The NWSL Challenge Cup Coverage marked the first free-to-air broadcast of a women’s club soccer match in the United States. The first broadcast for the network was Saturday’s clash between North Carolina and Portland; perennially the top two teams in the league, and the most intense rivalry in American women’s club soccer.

CBS Sports’ recent interest in soccer has been a welcome entry to the market, creating curiosity about how they would cover the sport. Soccer fans eagerly watched this broadcast to see what new elements to airing the sport CBS might bring to the table.

COVID-19 has shifted league and broadcast plans dramatically, so instead of an NWSL Regular Season we have a “Challenge Cup,” set up like an international tournament and held in a single state, Utah. This has also impacted CBS’s schedule availability on the free-to-air broadcast network.

CBS’s programming schedule for sports on weekends is fuller than that of other US networks currently, since the PGA Tour resumed in mid-June. Most of the golf tournaments that were rescheduled for the summer are being aired on CBS rather than NBC, the tour’s other media broadcast partner.

The original 2020 NWSL season plan was for 12 matches to be broadcast between CBS and CBS Sports Network. This shifted to two free-to-air broadcasts for the NWSL Challenge Cup coverage. The next broadcast following Saturday’s match will be the Challenge Cup Final on July 26 (see the complete NWSL TV schedule).

It is notable that NWSL was left with only two free-to-air broadcast windows in the four week tournament. Unforeseen before the aborted Regular season when CBS had plenty of windows to show matches, the timing of the Challenge Cup probably meant that the league would have had more exposure had they opted to sign with NBC.

NWSL Challenge Cup Coverage

CBS beat NBC to gain the media rights to NWSL, and overall a typical regular season probably fits CBS’s schedule better. But with broadcast times for CBS free-to-air matches influenced by the PGA Tour commitments on CBS, leading to early kickoff times locally, all other matches have been bumped to CBS’s OTT platform, CBS All Access.

Further complicating matters was the late withdrawal of the Orlando Pride due to the club recording ten positive COVID-19 tests last week. This led to a shift in scheduling of the tournament though it only impacted matches being aired on All Access.

CBS’s opening introduction of the broadcast was a neat montage of women’s soccer players saying “we are back,” COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter clips. It was a socially conscious and appropriate welcome back to live team sports in the US. The production qualify and feel good factor for this introduction to a new broadcaster and the first US team sports league to resume play was tremendous.

Following the introduction, Marisa Pilla — who is on-site in Utah — gave some reporting before throwing the broadcast to the familiar duo of Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner who were both broadcasting remotely.

On-air Talent

The Hildreth and Wagner team have worked together so consistently on several different networks broadcasting women’s soccer – so the remote location they found themselves in was not the sort of impediment it might have been for other broadcasters. Social distancing meant the two, though in the same studio, could not appear on camera together, but their chemistry remained consistent throughout the broadcast.

Wagner is a top analyst who consumes soccer from all over the world. We’ve seen her in the past contribute to men’s coverage so she was comfortable discussing the Bundesliga and Premier League restarts and using that knowledge to enhance CBS’s coverage. Wagner was able to reference those leagues to give perspective to the lack of match fitness and sharpness that we saw for much of the game. Factoring in the attitude, Wagner was able to accurately analyze player fitness and potential squad changes for most of the match.

The broadcast team of Hildreth and Wagner is comforting to the ears, for fans of the women’s game. Had CBS tried to insert their own talent into the coverage, it almost certainly would have backfired and caused a certain amount of backlash. In this sense, the status quo is positive, especially when enhanced by CBS’s graphics and promotional material.

In-game coverage

Up until the first half water break, besides the CBS graphics, the broadcast resembled the high-quality NWSL matches aired on Lifetime in 2017 and 2018. Not only was the broadcast talent the same, but so were the levels of production and types of camera angles. Lifetime’s work was always crisp and while soccer fans tend to rate ESPN highly, last year’s NWSL broadcasts on that network were a step backward, according to this writer’s opinion.

The first half was progressing nicely until stunningly, CBS used the water break to air a quick 30 second commercial. Though it must be noted the cut-away and return was surprisingly crisp and they did not miss a single kick of the ball. During the second half, an AppleTV+ ad aired during the hydration break. The Courage’s Ally Watt was injured and stretchered off during the break, so the commercial took up less than half of the stoppage.

However, seeing a 30-second ad neatly fit into water breaks does lend the question if this now will become a new opportunity for networks to force commercials into broadcasts. COVID-19 has demonstrated to the world that media deals are more important to many soccer leagues from around the globe than any other consideration. The ability to monetize breaks could prove a potential breakthrough to further wet the interest in soccer of newer media players such as streaming services and second-tier cable channels.

The halftime was filled with commercials, taped segments, advertisements for NWSL and some analysis. Whether the COVID-19 situation scuttled a potential studio show we will not be able to answer until a later date.

Transitions to and from Marisa Pilla’s on-pitch segments were crisp and both commentators were able to play off those segments with additional commentary well. Post Match, Pilla was able to provide pitchside interviews while Hildreth and Wagner added analysis. The commentary duo also did a deep-dive post match into the entire league, which time had not permitted either pre match or at halftime. The post match show again was characterized by frequent commercials. Again, as noted above we do not know if CBS had a studio show planned before COVID-19.

Key Takeaways

What we saw was a routine soccer broadcast with the notable exception of commercials during the hydration breaks. While CBS didn’t show the innovative nature we’ve become accustomed to from NBC’s coverage of the Premier League, they also didn’t regress soccer coverage in any manner the way Turner Sports did with UEFA Champions League coverage. Given that at some point in the future, the Champions League is headed to CBS, the initial broadcast of NWSL should reassure fans that CBS is not planning on radically altering the existing formula for covering soccer in this country.