If you asked any American to name the top three professional sports leagues in our countries, most people would rattle off the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball League (NBA), and Major League Baseball (MLB). Someone may even throw in the National Hockey League (NHL). One thing, however, is guaranteed: the most well-known sports in the U.S. are men’s sports, and this pattern extends worldwide.
That being said, in the age of a pandemic, neither football, basketball, baseball, or hockey was the first sport to reopen their league and bring sports back to people across the country. It was women’s soccer. Up in the mountains of Salt Lake City, Utah, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) put on a month-long tournament called the Challenge Cup. The NWSL was established only 8 years ago and currently has nine teams with two more on the way. Women’s soccer in the US had been fast on the rise, with the national team winning their fourth world cup just last summer, and the NWSL’s careful return to play might have been just what the sport needed to continue its growth in the U.S.
In the turmoil that had spread across the country including the rapid-fire spread of COVID-19 and the growing protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the NWSL players created a platform for their voices to be heard and their sport to be seen by many who didn’t even know it existed. CBS streamed two of the games on national television, for the first in the NWSL’s history, and players from every team joined together to speak out in support of the anti-racism movement and even lead conversations and fundraisers for other important causes like mental health.
Within the actual play of the tournament, the dominant North Carolina Courage team made it unscathed through play-ins only to be knocked out in the first round of elimination. While to the outside viewer this looks like a normal upset, it too indicates the major growth of the league as a whole, and allowed for coverage of new players and teams. The NWSL’s speedy return to play this spring simulates the underdog upset within the tournament and suggests the NWSL has a bright future and a chance to grow into the spotlight of professional sports.
Sports, across the world, have a history of bringing people together and creating hope even in solemn times, and the women of the NWSL were the first to lead that charge here in the United States. The league successfully created the first “sports bubble,” and put on a successful tournament for the country without any new, positive Corona cases. The publicity of the Challenge Cup was inspiring to many girls and athletes across the country and paved the way for other professional sports to create their own bubbles and add some more fun back into the world.