When the National Women's Soccer League and its consultants at Octagon meet with potential media rights partners in New York this week, the elevated profile of the United States’ top women’s soccer stars following their victory at the 2019 World Cup will certainly be a selling point. The league, however, is making it clear that it expects commitment from its partners outside the context of the World Cup.
“The construct historically of rallying behind the league to ride the wave of USWNT success and then abandoning the league is no longer going to be acceptable,” said Daniel Cohen, senior vice president for Octagon, whose media rights consulting division is representing the NWSL in the sales process for the first time.
The sports and entertainment agency and the league are seeking three-year commitments from one or more English- and Spanish-language programmers for the 2020, 2021 and 2022 seasons -- none of which coincide with a Women’s World Cup. They expect to have a short list of serious candidates by the end of the year. The key, Cohen said, will be finding partners willing to dedicate resources to unlocking untapped growth potential.
Cohen explained via email that following each of the national team’s World Cup victories, the NWSL only found broadcast partners -- Fox Sports in 2015 and ESPN in 2019 -- willing to make short-term, low-stakes commitments aimed at quickly capitalizing on the short-term spike in the sport’s profile. The league reportedly did not receive a rights fee from ESPN for the 14 games aired across its cable portfolio during the second half of the recently completed season, during which Yahoo controlled the league’s digital rights.
The NWSL’s most significant partnership in recent years was with A&E Networks, a non-traditional player in the sports space that took an equity stake in the league and delivered matches on its Lifetime cable network. That deal ended with A&E’s premature withdrawal under new leadership prior to the 2019 season.
Reach is the NWSL’s top priority as it looks to grow its fan base and increase engagement. Ideally that would mean a slate of matches on either an over-the-air broadcast network or a well-distributed cable channel, plus digital access for fans looking to stream matches on a range of devices.
In addition to discussions on the domestic front, Cohen said the NWSL has been approached by media companies in the United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, France, Japan and Australia, as well as several global agencies.
According to Nielsen ratings data, the 14 NWSL games that aired across ESPN’s cable networks in 2019 following the Women’s World Cup averaged nearly 79,000 total viewers, up almost 5 percent from the previous year on Lifetime and ESPNews. The championship match between the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars, the lone to air on the flagship ESPN channel, averaged 172,000 total viewers, marking the league’s most-viewed telecast since 2016.
While NWSL’s viewership numbers fall far short of more established men’s soccer television properties like Mexico’s Liga MX and the English Premier League, they are competitive with other high-profile European men’s leagues that have garnered significant investment from American broadcasters.
English-language Bundesliga telecasts across FS1 and FS2, for example, averaged just over 33,000 viewers this season through Nov. 10. During the most recent offseason, the German league received a six-year commitment that will see ESPN stream its matches exclusively on ESPN+ beginning next season.
“An important question to ask is why U.S. broadcasters are not doing a better job recognizing our U.S. champions and putting the support into the [NWSL] like we do for other ‘best in class’ leagues,” Cohen said.
Eric Conrad, executive vice president of sports programming and acquisitions at Univision, whose sports cable network TUDN launched a weekly programming franchise earlier this year for Mexico’s top women’s soccer league, Liga MX Femenil, said the increased number of women’s soccer properties and matches available on linear television in recent years shows that “major media companies are taking an interest in women’s soccer and looking at it from a growth perspective.”
A recent report from Chicago-based Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing found that 40 percent of female soccer fans became interested in the sport within the past five years, indicating a significant spike in growth. In addition, 46 percent of female fans said they were more interested in soccer than a year earlier.
Conrad noted audiences for women’s soccer on Univision still include more men than women, prompting the network to focus on bringing in more female soccer fans via all-female studio coverage and broadcast teams featuring a woman and a man. Gilt Edge also presented evidence of a potential challenge for the NWSL: 1 in 3 female soccer fans were classified by the agency as “event seekers,” meaning they only follow the sport during major events like the Men’s and Women’s World Cup.