As the 2023 regular season comes to what should be a hectic conclusion this Sunday, the NWSL made major news regarding its future this past week. A new NWSL TV deal is reportedly ready to go starting in 2024. And it will mark a significant change in the way fans will watch games.

From 2020-2023, the league had an exclusive deal with CBS Sports. While some games featured on Twitch, the majority of matches were exclusive to CBS platforms. Games featured on Paramount+, CBS Sports Network, CBS, and the CBS Sports Golazo streaming network.

However, the new deal sees the NWSL move from one exclusive partner to four – ESPN, CBS, Amazon, and Scripps. ESPN and CBS offer a stable of both traditional TV and streaming platforms. Amazon has its Prime Video service (which airs select Thursday NFL games). Scripps controls various digital networks available over the air, most notably Ion TV.

Specifics on which channels and platforms games will be featured are not known at this time. But, in theory, the new variety of options should broaden the number of potential eyeballs on the league.

The four-year deal is also expected to be a substantial increase in terms of revenue compared to the CBS contract.

More money is always a good thing, but is this the right long-term play for growing the NWSL fanbase?

Pros and cons – a fans’ perspective

This author also happens to be a NWSL season ticket holder for the Orlando Pride. I can’t say I speak for every NWSL, or even Pride, fan, but it does give me some perspective (and certainly an opinion) on the direction the league is going with.

While the CBS/Paramount setup was not without hiccups here and there, overall the experience has been fairly good. Nearly every game has been available on the streaming service, save for the odd match here and there only on CBS Sports Network.

This made watching games super convenient. And for a soccer (and/or Star Trek) fan like myself who already had Paramount+ anyway, it’s been a downright outstanding value for around $5 bucks a month over the course of the deal. I don’t think there has ever been a less expensive way as a cord-cutter to get almost every game of a local (or non-local) pro sports team.

We don’t yet know the breakdown of how games will be split across these four new partners. But it’s probably safe to say you’ll need subscriptions to at least three streaming services, and possibly either a cable/satellite subscription or digital antenna setup, to see every game in 2024.

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Let’s assume the games on Scripps, ESPN, and CBS networks are also simulcast on one of the streaming platforms. Even without the cost of a traditional TV setup, it’s still going to be a substantial price hike for fans. At the current lowest rates we know about for 2024, you’re looking at $5.99/month for Paramount+, $8.99 for Prime Video, and $10.99 for ESPN+. That’s a hair less than $26 total per month. Or to put it another way, an over 400% increase compared to the cost of Paramount+ alone.

For fans that already have all these services anyway, it’s not really an issue. But it’s going to be a tough pill for supporters who just want to follow their team and may not be able to afford additional services.

Convenience vs Increased Reach

The (mostly) all-in-one-place convenience of a single broadcast partner makes scheduling and following the league easier. But it does limit the ability to tap into a more casual fanbase. Nobody can stumble on a game if there aren’t any on TV (or if the few are getting mostly stuck on a non-basic tier of cable programming like CBSSN).

If NWSL matches will now pop up on ESPN, ABC, CBS, and Ion, that’s a win for public awareness. Getting on a major network almost always helps with ratings, as evidenced by the recent Megan Rapinoe sendoff match on CBS:

But even fans who only follow their own team will now likely be forced to switch apps, channels, or even devices from game to game.

It’s also important to touch on another wrinkle – local broadcast deals. Unlike MLS/Apple on the men’s side, NWSL’s existing deal with CBS has not prevented individual teams from setting up local TV deals. It’s unknown if this will be a factor in the new deal come 2024.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the streamlined single-partner approach. Same place for every game, every time, one app, super easy. A unified game presentation. And no fumbling around asking “Where is the game?!” five minutes before kickoff. One subscription, and unlike the MLS offering, that offers a large stable of additional content for no added cost as well. NWSL on Paramount+, for me anyway, has been superb.

However, revenue is revenue. If this new deal is bringing a significantly larger haul into league (and club) coffers, I’ll be all for it. As someone who’s been a massive supporter of, and also worked for, soccer outfits in this country that no longer exist, anything that helps stability is a win in my book.

Aside from the functionality and user experience with this deal, you also have to wonder if something else is in play.

Competition on the horizon

This new NWSL TV deal may be more than a simple shift in broadcasting strategy.

For a while, the NWSL has been effectively alone at the top of the American, and global, women’s club pyramid. But the status of the lone top dog is diminishing by the day.

As overseas, particularly European, clubs and nations continue to invest in the women’s game, women’s soccer outside the US is drawing bigger crowds, bigger stars, and more eyeballs all the time. The Women’s UEFA Champions League is becoming a marquee event each year. And leagues featuring massive clubs (and global brands) like Arsenal, Chelsea, FC Barcelona, PSG, and Manchester United are becoming more readily available in the States.

But closer to home is perhaps something that might really upset the status quo.

The USL Super League is now set to debut in the fall of 2024 as a Division One professional league. That puts it at the same level as the NWSL. And it counts some major markets amongst the inaugural teams. Charlotte, Dallas, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, and Washington, D.C. are lined up as some of the charter clubs. The USLSL will also play on the European, or fall-to-spring calendar.

The USL’s Championship and League One men’s leagues have featured on ESPN+ in recent seasons. However next year’s details, and those of the Super League, have yet to be announced.

While the two leagues’ seasons won’t entirely overlap, NWSL cutting a deal involving ESPN (and three other platforms) puts them ahead of the game in terms of broadcast setup. The NWSL has also recently announced a return to Utah and Boston, as well as an expansion to San Jose. But this new TV deal is perhaps the true opening salvo in an emerging women’s front of the American “SoccerWarz.”

Photo: Imago.