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NWSL unveils month-long tournament in Utah

(Credit: NWSL)

The National Women’s Soccer League has unveiled ambitious plans to stage a 25-game tournament featuring all nine teams in the Salt Lake City area in Utah this summer amid the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The officially-titled “2020 NWSL Challenge Cup” will take place from June 27-July 26, with initial games at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and the semifinals and finals at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.

The 20,000-capacity Rio Tinto Stadium is the home of NWSL team Utah Royals – as well as Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake – while the 5,000-capacity Zions Bank Stadium is home to the Real Monarchs of the United Soccer League Championship. All three teams are part of the same corporate organization.

The tournament will mark the return of professional soccer in North America, with Major League Soccer and other leagues still postponed due to the ongoing health crisis.

Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen will be the tournament’s host and, as such, help secure all housing, training, and competition needs for the league’s nine teams and create an “NWSL Village” to control as much of the environment as possible amid the health crisis. The league plans to partner with two area hotels, including an Embassy Suites hotel, to house all nine teams and their staff members.

Players, officials, and essential staff members will be tested for coronavirus 48 hours prior to departure for Utah and upon arrival and will be subject to consistent testing, temperature readings and symptom review throughout their stay in Utah. Spectators will not be allowed at games.

Each team will play four games in the preliminary stages with the top eight advancing to the quarter-finals, when the tournament will become a single-game elimination competition.

All games will be aired on CBS’ streaming service CBS All Access, with the opener and championship game airing live on the main CBS network. The NWSL signed a new three-year broadcast deal with CBS in March. Fans outside the United States and Canada can stream the full tournament on Twitch.

NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird told reporters that she will be pushing to secure more games on the main CBS network. She added that there were four bids to host the tournament.

The tournament has presenting sponsors in Proctor & Gamble and its Secret deodorant brand, while Budweiser will sponsor the semifinals and final, as well as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. The NWSL has also announced a new multi-year partnership with telco Verizon.

Hansen says he believes the tournament “could” pay for itself thanks to sponsorship investment.

“As our country begins to safely reopen and adjust to our collective new reality, and with the enthusiastic support of our players, owners, as well as our new and current commercial partners, the NWSL is thrilled to bring professional soccer back to the United States,” said Baird in a statement. “This exciting month-long tournament will showcase our league’s talented players and provide our fans the type of world-class entertainment they’ve come to expect from the NWSL.”

In a statement, the NWSL Players Association announced it had secured contract guarantees for all contracted NWSL players, including salary, housing, and benefits; insurance coverage for the entire 2020 calendar year; and accommodations for players with children during the tournament.

According to multiple reports, it is unclear how many members of the United States women’s national team will take part due to fears of playing so many game in a compressed schedule, as well as on artificial turf at at Zions Bank Stadium. The potential absence of leading international players, such as Women’s World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, would most likely affect viewing figures and media interest.

NWSL players will continue to be paid even if they decline to take part in the tournament, according to reports. “Each player will have her own decision to make. We won’t require anyone to play in the tournament,” Baird said.

It also remains unclear if the tournament will comprise the entire NWSL season or is a precursor to a possible regular season in home markets later in the year. “We have not made that decision. I think we’re open to it,” Baird said.

The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup is the latest neutral-site competition being planned this year as major leagues look to return to live action amid the health crisis. Both the National Basketball Association and MLS are looking to stage tournaments at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, this summer. Meanwhile, the National Hockey League is planning to stage an expanded 24-team playoffs in two “hub cities” year.