A new era in women’s soccer began on Saturday with NWSL’s new television deal with Lifetime as well as streaming on the go90 platform.
The decision to place one weekly game with a 4pm ET start time on Lifetime was a no-brainer. A&E, the parent company of Lifetime, has invested in NWSL. However, the NWSL placing its remaining inventory games on the go90 app, a somewhat obscure streaming platform for soccer fans (despite its soccer-sounding name), was far more controversial, and was met with severe criticism from those who follow the league. Accessibility is an issue for some fans after the ease in watching league games on YouTube the last few seasons but go90’s parent company — Verizon — is looking for content and was willing to pay the league a rights fee – something that NWSL could not turn down. Moreover, having a league partnership with the likes of Verizon can only help the women’s game in the United States.
Before we look back at the coverage on Lifetime and go90 this weekend, a word on the health of the league itself. It was thought that the short-term defections of Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd to Lyon and Manchester City respectively as well as the long-term departures of Heather O’Reilly and Crystal Dunn to Arsenal and Chelsea would hamper the league’s growth. But the addition of a new club in North Carolina, ironically where both O’Reilly and Dunn went to school and would have been big draws as well as these new broadcast deals, indicate the league is healthier than ever.
While any viewer must expect a drop-off between a nationally televised match and an Internet stream, the contrast between the Portland Thorns-Orlando Pride match on Lifetime and the matches streamed via the go90 app could not have been greater.
Lifetime’s production was professional with excellent commentary and use of personnel. The graphics used throughout the match were outstanding, too.
The pregame show hosted by Dalen Cuff was well done and incorporated World Cup winner Julie Foudy, a superstar of soccer broadcasting both on the women’s and men’s side for almost two decades. The game broadcast team of Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner was unsurprisingly good. The seasoned Hildreth has been calling women’s soccer games for the better part of a decade. And Wagner, when left to analyze matches and not be placed in difficult position of being on aimless shows as she was last year by FOX on Copa Tonight, excels in her role.
Also, the selection of Portland as the host for the first broadcast and Orlando for next week’s second telecast was savvy on the part of the league and A&E networks. Lifetime will come out of the gate strong with a good look based on the two best-supported clubs in the league with stadiums that look outstanding on TV.
It was also very nice to see US Soccer President Sunil Gulati at an NWSL game at the same time as MLS matches were being played. His presence conveyed in the Lifetime interview at halftime reflected a continued commitment of the US Soccer Federation to the growth of NWSL and the women’s game in general.
Since the NWSL on go90 news began to spread during the week, even before the formal announcement, many fans complained about how this would limit access to the games. Having never used go90 in any form, I was forced to take a crash course on the app this week.
While complaints about accessibility were numerous among NWSL fans, every body I interact with who follows the league found a way to watch the matches this weekend, so at least based on one week of data, the accessibility argument is overblown. Whether you are on an Android device, iPhone, smart TV or a personal computer, watching go90 is possible. While it lacks YouTube’s ease of accessibility, I couldn’t find a single committed women’s soccer fan who couldn’t watch the games this past weekend.
With the go90 deal, NWSL has centralized production of the matches being streamed. While quality of the streams was decent — no different than what we’ve seen in the past honestly — the camera work still isn’t as good as what soccer fans are accustomed to on other broadcasts.
More strikingly, while the shift away from local broadcasters and toward neutral announcers has its obvious benefits, week one was more chalked with drawbacks. Often during the broadcasts it appeared that the commentators were forcing unnatural analysis and reading statistics that weren’t really applicable or important. A lack of comfort with some of the action could be discerned when listening to the games – partly due no doubt to calling matches off monitors and not having the local knowledge that comes with the “homer” commentators we’ve listened to the previous few seasons in NWSL. Halftime was also odd with no studio analysis but announcers talking about the match, often with lazy analysis while the camera panned random stadium shots.
No doubt the go90 production is a work in progress for NWSL and the announcers will improve with time, but work remains to be done. On the Lifetime front, the production and match presentation/analysis were superb. The Lifetime deal and related promotion gives NWSL a prominence and a profile that will help grow women’s soccer to new heights in the United States.