Still, the league’s ability to forge a plan that would save its season when other women’s leagues have failed qualifies as a success. Under the leadership of Baird — who has acknowledged the importance of building on the momentum of the women’s World Cup victory and a strong league season in 2019 — the N.W.S.L. has managed to sign three new commercial partners: P&G and Secret, which will serve as presenting sponsors for the Challenge Cup, and Verizon, which announced a multiyear agreement with the league on Wednesday.
“Our belief is it could — could — pay for itself,” Hansen said of the tournament. “But that will be seen at the end, and there are always expenses that aren’t foreseen.”
For all of their preparation, league officials acknowledged that coronavirus infections could emerge within the tournament community within the month of competition.
During its planning process, the N.W.S.L. convened a 15-doctor task force to create testing and contact-tracing protocols to try to ensure that play could continue despite an infection inside the tournament bubble.
“The goal is not shutting down the tournament, or a team, with one positive result,” said Dr. Daryl Osbahr, a member of the task force, who said that the committee had not determined how many positive tests would shut down the tournament completely.