Building a better finale: How the NWSL can salvage its title game

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 edition revealed some of the NWSL championship format's flaws, and those of the league itself. And there are no easy solutions.

​ORLANDO, Fla. – The real winners of the 2017 National Women’s Soccer League Championship were the supporters groups which made their way to Orlando City Stadium.

The North Carolina Courage’s Oak City Supporters drove down from the Raleigh, North Carolina, area, stopping in Jacksonville the night before to support their men’s team in a late-season NASL clash. Approximately 150 of the Portland Thorns’ Rose City Riveters flew across the country to see their team lift the title. Each group was positioned in the north end’s safe-standing area, with a section to separate them. They provided an energy – sometimes contentious – that the chippy, choppy final desperately needed.  

If not for them, the game would have been even more muted.

An announced crowd of 8,124 fans was the smallest in three years in this format, which sees higher seeds host semifinals before a final at a predetermined site. The format seemed to be a boon when it was introduced in 2015, with 13,264 fans showing up in Portland a year after only 4,252 turned out for Seattle’s home final, a sellout at the tiny Starfire Soccer Stadium.

The 2017 championship crowd was disappointing in numbers, appearance and energy, and it’s easy to be enviable of what the atmosphere would have been like in either Portland, where the Thorns average nearly 18,000 fans per game, or North Carolina, which sold out its semifinal at 10,007 fans.

It should have the league thinking about what is best moving forward. NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy said before the final that 2018 championship format has not yet been set. The frustrating answer, as with many things in a league still growing out of its infancy, is that there is no clear answer.

“It’s something that’s a conversation point,” Duffy said. “And as our teams are continuing to develop, and the stadiums that we have in the league are continuing to be more along the lines of an Orlando City Stadium – you look at this year, you have Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Park, that would be another venue that would be a great setting for a championship, and others in the league that would provide the right environment and all the right resources for the teams and for this to be a great environment.

“So as our stadium resources grow and the development of our teams and the human resources grow, it’s going to be something that we continue to look at and evaluate what the best solution is for our championship event that makes it a great event for everyone.”

Planning vs. home crowds: Weighing the logistics

The failure of the last two finals to generate any real buzz isn’t entirely an indictment of the format. In Houston in 2016, in particular, there was a lack of any significant marketing or awareness that the match was taking place. And while that visibility ostensibly improved in 2017, primarily through the backing of the Lifetime TV deal to promote the match all season, the idea of a championship week as a destination event actually regressed to essentially a one-day final with some media events the day prior.

Former NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush was rightfully adamant that the league needs signature events, and that the championship needed to be one of them. He spoke of turning the league’s showcase into a true weeklong event with fan, media and sponsorship engagement. The seeds for that appeared to be planted – even if unfertilized – in Houston, with teams coming into town four days ahead of the final. A base idea was there, though the execution in generating media impressions and fan activation was lacking.

In 2017, North Carolina practiced only once in Orlando prior to the final, with the Thorns arriving a day earlier. Media availability took place the day before the Saturday final, and it largely felt like you either explicitly knew about the game or you weren’t about to organically discover it.

Those traveling supporters from each team offered a hint at what could have been for a final hosted by the home team, but there are major logistical roadblocks to a return to that format, and they serve as a microcosm of the issues the league faces in elevating standards.

A return to seeing the higher seed host the final is the natural argument against any perceived failures of the current format. But the NWSL has a growing divide of teams that either can or cannot – or, rather will or will not – push forward.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Sky Blue's Yurcak Field (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

What happens if two-time league champion FC Kansas City returns to prominence and positions itself to host a final? The team’s venue holds 3,500 fans and appears on camera as the featured field at a large youth soccer complex … which is, more or less, what it is.

What if Sky Blue FC were to fix its issues, and its world-class talent propelled the team into the playoffs or even a No. 1 seed? What sort of image would be presented by having a final at the utilitarian Yurcak Field in Piscataway, New Jersey?

And, thinking long-term, what happens if the Boston Breakers dig out of the basement and finally host an NWSL playoff game? Jordan Field has charm, but lacks many of the necessities needed to broadcast a national-TV game and host national and international media and sponsors. Imagine hosting seven-figure corporate sponsors (again, these are the league’s goals) for the championship and asking them to sit in some pop-up chairs in the New England autumn.

TV is of great importance to the NWSL. The first season of a three-year deal with A&E to broadcast games on Lifetime is in the books, and A&E has committed significant resources to growing the league. So, yes, the broadcast qualities of game are important, but that isn’t unique to the championship.

“It’s a tough question,” Thorns owner Merritt Paulson mused after his team’s triumph. “[The current format puts] a stake in the ground for media, so you guys know where you need to be and it gets better covered. I thought it was a great venue and I thought it was still, they did a decent job. But, if it was in North Carolina, it would have been sold out. If it was in Portland, it would have been sold out.

“To host, it has to be up to broadcast standards, and we still have a couple of buildings that aren’t. Hopefully that will change, but that would be the way I’d frame it. The No. 1 seed hosts assuming their facility is up to broadcast standards, and then it would default. That would be one way, but again, that’s tough.”

NEXT: NWSL's uneven venue list and possible alternative formats