It truly is a new day for women’s professional soccer in the United States.
Last year, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) broke a big barrier when it became the first professional women’s soccer league in the United States to make it to a fourth season. The two pro leagues that preceded it – the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) – both folded after just three years, in 2003 and 2011, respectively.
Now, thanks to a new partnership announced in February with A&E Networks and Lifetime, the NWSL is primed to keep making history for years.
Not only will there be a nationally televised game every week of the season for the first time in NWSL history, but A&E Networks has actually purchased equity stake in the league, giving them a vested interest in growing the league in the long-term.
“It’s invaluable to have a media partner, both as an equity holder in the league, and to promote and show our league on a weekly basis. It completely changes the trajectory,” Amanda Duffy, the managing director of the NWSL, told ThinkProgress.
“It gives us the human and financial resources to look further ahead. We get out of the year-to-year mode, and can start thinking three, five years down the road.”
“It gives us the human and financial resources to look further ahead.”
The idea for this partnership actually began at an A&E executive meeting at the end of 2015, when someone floated an idea that Lifetime should get back into sports broadcasting, something the network hadn’t done since it stopped airing the WNBA in 2000. After some research, it became clear that the NWSL would be the perfect league to broadcast.
“The league is a start-up, but it’s also the preeminent women’s soccer league in the world,” Dan Suratt, the president of Corporate Development, Strategy and Investments at A&E Networks, told ThinkProgress.
“Not only is it a great programming opportunity to expand our genre, but it represents us — one of Lifetime’s missions is supporting women.”
At first, A&E was only considering a traditional broadcast partnership with the NWSL. But after after about a month of talks with U.S. Soccer, which operates the league, it became clear that the league needed a bigger boost.
“What the league really needed was a true partner,” Suratt said. “You can throw that word around, but what they really needed was someone who would invest in the league financially, emotionally, and strategically.”
The exact amount of the investment has not been disclosed, but Sports Business Daily reports that it is a multi-million dollar investment that accounts for approximately a 25 percent stake in the league. In exchange, NWSL will be available to the nearly 100 million households whose cable packages include Lifetime, a figure that’s actually slightly higher than ESPN’s.
The groundbreaking deal includes a three-year broadcast agreement with NWSL to air 25 games — 22 regular season games and three playoff games. Together, the two organizations have formed NWSL Media, a joint venture responsible for the televised production of games, live streaming and digital platforms, and the league’s global broadcast and sponsorship rights. Plus, A&E Networks officially owns a part of the league and has two seats on the NWSL board, along with all of the NWSL owners.
While unconventional, many of the die-hard NWSL fans see the deal as a bold, necessary step for women’s pro soccer.
“It’s super exciting on multiple levels,” Kathleen Olmstead, a Portland Thorns season ticket holder, told ThinkProgress. “You wouldn’t think of Lifetime as a place to find women’s soccer, so I can see why people might have their reservations. I think NWSL needed to take a risk to get the attention they deserve. So they took a risk together.”
NWSL TV Viewers
2017: 82K (Lifetime)
2016: 65K (FS1)
2015: 91K (FS1)
2014: 177K (ESPN2)
2013: 63K (Fox Soccer)
— Paul Kennedy (@pkedit) April 18, 2017
The NWSL is already the most successful women’s pro soccer league in U.S. history, but it’s still struggling to attract sponsors and cut through the crowded sports landscape to expand its fanbase during its first few years. Although women’s soccer in the United States has been incredibly successful and popular at the national level — the 2015 Women’s World Cup final averaged 25.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched men’s or women’s soccer game in U.S. history — that intrigue hasn’t always tricked down to the club level. Last season, the 10-team league had an average attendance of 5,558.
It’s been stuck in a bit of a chicken, egg situation: What comes first, the audience or the investment?
That’s why it’s so significant to have a television partner who is willing to contribute resources to marketing and development. It allows the league to shift away from survival mode, and start focusing on growth and sustained success.
The first goal for Lifetime and the NWSL was to establish a reliable weekly slot for a broadcast. The past four years, a smattering of NWSL games have been broadcast on ESPN2 or Fox Sports 1, but often the broadcast deals were announced midseason, and the production and scheduling of these games felt like an afterthought because both networks were juggling so many other higher-profile broadcasts. Last season, Fox Sports 1 only aired six regular-season NWSL games and the three playoff games.
This is the Variety home page right now. Lifetime is putting in the ad money. pic.twitter.com/YwyhD4UngO
— thrace (@thrace) April 18, 2017
Now, every week at 3:30 p.m. ET, Lifetime will air a 30-minute pregame show, followed by a 4:00 p.m. ET Game of the Week. This will give Lifetime and the NWSL the chance to find a rhythm and build a product the audience can depend on.
The other 98 NWSL games will all be streamed domestically on go90, an American streaming service that has been working to establish itself as a destination for live soccer programming. (International fans of the league can watch games on the league’s website.)
The streaming component was the biggest worry for long-time fans of the league such as Olmstead, who often want to keep an eye on multiple games at one time any given weekend. Previously, all NWSL games have been available to stream free on YouTube, a model that was incredibly accessible for fans, but didn’t bring in any revenue for the league.
There have been some growing pains the first few weeks — the go90 deal wasn’t announced until two days before the regular season began, and many fans had trouble finding the app and experienced streams constantly interrupted by commercials in the middle of play. But many fans have been won over by the increase in broadcast and commentator quality.
“Comparing it against what we had in the past, I’m happy with it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Olmstead said.
Though this deal took a long time to work out due to the great many moving parts, Suratt always tried to keep the big picture in mind during what he called the “slog” of the extended negotiations. The careers of many current women’s soccer stars and the dreams of many young girls rest on the viability of this league.
“Two people who worked on the deal with me have daughters, and every time we would hit a hurdle they would remind me what it meant,” Suratt said.
But A&E isn’t just doing this because they feel it’s the right thing to do for women; they’re doing it because they feel it’s the right thing to do for business.
Suratt says they are already in talks with new sponsors for the NWSL — it turns out, sponsors are much more excited to talk once there’s guaranteed weekly national air time — and expects announcements on that front soon. Though he says any expansion in the league or the broadcast partnership will be “measured,” he sees a future that includes more teams in the league and more nationally televised games.
“Nothing would please us more if that’s something we think makes sense for the league,” Suratt said. Most importantly, this deal buys the NWSL something that previous women’s soccer leagues haven’t gotten: time. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it at least gives success a chance. And Suratt is optimistic about the possibilities.
“If we were just to put in cash, that’s charity. We invest in things we think will succeed.”