A little more than a month has passed since the National Women’s Soccer League found itself embroiled in a mushrooming scandal involving allegations of abuse by a number of its coaches and accusations of a league-wide failure to respond appropriately. Yet the league, now under new leadership, seems to have regained its footing, now looking to its playoffs, which kick off Sunday.
As the NWSL presses on, so to do its key sponsors, which have all remained on board, the league confirmed. Several of those deals will be up for renewal after the 2021 campaign concludes, but a key revenue stream remains intact for now, and the playoff excitement is palpable among NWSL fans and followers—a far cry from just a few weeks ago.
The immediate aftermath of the scandal was filled with enough outrage to spark concerns about the league’s future. Sponsors, which account for the league’s largest revenue stream, waited on high alert to see how the NWSL would respond before deciding what to do with their committed dollars. Fans vocalized their disappointment and dismay. Players called out league leadership and culture, some even calling for a complete overhaul of both.
“Burn it all down,” Megan Rapinoe, USWNT star and OL Reign captain, tweeted in the aftermath. “Let all their heads roll.”
Departures and dismissals ensued in the subsequent weeks—commissioner Lisa Baird, not even two years into her tenure, left first, followed by a number of top executives within several of the embroiled NWSL franchises, like those in Portland and Washington, D.C. A flurry of team sale talks and rumors of reported buyers have circulated, though none has come to fruition.
Numerous investigations were launched and player protests came complete with a list of demands of the league. Congress got involved when North Carolina Rep. Deborah Ross and 41 House members penned a public letter to the league and U.S. Soccer, calling for a thorough investigation into the allegations and steps to be taken to “address systemic harassment faced by NWSL players,” all of which unfolded amid the nine-year-old league’s continued negotiations with the NWSLPA for its first-ever collective bargaining agreement.
New leadership has helped steer the league through the storm. After a short stint with a three-person executive committee helming day-to-day operations, the NWSL hired sports executive Marla Messing as interim CEO on Oct. 18, while a permanent commissioner search continues.
Shortly thereafter, just as the 2021 regular season wrapped up, the players’ association announced that the NWSL had met all eight of the demands it issued in the aftermath of the allegations, including agreeing to a broad and “transparent” investigation to be overseen by a committee that includes a pair of NWSLPA representatives. Coaches, general managers and owners as well as leaders at the league level will all participate in the investigation, which will also examine each of the league’s 12 clubs to uncover any unreported instances of abuse. The demands also included new protocols for those involved in any ongoing investigations, and disclosure requirements.
The players’ association said the agreement was “a major step in protecting player safety moving forward, but this is just the beginning.”
Union representatives will also be part of the commissioner search process. The participating players will be given time to meet with potential candidates and contribute during selection decisions, while the NWSLPA and league work to hash out a collective bargaining agreement that can be ratified for the 2022 season next spring.
“We are pleased to have reached this agreement to collaborate with the Players Association on the investigation,” the NWSL said in a statement. “As a league, we are committed to making the systemic and cultural changes necessary to create a safe environment for our players and staff, and today’s agreement to proceed with a joint investigation is an important next step in that process.”
Enter the postseason, which itself was the subject of criticism even before the abuse scandal because of a 9 a.m. start time for the championship game in Portland, Ore., prompting some to call into question broadcast partner CBS’ commitment to the sport. The league ultimately relocated the title clash to Louisville to make for a later local start time in the same broadcast window.
Individual clubs have also started to make more positive news. Kansas City unveiled plans for the first NWSL-specific soccer stadium in the country to much acclaim. Los Angeles-based expansion club Angel City FC, set to debut in 2022, continues to sign new sponsors as it prepares for the December expansion draft alongside the new San Diego team.
The end of the season presents fresh questions: where sponsors will be after the dust has settled; whether or not a CBA is reached in time for 2022; and what the future of its newest clubs could hold. But for now, the NWSL can focus on what’s happening on the field of play.