Under the schedule, all players will report to camp on February 1. According to the NWSL's COVID-19 plan, all players and staff must quarantine for seven days and get tested before they can participate in team trainings or activities.
April 9 marks the beginning of the second NWSL Challenge Cup, with the competition format yet to be determined. The major difference between this and last year is that teams will play across various home markets, rather than being contained to the single Utah site that served as a home to last year's tournament.
It makes sense that we're seeing this change, but that doesn't make it feel any better.
Last year, the NWSL was pretty clear about the fact that the only reason it was able to have a "bubble" tournament because Dell Loy Hansen, the former owner of the team that was then known as the Utah Royals, contributed his own money and access to facilities. Since then, the toxic culture surrounding Hansen's ownership – including a history of racist and sexist comments – have come to light, and the league ousted him as a result. Removing an owner who publicly went after his own players for protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake is inarguably a good thing. Though as a result, the league can't lean on Hansen's money to pull together another bubble tournament.
Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson tweeted that he'd made a bid to host this year's Challenge Cup in December, but that plan clearly didn't pan out. That's not super great for the league given that COVID-19 cases are as bad as they've ever been in the United States – even as people are slowly getting vaccinated against the virus. Especially with the newer, more contagious COVID-19 strains, I can't see teams traveling across the country for games as a good thing.
Granted, there wasn't a bubble for the 2020 NWSL Fall Series either. But that Fall Series did see a member of the Houston Dash test positive for COVID-19 – as opposed to zero positive tests across the entire 2020 Challenge Cup. And notably, in September and October, COVID-19 cases were significantly lower than the current numbers (though beginning to climb by mid-October).
Additionally, the league has updated its opt-out policy for the 2021 season. Last year, the NWSLPA secured salary and benefits for all contracted players, regardless of whether or not they actually played. This year's policy is similar to what we saw from the WNBA in 2020: players can opt out without sacrificing contract guarantees if they or someone in their household are high risk for COVID-19 based on a preexisting condition.
If a player doesn't want to play for any other reason, they have to ask their team administrator for approval to opt out of games. If said administrator doesn't agree, the player can still choose not to play but will forfeit compensation.
The part of this that feels especially bad was that the NWSL's 2020 opt-out policy is clearly better than their plan for this year. And since then, we've only learned more about the long-lasting impacts of COVID-19 – long-term effects that could end an athlete's career, even if the person is young, healthy, and has no preexisting conditions.
It's not fair to ask players to put their bodies on the line for their housing and salary – especially when those bodies are what they rely on to make a living. And it's more frustrating because the NWSL clearly knows this; when it released its 2020 Challenge Cup plan, players and the league alike emphasized the importance of the NWSLPA's voice in ensuring players were as comfortable as possible in their return to play – including guaranteed compensation.
There's no bubble this time and no guaranteed salary for sitting out. The regular season runs from May 15 to October 30, with playoffs in November. We can only hope that players, staff, and everyone in their households and across this country are as safe as possible until we all have access to a vaccine and necessary medical care.