Orlando Pride midfielder Bridget Callahan (22) shoots the ball during the NWSL soccer game between the Orlando Pride and the Washington Spirit on October 5, 2019 at Explorer Stadium in Orlando, FL.
Andrew Bershaw | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images
Women’s football had a great 2020 even in the middle of a pandemic, thanks to broadcast and streaming deals that brought the sport to more viewers than ever before.
Finding viewers outside of a dedicated core fan base and delivering games on a handful of consistent platforms will be key to further growth in 2021. Women’s sport is a feel-good story, but the next phase is about hitting the hard numbers, attracting new broadcast partners and corporate sponsors.
In the summer of 2020, the National Women’s Soccer League was the first U.S. professional sports league to return to activity, breaking its attendance records by nearly 300%. The first and last games of the Challenge Cup, which were the only ones to be shown on CBS and not on the subscription service CBS All Access, drew 572,000 and 653,000 viewers, respectively, on par with an English Premier League game that week and Major League Baseball Game on TBS broadcast in the same time slot. Last year’s NWSL final, which aired on ESPN, only drew 166,000 viewers.
Company sponsors also got on board. The NWSL signed contracts with Verizon, Google and Procter & Gamble before the Challenge Cup.
“The league has done strangely well,” said Lindsay Barenz, VP of Business Development for the NWSL, during the pandemic.
Multi-year partnerships with CBS Sports and Amazon Twitch were “game changers,” added Barenz. For regular playing time, CBS showed some games on its main network, 14 on the CBS Sports Network and the majority on CBS All Access. Twitch would stream all of the games internationally and a handful of free games domestically.
Even as more sports leagues returned to competition in the fall, the NWSL averaged 383,000 viewers for its fall series games, which aired on CBS. According to the league, the games, which were also streamed globally on Twitch, averaged just over 732,000 live views, and the most watched hit hit 1,000,000.
These deals came after the U.S. women’s national team won the 2019 Women’s World Cup and sparked new interest in the sport. In previous seasons, most games could only be streamed online, be it on Google’s YouTube, on teams’ websites or on Verizon’s go90. TV coverage for a handful of major games jumped between Fox Sports’ secondary channels and Disney subsidiary ESPN in various years. And NWSL’s multi-year contract with A&E Networks to broadcast games for life failed when A&E left in 2019, one season earlier. The NWSL only reached another TV deal after the World Cup when ESPN recorded 14 remaining games between ESPNews and ESPN2.
The NWSL was difficult to follow for avid fans and difficult to stumble upon for potential fans. The new rights contracts should ensure consistency and high quality production for the coming seasons.
Then the pandemic hit.
It was far from clear that women’s football could save the year, but it probably helped to be the first to come back with little athletic competition. The NWSL’s month-long Challenge Cup, played in a “bubble” in Utah, began June 27, two weeks before the men’s Major League Soccer returned and a month before the National Basketball Association launched its bubble at Disney World.
When it comes to growth, there is a tradeoff between maximizing sales and reaching the widest possible audience. Under the current contract, most NWSL games are only available through CBS Sports Network or CBS All Access, which are paid subscription services.
But the choice was “part of maturing as a league,” said Barenz. “Part of the maturity of our fans is that there is an economic exchange of values to get access to our games.”
In order to get access to all games in other leagues like the Women’s National Basketball Association and male colleagues, a paid subscription is also required, Barenz emphasized. The NWSL, the longest running professional women’s soccer league in the United States, is now entering its ninth season (as the WNBA will hit its big 25).
Alyssa Naeher # 1 of Chicago Red Stars hits a loose ball during an NWSL soccer game between the Chicago Red Stars and the Orlando Pride at Orlando City Stadium on September 11, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.
Alex Menendez | Getty Images Sports | Getty Images
A new business model could help increase more broadcasters’ interest in women’s football. This is where the startup Atalanta Media comes in.
Atalanta acquires media rights for smaller women’s sports leagues and offers them to broadcasters free of charge, along with fully produced games. In return, the company retains sponsorship opportunities so that it can also make money. This fall, Atalanta partnered with NBC Sports to bring the FA Women’s Super League, England’s premier women’s league, to a US audience for the first time.
Atalanta aims to break the frustrating stalemate between skeptical investors and leagues in dire need of more investment.
Broadcasters want “more evidence” before buying the rights themselves, said Esmeralda Negron, co-founder of the company and former professional footballer. “But there is no proof of that [women’s soccer has] has never been available week after week on premium channels. “
“If we don’t do that,” Negron said of buying the rights to leagues like WSL, “it wouldn’t be available.”
With the Atalanta partnership, NBC Sports will broadcast 50 WSL season games from September 2020 through Spring 2021, either on the NBC Sports Network channel, the NBC Sports app, or the NBC Sports website.
The first eight WSL games on NBC Sports Network had an average of 63,000 viewers, and the most viewed game reached 100,000 viewers, according to the network. A network manager told CNBC how important it is to tie women’s football to Premier League coverage in order to raise awareness. Given that the US games usually air weekend mornings (given the time difference) and are in an unknown league, this is a good place to start.
NWSL match ball during the 2020 NWSL College Draft at the Baltimore Convention Center on January 16, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Jose Argueta | Getty Images Sports | Getty Images
2021 will bring new tests and possibilities. As more sporting leagues prepare to return for the full season and people get more outdoors to do, women’s sports can become more difficult to interest. However, if the Tokyo Olympics go as planned, a strong performance from the U.S. women’s team could also raise awareness of football at the club level.
Next year the NWSL plans to host the Challenge Cup again, followed by a full season. What was originally conceived as a means of saving the year has become valuable property.
The league is also adding teams, including a Louisville club that will play in 2021 and a Los Angeles team that will join the following year. LA club Angel City FC will be majority-owned by women and will be supported by all-star investors like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and actress Natalie Portman.
There are also growth opportunities in existing deals. The goal of women’s football is likely to be to show more games on flagship networks like CBS and NBC, not just their sports networks or apps.
“Premium broadcasting plays an important role in enhancing the visibility and profile of leagues and players at the club level,” said Negron. “That never really happened on the women’s side.”
Women’s football needs to benefit from its increased visibility this year or else it risks losing its hard-won momentum. As Negron said, “Audience is what drives everything in this sport.”