Not just a broadcast partner, an investor and board member
The NWSL and A+E Networks made a major announcement today on a partnership between the league and media company. NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush, A+E Networks President and CEO Nancy Dubuc, US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, and US Soccer and Sky Blue FC star Christie Rampone were on hand to discuss the partnership and take questions.
Until now, every NWSL game has been broadcast on YouTube with Fox Sports broadcasting three regular season games and all three post-season games last season. The partnership announced today launches a game of the week on Lifetime shown every Saturday at 4PM during the season, including a pre-game show before the match on Saturdays at 3:30PM. The three year agreement signed with the league also makes A+E an investor in the NWSL and a board member.
During the press conference, NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush also announced that the deal will launch NWSL Media. The new venture will include all digital and commercial aspects of the league including: managing digital assets, a redesign of the NWSL website, an NWSL app, and all NWSL social media.
While the YouTube streams of NWSL games in the past have been a great and free way to access the league, at times the production quality has not matched the skill and talent of the players on the field. Part of the new agreement will be producing high-definition, state-of-the-art pre-game, halftime, and post-game segments. NWSL also noted that the league is negotiating with potential partners to stream games not broadcast on Lifetime but that streaming every game on YouTube was still a commitment.
Continued investment in the league
Women’s professional soccer in the US has gone through some growing pains. Christie Rampone of Sky Blue FC was asked about the difference between NWSL and the two previous leagues to NWSL she played in which both folded before reaching a fourth season. Rampone said that “getting into this fifth year, it’s a process, and we’re doing it right this time around and going in a slower process and starting to raise the the salaries. I think the connection today is just showing the commitment that we are doing the right thing.”
As was reported last week, NWSL is raising the minimum player salary from $7,200 to around $15,000. When asked if the investment was part of why the salary was increased, NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush said that while the broadcast deal wasn’t directly tied to the pay increase,
This agreement is historic and shows the viability of the NWSL model as the league reaches it’s fifth year. What’s more, the agreement shows that there is confidence in the league’s continued growth and success. A three year deal means that a major media company is confident that the league will only grow and that it is invested in being a partner dedicated to that growth.
While NWSL games have been broadcast nationally in the past, the agreements have been limited. Fox Sports showed three games during the regular season and all three post-season games, but the new agreement gives the league a regularly scheduled weekly game that fans will know where to find each week.
The role of US Soccer with NWSL
US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati was asked if the commitment by A+E changed the commitment by US Soccer to the league. Gulati responded that ‘it confirms our commitment going forward and in our discussions both with A+E and our owners, that was made very clear.’ Gulati went further saying that US Soccer would be a partner with the league until it was on solid financial ground with investors getting a return and that the commitment to players as far as salary was at the level that the federation expects.
While US Soccer has its own broadcast deal with the US Women’s National Team and many of those players also play in NWSL, there hasn’t been as much of an effort to promote the league on WNT broadcasts as there perhaps could be. Entire broadcasts of USWNT games go by with the commentators rarely mentioning how to watch WNT players in the NWSL on YouTube for example. This broadcast agreement raises the profile for the league and gives it a unique platform for fans to watch the league.
Gulati also noted that he expects a CBA with the US Women’s National Team players to be signed as negotiations are ongoing between the federation and the players. He added to that by saying that the league and A+E’s commitment to NWSL is beyond the WNT players in the league. He noted that “this is about the league, about long term development of the league. It’s more than just broadcasting 20 plus games, its a complete partnership with an equity stake with a commitment to make stars of these players beyond how well they’re known now, [...] we’ve got a couple hundred players in this league, not 25.”
A commitment to sports
During the Q&A a reporter asked: “As a network that wants to be a female media brand, Lifetime viewers [...] maybe they’re not sports fans initially and sports fans might not be Lifetime fans, there might not necessarily be an immediate cross over there. I’m just curious that if there isn’t, how do you try to target the sports fan that might not necessarily be interested in Lifetime and how do you sell this product to someone who watches Lifetime who might not be necessarily interested in soccer?”
A+E Networks President and CEO Nancy Dubuc pushed back against the sentiment in the question saying:
This statement shows that Dubuc is committed to the sports part of women’s sports. Her comments respond directly against the notion that women aren’t interested in sports, but that they are more likely to watch because for other aspects around competition.
Other media outlets have taken a different approach to women’s sports. NBC executive John Miller said before the 2016 Rio Olympics that “the people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.”
It is encouraging to see a media executive like Dubuc assert that sports are compelling for their own sake and not to promote a sexist trope about ‘reality television’ that is often asserted about women’s sports. Recognizing that women watch sports for the competition has been a strategy that has been successful for soccer broadcasts. Other networks, such as Fox the broadcaster of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, took a similar approach to the one A+E looks committed to and set records for soccer viewership along the way.