Analysis

NWSL's unconventional future arrives with landmark A+E, Lifetime deal

Top women's league's new deal with A+E Networks is unconventional, but it's one that embraces the realities of the new sports broadcasting world.

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As media evolved, divided and even cannibalized, television long stood on its mantle in seeming immunity, watching from behind bulletproof glass.

But what’s interesting about such metaphoric protection is that while it serves as protection, it still allows for observation. TV collectively watched the media landscape evolve around it, and the sector has recently begun to truly break down some previously impenetrable walls as users shifted to digital, mobile, diverse consumption habits. Everyone spent a long time saying that the ‘future is digital’ when they were truly overlooking that the future had already arrived.

That’s what makes the National Women’s Soccer League’s landmark partnership with A+E Networks so interesting. Finally, there is a long-awaited, robust TV deal that will see the league – America’s top women’s soccer division, and one of the best competitions on the planet – broadcast every week of the season. It’s the type of news that many feel is several years overdue after underwhelming deals with Fox and ESPN across the league’s first four campaigns saw only a handful of games aired at the back of each season.

Lifetime’s three-year commitment to airing matches makes the NWSL accessible to nearly 100 million homes in the U.S., slightly more than ESPN or FS1.

It’s a compelling development, but it isn’t the main attraction of the announcement – and for good reason.

The growing fan base for the still relatively fledgling NWSL has been built in a very typical, digital-first fashion. Every match (save for those on national TV) in the league’s history has been streamed live on YouTube, free of charge and without geographical restrictions. Production quality varied wildly from one market to another, and the league went through growing pains that brought stream outages and other issues which no operation (yes, even the major networks) are immune to.

That free and immediate access allowed for the league to develop a passionate and hardcore audience in the United States and abroad. In the absence of a paid subscription service, like NFL Game Pass or MLS Live, the NWSL positioned itself as a more access-friendly league, even if it lacked scale.

And that presented the paradox the NWSL had to juggle. Growth beyond the niche hardcore would require a stronger presence in a place with more eyeballs (read: TV) and in a unique space where the league wouldn’t be lost in the vacuum of every other sport fighting for airtime. Lifetime offers that potential reward for taking a less traditional path in a world which increasingly requires and offers exactly that.

What couldn’t happen, though, is for a TV deal to come at the sacrifice of that group, and the NWSL’s stated plans for all matches not on Lifetime to be streamed for free and without geo-blocking is an important point which cannot be lost. A league spokesman says that A+E and the NWSL are looking into creating an improved streaming platform that they can control – essential for generating digital revenue – but that YouTube is still an option. The key, though, is that all the matches will be available online.

It’s easy to forget that it was only six years ago that Women’s Professional Soccer was largely inaccessible to the masses. Fox Soccer Channel (as it was then) aired one game a week, but beyond that, there were no live streams, Periscope didn’t exist, and matches were recorded on a basic one-camera tripod setup and archived into an internal system where coaches and select journalists could brave the blurriness to try to scout and analyze. The parent making a college recruiting highlight reel for her daughter had a better camera setup than most teams. That was six years ago; it may as well have been 1999. That every NWSL match has been streamed free of charge on the world’s most used video platform is largely taken for granted.

This setup, as described by A+E and the NWSL, hits the sweet spot.

There are concessions which must be acknowledged: Lifetime is not a live sports destination, though it was one of the original broadcast partners of the WNBA. The league says it isn’t afraid to be non-traditional in its approach, which is the very outlook required in today’s saturated media landscape.

Lifetime is also a women’s network, an obvious point and hardly a bad one for a women’s professional league. It’s a point, though, that ostensibly doesn’t cast as wide a net. In some ways, though, this could be a more targeted net. Whereas traditional sports networks skew toward having predominantly male viewers, this will be a women’s sports league on a channel skewed toward women.

What that will also do, in combination with the league’s new “NWSL Media’ digital initiative, is cross-platform storytelling and production, the absence of which has hamstrung the league’s growth thus far. Some of this, like the creation of an app, is an act of catch-up. NWSLsoccer.com has been in desperate need of a makeover, and it will soon get that.  

And not to be overlooked in all of this is that A+E Networks has purchased an equity stake in the NWSL, which is effectively an 11th seat at the table (for now) at owners’ meetings. Add in North Carolina’s recent addition (by relocation) to the league, and that’s three new ownership groups investing in the NWSL in the past month, with more expansion on the horizon for next season.

Television was once truly king, and it’s hardly gone away, but this is a transcendent deal. It’s a new investor in a league looking for longevity. And it’s a reminder how important digital and new media are; that for every headline about declining sports TV ratings, there’s an underreported story about how those users have just shifted platforms to streaming on mobile and desktop.

For the NWSL, the future may well have arrived, just not in the traditional way most may have expected.

More features at FourFourTwo.com/us/  |  NWSL

Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.

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