Months away from kicking off its fifth season, the National Women's Soccer League has joined forces with A+E Networks to bring professional women's soccer to more people than ever before.
As part of a three-year deal announced on Thursday, Lifetime will air an NWSL Game of the Week each Saturday during the season, along with all playoff games. There are also digital content components to the an NWSL app, a site redesign, and more, to be overseen by a new joint venture called NWSL Media. Moreover, A+E purchased an equity stake in the league, further reinforcing the level of investment and commitment between the two sides. (A+E Networks is also a stakeholder in Vice Media.)
"We are on a journey to establish a permanent women's soccer league in America," NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said at a gathering of NWSL and A+E executives Thursday morning. "Our journey is all about partnership, and it is our partners who help us get to where we need to be. And this is a transformational partnership."
A 25-game footprint on national television is an enormous step forward for the league. For the past few seasons, most NWSL matches were only available to stream on YouTube. A series of one-year deals with Fox Sports 1 (and before that, similar setups with ESPN) provided airtime for just three regular-season games, all three near the end of the season, along with the playoffs. These deals were often announced late; in 2015, it was well after the season began. That same year Fox Sports also broadcast the Women's World Cup, and yet even though nearly every U.S. player as well as many international stars were part of the league, not a single NWSL promo ran during the tournament.
The deal with A+E Networks, by contrast, gives the NWSL a dedicated time window to reach dedicated fans and potential new viewers every week. Every Saturday at 4 PM EST, there will be an NWSL game on television, all season long. Better still, there will be a half-hour pregame show at 3:30. Building habits of watching takes repetition and consistency, and as an equity partner, A+E Networks has every incentive to prioritize promotion of the league. Moreover, having the games on a network typically available in the basic cable packages—96 million homes—will put the games in a position to be viewed by new fans as well. That accessibility is key. Anyone who wasn't checking their favorite team's schedule religiously, noting the differing broadcast times, then seeking out the games on YouTube... well, they simply weren't watching.
And it would be a mistake to overlook the financial side of this. Plush indicated that the TV money played a significant role in this year's salary hike—the largest ever for the league, which more than doubled the minimum salary, from $7,200 to $15,000, while salary caps increased to $278,000 per team, from $265,000 last year. And a three-year commitment from A+E reflects a fundamental shift in the stability of professional women's soccer.
"This relationship is absolutely exciting," former U.S. national team captain and Sky Blue FC star Christie Rampone said, noting how different this league's trajectory has been compared to previous attempts like WUSA and WPS, each of which lasted a total of three seasons. "Having been in previous leagues, I know how important this is. We're about the growth of the game, and what better way than to have our games on, once a week?"
Does the league run any risk of limiting its audience by joining a network marketed as "television for women"? Relative to the enormous upside of the deal, it seems microscopic; plus, the subset of men who are excited about women's soccer but threatened by watching it on Lifetime is likely vanishingly small. Meanwhile, the deal gives Lifetime a chance at live sports programming, one of the more resistant sectors in a cable-television industry disrupted by trends like streaming services and cord-cutting. More encouraging still is the creation of a league app for iOS and Android—a critical way for sports fans to receive information in general, but particularly for a league that is often ignored by traditional outlets.
"The business is anything but traditional these days," A+E Networks president Nancy Dubuc said. "We're not just a television brand, we're a women's media brand. We need to respond to what women want, up and down the interest spectrum."
As for the NWSL's biggest stars—the current U.S. national team—they weren't present at the press conference while the negotiations over their expired collective bargaining agreement continue (though players like Carli Lloyd did tweet their approval of the new television deal). U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, however, expressed his belief that the sides would come to an agreement well ahead of the season.
"I'm quite confident that we'll have a CBA with the women's national team," Gulati said, noting that several meetings are scheduled with the players over the next few weeks, and that "the tone is very different" in U.S. Soccer's interactions with the national team. Reaching a deal and having those stars available to play is all the more important now that the league will be seen by a new, potentially larger audience—once a week, on a station that 96 million people can access, the NWSL has a golden opportunity.