Analysis

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

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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The big-picture reality of these issues

There’s an argument that the top seed hosting the final leaves the league too susceptible to a more problematic stadium. That is inherently flawed.

Lifetime broadcasts the semifinals on national television, and there is no controlling which teams qualify to host those. If the Breakers have a strong 2018 and finish second, they are hosting a semifinal. It’s the same type of logistical nightmare that’s used in the argument against the higher-seed-hosted final, just occurring one week sooner.

Once you wrap your head around that, the root of the discussion is really a conversation about league standards. If the NWSL wants to grow to have a larger national footprint, major sponsors and a larger TV audience, it first must ask all of its teams to be in positions to support those things.

Contingency plans would be needed in the event that one of the teams with a less suitable stadium qualifies to host a playoff game, but the necessity for contingency plans is the very thing the league is trying to grow out of.

Perhaps Sky Blue could play a postseason match at Red Bull Arena, or FC Kansas City could switch the game to Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park (the latter potentially becoming far more realistic if Sporting purchases FCKC, which, as FourFourTwo's Richard Farley reports, is a possibility). Boston? Solutions there are particularly tricky in the fall, with college stadiums as the only options. Seattle? Memorial Stadium would have to do, for now, but that might not be around much longer for anyone.

So does the league play hardball and create a clause which allows for hosting rights to be revoked if a suitable venue isn’t identified by a certain point in the season? As Paulson suggests, that’s difficult. The complications to and likelihood of that make it very unrealistic.

Jane Gershovich-ISI Photos

Seattle's Memorial Stadium (Jane Gershovich-ISI Photos)

There is indeed a fan and media element to this. The predetermined site allows for committed fans to make plans for the final ahead of time, regardless of whether the team they support advances there. Four known Riveters in the crowd Saturday have been to all five NWSL finals, something the predetermined site allows them to figure out logistically. This year, they watched their team lift the trophy. Last year, they went to Houston, anyway, after Portland’s heartbreaking semifinal loss to the then-Western New York Flash.

Media planning is also much easier with a destination set far in advance, though that also requires the plans for the days before the game to be set in advance, as well. That hasn’t always been the case.

“I think a lot of media have complained that it’s easier to know when the game is going to be,” Paulson said. “And we don’t have an all-star game in the NWSL, so this is sort of the stake-in-the-ground event, and I get why the league has done it. And I’m one of the people who votes on that.”

A bigger question: What’s the greatest common denominator? Which factor is more important? Should the league aim to have a set venue in advance, knowing there is only a 10 percent chance the home team makes the final? Or does it aim to reward the regular-season’s better team with a home final (theoretically adding actual value to the Shield), even if that means more of a strain on resources?

These are the questions being asked at a board level, and there are no obvious answers. They aren’t questions likely to go away either; every professional sports league deals with this.

Ideas to appease everyone

One solution that should be discussed more is scrapping the playoffs entirely. The postseason, as it stands, has little purpose. It is not long enough to be given the credibility a championship should demand. Four of 10 teams make a two-week, three-game tournament, and the winner is called champion. Sorry if that isn’t you, team that just finished first in a 24-match, six-month season.

When Seattle Reign FC coach Laura Harvey and midfielder Jess Fishlock, among others, expressed in past years that it took them a while to wrap their head around the idea of a playoff system, it was largely dismissed as the usual gulf between European traditions and American ideals, a two-decade struggle to which Major League Soccer can relate.

But as the issue of the playoff format continues, more serious consideration should be given to the concept of the league champion being the best team over the course of an entire season.

Forget the playoffs.

The entire idea of the championship being a signature event is based on the corporate monetization of the event, which, to the best anyone can tell, hasn’t happened. The college draft has quickly grown into its own and runs in conjunction with the United Soccer Coaches’ annual January convention, where anybody who is anybody gathers in one city for a week. That’s ideal: The people NWSL wants to attract are already there. They don’t need to be convinced to come.

“As we continue to evaluate our championship format, we’re going to take all of that into consideration to make sure we’re providing the best event – the best event for our players, our owners, our fans and media each year,” Duffy said.

And if the motives are solely commercial, then why isn’t there an all-star game? A little-known fact is that women’s soccer actually led the way on this now-popular pick ‘em format used by the NHL, used starting this year by the NBA and previously used by the NFL. Women’s Professional Soccer implemented it at its 2010 All-Star Game, when Abby Wambach’s XI faced Marta’s XI in suburban Atlanta.

Women’s soccer has grown significantly in the years since, and the nature of all-star events allow for more creative attention-grabs than the more serious nature of a final. Host a pick ‘em, play U.S. vs. the world, or have the NWSL all-stars host a powerhouse European club.

That plus the draft give the league signature corporate and media activation points. The league could then run on a traditional European model, with the champion being the side that accumulates the most points over the course of the season.

The predetermined final has its flaws; the higher-seed hosting has its flaws. Every system will have drawbacks. Realizing that reality and optimizing the format is the NWSL’s challenge.

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