In my last article, I discussed the varying levels of success that the NBA, MLB and NHL experienced in returning to play during the pandemic, and expressed skepticism at the NFL’s ability to succeed without a bubble strategy. My main takeaway was that the most effective way to ensure a safe season is to create a bubble and to show little to no tolerance for people who refuse to follow the rules surrounding COVID-19 safety. It turns out there is more evidence to support those takeaways in some less-discussed leagues: the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Professional women’s sports leagues often play second fiddle to men’s leagues for a variety of reasons, many stemming from the fact that women’s access to more equal opportunity in sports is a recent development. Firstly, women’s leagues were established long after professional men’s leagues. The NWSL debuted in 2012 and the WNBA in 1997, while leagues like the MLB (1903) and NBA (1949) have been around for many more decades. This head start for the men’s leagues makes it much harder for women’s leagues to emerge and gain popularity. I also believe one of the main reasons that women’s sports leagues are not as popular as men’s is a lack of resources allocated to them. But one sport that bucks this popularity trend is soccer, where the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) is quite popular amongst American fans, and is undoubtedly the best soccer team in the world (they have won the last two World Cups and have a total of four, more than any other nation). When the USWNT won last summer’s World Cup, the whole country was glued to their television screens. The team’s top players—Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan to name a couple—are now arguably bigger stars than anyone on the U.S. men’s national team. The NWSL obviously wanted to capitalize on this popularity. When all other American sports leagues were shut down due to COVID-19, they sensed an opportunity.
The NWSL was the first league in the United States to announce a reopening plan. In late May they revealed that they would restart their season with a tournament in June called the Challenge Cup. The Challenge Cup had a preliminary round, where every team played four games to determine seeding, and then went on to elimination rounds starting with the quarterfinals (best eight teams). The month-long tournament was held in Utah, and a bubble strategy was employed: Athletes were not permitted outside the NWSL village, outside guests were not permitted inside the village, and face masks were required at all times except when eating or exercising. Overall, the tournament went quite well except for one problem early on: some players were entitled, inconsiderate fools. Players on the Orlando Pride were alleged to have gone out to bars and contracted the virus before spreading it to their teammates and team staff. In total, six Orlando players and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19. However, in a move unlike that of any other league, the Orlando Pride were outright dropped from the tournament, with the team doctor reporting that “the important protocols and timelines for contact tracing make it logistically impossible for the club to participate in the Challenge Cup in Utah.”
The NWSL did everything right to ensure a safe and successful tournament, and as a result they had just that. As we saw with the NBA, bubble strategies appear to be the way to go. But another key detail here is that the NWSL had protocols in place to prevent a team like Orlando from participating if their players were non-compliant.
This is the kind of accountability I have been begging for. Everyone loves to talk about how this is a free country, and it is, but while being stupid is legal, it should still have consequences. You don’t want to follow our pandemic safety rules? Okay, then you don’t get to take part in our tournament. The NWSL handled this flawlessly, and are a prime example of what to do when crisis strikes. They enjoyed so much success from their Challenge Cup tournament that they decided to have an additional Fall Series, where the league’s nine teams are divided into three subgroups based on their location (this was done to reduce travel). As of this writing, the Fall Series has begun and all the games have been played according to schedule.
The WNBA has also successfully restarted amid the pandemic, although they have admittedly seen a bumpier road than the NWSL. The WNBA bubble is in Bradenton, Florida at the IMG Academy, a boarding school known for its serious athletics program. Like with all well-constructed bubbles, no one is allowed in or out. The WNBA players are tested regularly and everyone is required to report their temperature daily with the thermometer they received upon arrival. PPE was provided and all players were tested before and immediately upon entering the bubble. There were some initial hiccups, though not with the virus; rather, the lack of accommodations. While the NBA players were staying at a pristine Disney resort in Orlando, in early July many WNBA players posted videos and comments about bad living conditions including suspect food, lots of rat and bug traps, and even a worm. It does seem that most of these issues have been addressed by now, as every player’s request to change living spaces was granted, and many players saw the food quality go up after they had more regular meals following the initial quarantine. These initial inferior living conditions are proof that players in the WNBA are not afforded the same opportunities as those in the NBA. While this is due in part to the NBA taking in significantly more revenue, the proportion of league revenue to player salary is worse in the WNBA and there are a multitude of other unfair roadblocks preventing the WNBA players from reaching a level of equality with their male counterparts.
Another, more serious issue that has been raised is player injury. Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller said, “What we’re asking these players to do, and play every other day, is so contrary to putting their health first. We’re doing such a good job to keep them safe from COVID, but we’re putting them in such a tough situation to stay healthy, because it is so hard on their bodies.” Due to everything getting delayed by the virus, leagues have had to condense their schedules, often increasing the volume of games played in the abbreviated stretch. Professional athletes are already constantly training and working themselves to their absolute limits. When you add more practices or have games more often, injuries will go up accordingly. The MLB had a similar problem, as lots of pitchers injured themselves early on, possibly due to the shortened spring training and lack of time to fully prepare for real games. This is concerning, but the season has still chugged along despite the injury increase.
The WNBA and the NWSL provide more proof that bubbles are the best option for a return to sports. Not only should other leagues consider bubbles more strongly, but potentially other businesses or areas of the country too (colleges, I’m looking at you; Vassar has definitely had more success than non-bubble colleges so far). But just as important as having a good bubble plan, is the execution of that plan. The NWSL showed that if you don’t mess around with people who are breaking the rules, not only do you reduce the future likelihood of defectors (the NWSL hasn’t had an outbreak akin to the Orlando Pride’s since), but it also lowers the risk of getting shut down—imagine if the Orlando Pride had been allowed to mingle with the other teams. We have seen pretty much every professional sports league in the country attempt a return. Now let’s apply what we’ve learned to other sports leagues and gatherings as a whole.