NWSL media guidelines: Is the door open?

Let’s say you’re running a fledgling women’s soccer league. Do you let reporters run around all over the place or keep them at arm’s length?

Organizations on their way up are often eager about opening up as much as possible. When I covered mixed martial arts for USA TODAY in the late 2000s, the UFC made it really easy for me to chat with Dana White and anyone else they could gather at almost any time. Now that the UFC has grown, Dana can’t spend a free hour chatting with some dude from USA TODAY about the music they play when fighters walk to the cage.

And that’s typical. Call a league that isn’t swamped with media requests, and you’re more likely to get through than you are if you say, “Hey, NFL? I write a blog. Can I talk with the commissioner today?”

Generally, I’ve found that women’s soccer is more of a closed community than men’s soccer. Read Steve Sirk’s book Massive, about the Columbus Crew, and you’ll find he had much more open chats with the players than I did in Enduring Spirit. Part of that is the locker room — door’s open in MLS, closed in the NWSL. Part of it was Columbus player Frankie Hejduk, as outgoing an athlete as you’ll ever find. And part of it, from my experience, is that women’s soccer players are more protective of the inner workings of their team than men’s soccer players.

Note the weasel words in that paragraph. First, “generally.” Sure, women’s soccer has its exceptions. And then there’s “from my experience.” I couldn’t tell you if the Portland Thorns are more forthcoming than the Timbers. If anyone has different experiences, please share.

The Spirit organization worked well with me for the book, but we did set some boundaries along the way. I only went to one team meeting — the one with the entertaining game of charades. And after preseason, the team and I agreed that I would usually come out to midweek practices, not the Friday practices in which they went over the tactics for the next game. At those practices, I made an effort to keep a respectful distance, though they appreciated my efforts in chasing down loose balls that had rolled down the many hills at the Soccerplex.

All of these access decisions were easy to work out among reasonable people with good communication. If you just drove up to the Soccerplex and started watching the team practice without telling anyone, you were going to get someone walking up and asking who you are and what you’re doing there. (The family that was just taking a snack break before going to lacrosse camp on a neighboring field was OK; the guy who was intently watching from a distance drew a few more questions.)

And to be honest, I didn’t see a lot of reporters coming out to practices, and I’m sure the Spirit didn’t turn a busload of people away every day. Still, the league quite rightly saw a need for standardized media guidelines, published on its site.

Last week, those guidelines read in part:

Media Access to Practices: Clubs are encouraged to make all practices open to media. If a practice is closed, clubs must grant a 15-minute media access period at the start or end of practice, as well as making the coach and players available for interviews following the conclusion of practice. Clubs are strongly encouraged to ensure that ballwork is at least part of the 15-minutes access period. If practices are open to the media, as defined above, they must be open to all media; if practices are closed to the media, they must be closed to all media.

Seems reasonable, and it’s consistent with what I’ve seen in other leagues. (That said, we’ve always joked about what teams are doing in practice that they don’t want others to see. “Oh, wow — are they doing a possession drill? They must want to possess the ball!”)

That section now reads as follows:

Media Access to Training Sessions: Teams are highly encouraged to make every training session open or at least partially open (i.e., if a session is declared “closed,” teams are required to have a 15 minute period for b-roll and photos at the start and time for media interviews following the session).

The change isn’t related to any agitation in the preseason. The latter phrasing is in the 2014 operations manual, the league says. The site was updated this week to match what was said in the operations manual.

So is that enough to meet the limited but occasionally intense media demand?

From a practical point of view, journalists need to give NWSL teams a bit of leeway. The teams don’t have huge staffs to shepherd reporters and photographers around at practice. And players often need to know in advance if they’re doing interviews after practice — they have jobs, classes and other logistical realities of playing for something less than a six-figure salary.

But it’s discouraging to hear, as I have from several colleagues, that a couple of teams have put up a virtual curtain on the preseason.

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