Recently, the NWSL announced a TV deal combined with A&E networks where the media company will also take an equity share in the US-based women’s professional soccer league. The deal represents a massive breakthrough for the NWSL which is entering its fifth season in 2017.
The league, which has been seen by many around the game as being on shaky ground, has recently made significant progress toward the future by linking several of its clubs to successful men’s teams, a technique that is working well to sustain the women’s game in Europe, but had been resisted in the United States by the previous women’s professional leagues (WUSA and WPS) and by many involved with NWSL when the league began play in 2013.
Independent women’s teams have failed to gain the market traction locally that Portland, Houston and Orlando all connected to MLS have developed. Entering this season, the reigning NWSL Champion Western New York Flash have been relocated to Cary, NC and attached to the successful NASL club in the same market, sharing ownership and resources. The evolution of NWSL has given the league the strength and leverage to negotiate the TV deal with the A&E network, with Lifetime the primary carrier.
Here are some takeaways from the deal.
1. Lifetime, an A&E network, will televise 22 regular season and 3 playoff games. These matches will air Saturday’s at 4:00 pm ET with a pregame show airing at 3:30 ET. This timeslot is excellent in terms of capturing fans of European soccer who might want to watch something in the late afternoon. However with the shift this season in scheduling by ESPN and Univision regarding MLS, we can find at least nine conflicts between nationally televised MLS and NWSL games. This is interesting because NWSL is first the women’s league since the formation of Soccer United Marketing (SUM) to be televised on a non-SUM partner TV network. With the need to create a regular, consistent time slot justifiably required by Lifetime, conflicts are occurring with MLS/SUM partners who are still experimenting with time slots due to underwhelming TV ratings.
2. Lifetime is in more homes than any MLS or Premier League cable TV partner. However, both those leagues have games on network TV, The Premier League featuring almost weekly airings on NBC affiliates across the country and MLS with a handful of FOX network games.
3. The Lifetime Network attracts a demographic that NWSL needs to penetrate. Women between 25-44. The classic “soccer mom” crowd can be the driver of NWSL’s long-term success. This includes millennials who have been attracted to men’s soccer via the supporters culture or European leagues that are aired in on US television as well as Generation Xers that have started families and have children playing youth soccer.
4. The deal “stops the bleeding” in terms of perception created by the moves of US Women’s National Team stars Alex Morgan (a loan deal), Krystal Dunn and Heather O’Reilly to major European clubs. O’Reilly’s signing with Arsenal in particular was a surprise to many especially given her ties to North Carolina and the relocation of an NWSL club to that area. From speaking to several people around the women’s game, the feeling is strong that this TV deal changes the narrative of an offseason of player defections.
5. NWSL doesn’t have a great national footprint currently, with zero teams in California and a scattering of teams around the rest of the country. The clubs in the heavily populated media centers of the Northeast corridor are arguably the weakest in terms of fan interest in the league. However, as we have learned from MLS, drivers of TV ratings aren’t necessarily Los Angeles or New York, but driven by the local popularity and support of clubs. The addition of the Raleigh-Durham market, an area steeped in the women’s game from the youth to the college level, will almost undoubtedly help drive national ratings.
6. The late afternoon time slot is minimal exposure for NWSL. If the ratings aren’t up to snuff, it’s not a terrible disaster. Exceed expectations and the exposure for the sport might grow. Failing to gain a massive audience won’t be catastrophic at all in this time slot and will not force a shift in time slots and strategy which has so often been an achilles heel of MLS’ TV deals.
NWSL’s contract with the A&E networks is a massive statement for the league, which has been derided by critics as one with a temporary life span. The A&E deal including the equity agreement shows the league is here to stay, despite the recent exodus of a few big name players to major European clubs.