After a long period of silence, the drumbeat for major changes to the D1 men's college soccer calendar has started in earnest once more. Members of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) have launched an information campaign to gain support for a radical restructuring of the competition calendar. The NSCAA proposal calls for a longer competition season, with the same amount of games, which would more closely align to the academic calendar. Soccer is a fall sport? Maybe not for long.
A survey on the proposed changes was met with wide support from D1 men's soccer players and coaches, though an actual vote on the proposed changes still seems far, far in the future. The reasons for the proposed changes aren’t exactly new, nor are they as wholly altruistic as the backers would have you believe, though it’s hard to argue with many of the merits. Though the proposal focuses on the men’s game, almost all of the potential benefits also apply to the women’s game.
Injury prevention and wear and tear avoidance certainly pops out as a major benefit of the proposed plan, and with many women’s teams, especially in smaller conferences, playing a grinding Friday evening-Sunday afternoon schedule. Few can argue that an ease in the schedule would not be a huge relief on the physical burden that faces teams often trying to cram over twenty matches into a less than four month span.
The other rationales are a combination of ills that befall both the men’s and women’s game, such as missed class time and frigid December conditions at the College Cup. Cynics may argue that the move to the full academic year model is a last gasp for relevance for the men’s college game which has experienced a talent drain from top end players unwilling to play with just a four month competition calendar which they feel hampers their overall development.
Do you support expanding #CollegeSoccer to a full year schedule??
— HERO Sports Soccer (@HEROSportsSOC) August 23, 2016
What's in the actual proposal? What are the potential effects on D1 Women's Soccer?
Here are some of the highlights of the proposed changes to the competition calendar:
- The amount of competition dates would not change, but they would be spread over two semesters rather than one.
- The number of countable athletic activity hours would drop from twenty per week to eighteen per week.
- Preseason would be moved back toward the end of August, while the earliest competition date for the men would be in the second weekend of September. The first competition date in the women’s schedule would likely be in the first week of September. (This would be big for women’s second-tier soccer leagues, the UWS and the WPSL, who both saw many players forced to leave before the conclusion of the season because of NCAA preseason requirements.)
- The NCAA Tournament would move to late May or June, opening up more possibilities for tournament hosts across the nation and limiting the amount of weather worries the College Cup faces as a December event. However, soccer would also have to compete for attention with softball and baseball championships, which could be contentious given the amount of media coverage both receive in their respective postseasons.
- Midweek matches would largely be eliminated, theoretically reducing the amount of class time missed. Still, this also depends on scheduling matches on Saturdays and Sundays instead of Fridays to some extent.
- The Fall portion of the competition calendar would end before Thanksgiving, reducing the strain on players toward the end of the academic semester.
How Will This Affect D1 Women's Soccer?
Even if the plan were to come to fruition in D1 men's soccer, or men's college soccer in general, there would still be a few potential hurdles to clear on the women's side.
First and foremost, the demand for such a change in the calendar to D1 women's soccer may not be there. Cited in the NSCAA’s announcement about the proposed changes are details of a survey conducted of those in the women’s collegiate game, which found a near 50/50 split in sentiment among women's coaches. Even more daunting might be convincing players of the merits of such a drastic change. Just 17% of those who responded indicated support for a similar plan within the women’s game.
It’s not particularly difficult to envision why many women’s players might be averse to such a radical change. Opportunities for men to play professional soccer are multiple, either domestically or abroad, but only a fraction of D1 women's players will have such an opportunity. And that's if they even want such a chance. Women's professional players often earn a staggeringly low wage compared to what they could earn outside the sport. The real effects on the academic life and social life of players have only been spoken about in theory with this plan, and it’s not difficult to envision the law of unintended consequences rearing its head if the plan goes through.
The plan’s champions have stated the proposed competition model won’t have a significant budgetary impact, but this claim seems a little dubious. If the University of Washington is set to travel to play Arizona State and Arizona in a season, then under the current model, one plane trip to and from the state of Arizona and bussing between the schools would be much more economically responsible than two flights on two separate weekends. The bottom part of D1 barely gets by as is, and a change to the calendar could have some drastic and unforeseen side effects.
But it’s also unlikely that the NCAA could withstand a legal challenge under Title IX grounds if the organizing body changes the schedule for the men and not the women. The calendar shift may not have much support from women’s players yet, but it would only take a single lawsuit to force the NCAA into a very difficult position. Given the arguments made by the proposers of the plan, not providing equal accommodation for women’s soccer would be very difficult to defend.
Given the level of support from coaches and players on the men’s side, change seems inevitable, even if the proposed calendar is tweaked in some part. And for better or worse, that change is likely to follow in the women’s game, even if it’s not immediate.