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Reflecting on 2020, future looks bright for NWSL

The league raised its profile in a year that was otherwise unkind.

Sarah Gorden
The Red Stars’ Sarah Gorden (left) made a splash with her community work in 2020.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Despite innumerable challenges this year, the National Women’s Soccer League saw positive change. Viewership skyrocketed, the NWSL led all professional sports leagues in social media engagement during games held during the pandemic, and the league welcomed an expansion team, Racing Louisville FC, into the fold.

For fans, league leaders and players, 2020 was a turning point.

“To be completely honest, if we didn’t have a season, I’m not sure if our league would still be here,” Red Stars midfielder Danielle Colaprico said. “Kudos to the NWSL for figuring everything out and giving us the opportunity to play this year.”

The month-long Challenge Cup tournament, which included eight of the NWSL’s nine teams, was held near Salt Lake City, starting with a record-setting television audience and ending with even higher totals. The opener between the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage averaged 572,000 viewers, while the final between the Red Stars and the Houston Dash averaged 653,000. To compare, last year’s final between the Red Stars and the Courage averaged 166,000 viewers. In total, the NWSL saw a 493% increase in viewership in 2020.

The Challenge Cup, which resulted in zero positive coronavirus tests, was so successful the NWSL is embracing a new competition framework for 2021 that will include another Challenge Cup — held in multiple bubble environments — to start the season in mid-April. Players are scheduled to report to camp Feb. 1.

“The NWSL, our teams and our players did whatever it took to put a safe, professional, exciting and entertaining product on the pitch,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird told the Sun-Times via email. “More people around the world were watching than at any point in our relatively short history. Bet. On. Women.”

Baird’s first year as commissioner was a baptism by fire. She was named to the role in the final week of February, and within days she had to decide to postpone training camp and the season because of the coronavirus. By the end of the year, thanks to some creative adjustments, NWSL teams still enjoyed two competition opportunities: the Challenge Cup and the Fall Series.

And the league itself grew. Racing Louisville FC, which will begin play in 2021, was the first addition in what’s expected to be an ongoing expansion. Angel City FC will join the NWSL in 2022, with an expansion team in Sacramento also reportedly on the horizon.

Meanwhile, and perhaps more significant, NWSL players set an example in 2020 with their activism against racism, police brutality and inequality in America, making public statements and continually challenging the league and individual teams to avoid performative activism. Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden raised the bar for community involvement with the launch of her non-profit organization, Hoodspace, which seeks to empower girls of color through yoga, meditation and sports. The NWSL as a whole established the Fall Series Community Shield, in which the top three teams in the series gave a total of $50,000 in grant-based awards to their chosen community partners.

In a year when the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB experienced a negative trend in viewership, the NWSL showed that women’s sports will capitalize if a platform is provided.

“[This] was obviously an incredibly difficult year for everyone and was heartbreaking for so many,” Baird said. “But there were glimmers of hope, and the NWSL was certainly one of them. The thing I’m most proud of professionally is the resilience that our league has shown.”