Leagues like MLB, NBA should be looking at the bubble blueprint set by the NWSL

The American sports world now has a blueprint for running a successful bubble tournament during a pandemic.

The National Women’s Soccer League wrapped up its monthlong Challenge Cup tournament Sunday and officially became the first U.S. professional team sports league to complete an event amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Houston Dash, a team that had never made the playoffs under normal circumstances, became the surprise victors in an unpredictable one-off tournament staged in Utah. But the real winner was the NWSL for doing what no other league had done in the U.S., and coming away looking like a much stronger league.

It wasn’t perfect. An entire team dropped out of the tournament because so many players tested positive for COVID-19, and there were early hiccups in providing media access. But any snafus were quickly dealt with.

Over the course of the Challenge Cup, the NWSL earned record ratings for its new broadcast partners, attracted new sponsors and even announced a new Los Angeles expansion team backed by Natalie Portman.

Rachel Daly holds up the NWSL Challenge Cup trophy with her teammates.
Houston Dash's Rachel Daly hoists the NWSL Challenge Cup trophy surrounded by her teammates after defeating the Chicago Red Stars to win the championship game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, on Sunday. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Here are the key takeaways from a successful NWSL Challenge Cup:

Test early and test often, but leave quarantine time

The Orlando Pride — a team based in Florida, the new epicenter of COVID-19 — was about 72 hours from boarding a charter flight to enter the NWSL bubble when it became clear the team couldn’t go anywhere.

Six Orlando Pride players and four staffers had tested positive for COVID-19, and the team had to withdraw from the tournament.

The reason wasn’t just because of the positive tests — it was because the timing of the tournament left no margin for error.

The Pride were scheduled to play a game within four days of arriving in Utah, and they’d play their second game four days after that. Meanwhile, the incubation period of the virus — the lag between contracting it and testing positive — is believed to be as long as two weeks.

If the infections from the Pride players took longer to incubate, they could’ve already been inside the bubble when they first learned they had COVID-19. Or even worse, they could’ve already played their first game.

If leagues don’t quarantine players upon arrival, they risk COVID-19 spreading throughout entire teams. The worst-case scenario is the coronavirus could spread to other teams due to asymptomatic infections during the incubation period.

Don’t mistake the NWSL’s luck for air-tight protocols. But with a lot of testing, the NWSL helped its chances of catching the Pride’s outbreak ahead of time.

Player responsibility (or lack thereof) is the deciding factor

It’s not hard to believe of all the teams in the NWSL, the Pride ended up with so many positive tests.

Florida added new daily coronavirus cases at a record-breaking pace after Gov. Ron DeSantis chose to re-open his state earlier than many other governors without a mask mandate.

But even so, the outbreak with the Pride came down to individual choice. The players in Orlando had the option to visit bars, clubs and restaurants because Florida had reopened those establishments, and some of them took it.

That’s the reality every sports league has to face: Players may be allowed to take more risks than the leagues want, and it’s up to the players to make good decisions.

Before MLS started its tournament, D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid complained: “We aren’t children who need supervision.” But it seems like maybe the players do need as much supervision as leagues can muster.

The NBA bubble is still new, and already players have been caught making dumb mistakes. One player is being investigated for allegedly leaving the bubble to visit a strip club. One player forgot to get his scheduled COVID-19 test. Another player left the bubble to get a food delivery.

The Pride debacle should serve as a warning: If players have the opportunity to make mistakes, at least some of them will, and the leagues need protocols to deal with it.

Sky Blue FC's Sarah Killion kicks a penalty against Washington Spirit's Aubrey Bledsoe with the mountains and green landscape in the background.
Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, was remote enough to create a bubble for the NWSL Challenge Cup. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The more remote the location, the better

While the cities of Herriman and Sandy in Utah are not exactly remote, they are tucked away enough to offer some advantages for the NWSL.

First, there was probably far less temptation to wander off campus. At the Challenge Cup, there was no Disney World and no range of nightlife activities nearby.

Second, the cities hosting the NWSL tournament were away from dense hotspots, meaning the NWSL avoided some of the questions dogging the NBA, WNBA and MLS now.

It’s not easy to quantify whether sports leagues are siphoning COVID-19 testing capacity from average residents. The answer is yes, sports are taking away resources that could be used elsewhere to some extent, but it’s complicated to say how much or what impact it has for those who really need the tests.

That concern is most pressing in Florida, where the NBA, WNBA and MLS are all hosting bubble tournaments that use up thousands of COVID-19 tests every couple days.

Residents in Florida have had to wait as long as two weeks to get their COVID-19 test results — potentially infecting others in the meantime if they don’t self-isolate. But the athletes in their bubbles get their tests back within hours, a necessity to continually clear players for games.

The NBA, WNBA and MLS all promise they are not taking away testing capacity from Florida residents. But until every person in Florida can get their test results as quickly as the NBA, those questions won’t go away. And with someone dying from COVID-19 nearly every 12 minutes in Florida, they are important questions, too.

By being in Utah, which is much less densely populated than Florida — and thus less likely to become a COVID-19 hotspot — the NWSL was shielded from similar scrutiny and criticism.

Be prepared to capitalize

The NWSL didn’t enter 2020 on the strongest of footing. In fact, the league seemed to be in its worst shape since it launched in 2013 with no commissioner, no broadcast partners, few notable sponsorships and several failed attempts at expansion.

But the trajectory of the NWSL changed rapidly, and a big reason is the roaring success of the Challenge Cup.

NWSL owners set up the league for success by hiring commissioner Lisa Baird. Within days on the job in March, she was forced to suspend the season and figure out an alternative.

Then, with a unique one-off tournament lined up, Baird had a chance to entice new sponsors for a trial run in hopes of developing longer-term relationships. Verizon (Verizon Media and Yahoo Sports’ parent company), P&G and Secret all came on board as the title sponsors for the event, and while it’s unclear if they will stick around, the NWSL posted strong social metrics over the course of the event.

The NWSL announced a broadcast deal with CBS and Twitch in March, but by being the first U.S. team sports league back, the NWSL was perhaps a bit unexpectedly able to deliver record ratings for CBS. The NWSL drew 572,000 viewers for the opening game of the tournament, shattering the league’s previous high of 190,000 viewers in 2014.

CBS put most of its games on CBS All Access, and although the network has declined to state how many subscribers signed up to watch the NWSL, the network has spoken positively about the response.

According to a report from Sports Business International, CBS is paying $4.5 million for the NWSL’s broadcast rights while Twitch is paying $3.75 million over three seasons. Just a few years ago, NWSL owners had to pay around $40,000 each to put their games on the now-defunct Fox Soccer Channel, and now they are earning revenue in rights deals with major networks. Good ratings from the Challenge Cup just might ensure that continues.

Last week’s announcement of a new expansion team nicknamed Angel City Football Club was surely a long time coming, but it’s hard to discount the effect the Challenge Cup may have had in getting it over the line.

That the NWSL was even able to put together the tournament so quickly probably showed the L.A. ownership group how far the NWSL has come — such a heavy lift would’ve been unthinkable a year ago. Last year, multiple sources repeatedly told Yahoo Sports that an ownership group in Sacramento, California, was ready to sign on but they never did, with lingering concerns about the financial future of the NWSL playing at least a part.

Now, the wind is firmly at the NWSL’s back with the Challenge Cup giving the league the most momentum it’s had since perhaps its launch in 2013.

Fans are shown on a big screen behind the net at Zions Bank Stadium.
Fans participate in the Secret Watch Party during a quarterfinal match of the Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium on July 17, 2020. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

From Zoom to Twitch: be smart about technology

The Challenge Cup was exclusively a made-for-TV event, leaving most reporters to cover the tournament remotely.

The usual in-person training visits, postgame news conferences and mixed zones had to be exchanged for Zoom, Slack and Twitch. But as anyone who’s had to switch from working in an office to working at home knows, technology can have a bit of a learning curve. After some initial hiccups, the processes were refined.

What may have been missing most from the tournament, however, was a fan presence, even remotely.

The NWSL did have fans join watch parties via Google Meet that were shown in the stadium on the big screen. But what differentiates the NWSL from a lot of American sports leagues is its clever fans who banter back and forth.

While it may not have been feasible to have physical displays known as tifos in the stadium, the NWSL could’ve been more creative in allowing fans to add to the atmosphere and share their creativity.

Baird says the NWSL is looking for a way to return to action again in 2020, although nothing is confirmed. If that happens, the fans will surely be ready to contribute.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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