On Saturday May 27th, a hot and humid summer day in Houston, Dash forward Rachel Daly collapsed after playing 90 minutes against the Seattle Reign in the midday sun. She was immediately treated for heat illness, and had to be sent to the hospital to re-hydrate and cool her body temperature in order to recover. This isn’t the first time a NWSL player has had to be treated for heat-related illness, and in 2014 the league tried to address the player safety issue with the implementation of two water breaks in the 30th and the 75th minute of every game where the temperature reaches 89 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. At the time, some players actually resisted the change, with Houston forward Kealia Ohai calling the breaks “extremely unnecessary (…) We’ve been playing in this for 20 years. We need a water break?” And while her frustration is shared by some who see the breaks as disruptive to the flow of the match, it has become clear that the NWSL has to push further to combat a heat issue that affects more than just player safety.
TV Comes First
The switch to primarily midday games this year came from the league’s broadcast deal with the Lifetime network, who’s schedule demands that their NWSL Game of the Week be played at 4pm EST (the ill-fated match between Seattle and Houston was one such example). While Lifetime’s partnership with the league has ushered in higher quality standards in many ways, the new scheduling exacerbated some of the already difficult challenges of a summer league. In addition to players suffering through the heat, the scheduling adjustments have almost certainly played a factor into the league’s lower attendance rate – the current average of 5,050 is behind the 2016 average of 5,558, despite pointed attempts to raise teams profiles (particularly in the case of the Chicago Red Stars, who are currently 9th in the league in attendance), and the fact that teams will have their international stars for the entire season. The ability for fans to accommodate midday games is much more tenuous than matches later in the afternoon, and fans also have to make their own choices about whether they want to subject themselves to a full 90 minutes out in the sun in order to support their team. It’s understandable that in the first year of such a momentous TV deal the league would prioritize viewership over individual attendance rates, but both fans and players have to feel a little bit left behind as the league continues to grow.
Reactions turn into regulations
Yesterday, the league took some first steps in really tackling some of these issues, with the biggest measure being a compromise with Lifetime to relax some of the new scheduling in the event of unsafe playing conditions. The Game of the Week will move its kickoff time to 3:50pm EST to accommodate possible hydration breaks, and all non-broadcast games have been released to re-schedule their matches in the later afternoon or evening. The new regulations also allow discretion to delay matches if the conditions are considered to be unsafe even with the hydration breaks, or if the temperature reads at or above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. In many ways these changes are great; kickoff times will no longer be simultaneous every weekend, officials are more empowered to make judgment calls about player safety, and fans don’t have to gut out midday games in order to support their squads. However it will be interesting to see how the implementation of these changes illicit reactions from fans and teams alike. Players have been resistant to regulations that interfere with play before, and delays can certainly diminish the experience for fans, especially with times rescheduled almost halfway into the season. And there’s still the issue of Lifetime’s hard deadline of 6pm finishes for every game of the week. Regardless, the league seems to be monitoring this grand experiment of a 5th NWSL season, and one has to hope that reactionary changes will turn into solid plans for the quality of life for both players and fans moving forward.