NWSL, A&E partnership underscores growth of WoSo

Evan Davis February 2, 2017 59
(photo: Sky Blue FC)

(photo: Sky Blue FC)

The WUSA was on its last legs in 2003 when the first part of the semifinal between the Atlanta Beat and San Diego Spirit didn’t go on the air. ESPN2 was carrying the game, and a preemption sliced out the first 20 minutes of the game. It never re-aired. Weeks later, the WUSA folded, and the future of professional women’s soccer in the United States suffered its first major crisis.

Cut to February 2, 2017, in an amphitheater in midtown Manhattan. There were cupcakes and champagne on order. A livestream was going out to the entire world. There was even a spiffy trailer whose production values most sports leagues would take for granted.

What was it all for? A press conference with US Soccer president Sunil Gulati and National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Jeff Plush was about to commence. More than 14 years after ESPN2 kicked the WUSA to to the curb, Plush announced that A+E Networks had agreed to a three-year television rights deal with the NWSL. A+E CEO Nancy Dubuc proudly declared that the Lifetime network was now in the sports business. How far the sport had come.

{THE DETAILS: NWSL, A+E strike TV, investment partnership}

“We couldn’t ask for a more complete partner,” Plush said of the new deal. “We are trying to create a platform for young women. We’re very appreciative of the burgeoning friendship we’re embarking on. We’re adding another chapter to our story.”

That chapter is fairly multi-layered. In addition to the broadcast of 20 game-of-the-week-style matches on the Lifetime Network—a basic cable channel carried in 96 million homes worldwide—Plush also announced the launch of NWSL Media, a joint digital venture between the league and A+E to livestream the rest of the league’s matches, as well as create new digital content for all 10 teams and their players. Plush declined to comment on the specifics of this new venture, but multiple sources assured The Equalizer that every game not broadcast on Lifetime would be livestreamed. (Plush could confirm that livestreamed games would be archived for later viewing.)

It wasn’t just the presence of the network head and top league brass that signaled the weight of the occasion. No less than four of the league’s 10 team owners flew out to be present for the announcement, including Sky Blue FC majority owner Steven Temares, Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler, Houston Dash president Chris Canetti and Seattle Reign FC owner Bill Predmore. Sky Blue defender and former US Women’s National Team captain Christie Rampone also took to the dais to offer a player’s perspective on the deal, a perspective that carries a long history with it.

“Being in previous leagues, we know how important it is to have a partner like A+E give us a platform,” Rampone said. She should know. She saw WUSA come and go. She saw Women’s Professional Soccer come and go. She saw the slow, often very limited progress of the NWSL until it finally crossed into yet another record season, the league’s fifth.

{ALSO SEE: U.S. Soccer to honor Christie Rampone during SheBelieves Cup}

No television deal has ever been quite like the one A+E is bringing to the NWSL, a deal that multiple sources confirmed was in the works for nearly a year. Twenty-two games will be broadcast live on the Lifetime Network, in a Saturday afternoon, game-of-the-week format. The playoffs and NWSL Chhampionship will also be aired on Lifetime Additionally, Dubuc pledged for additional ancillary content that will be part of the core of Lifetime’s brand, going beyond just a pregame, halftime and postgame show. While neither Dubuc nor Plush wished to comment on the incoming on-air talent, both sounded excited.

“Lifetime isn’t just a television brand,” Dubuc said. “It’s a female media brand. We’re not in the game-of-the-week business. We’re in the business of the NWSL. If you’re going got be a media brand, you have to make sure you’re speaking to all women with all interests. That’s our job. It’s an opportunity to bring younger women and girls to Lifetime.”

The question of what type of audience Lifetime and the NWSL could cross over on was one that Dubuc seemed confident would happen organically: “45 to 50 percent of the NFL’s audience is female. Women watch sports. Sports are great dramatic stories. If those stories ares told in a passionate and creative way, women will be interested in that.”

“There is the modern reality of cross-generational viewing,” Plush added. “I’m very happy to say I watch Project Runway and Dance Moms with my daughter. It’s a new day with how people consume media. Content is what matters.”

That scope indeed appears to be wide-ranging. “A+E’s commitment goes far beyond the national team players,” Gulati said. “They have a commitment to make stars of these players.”

Perhaps the most surprising element of the deal was that A+E Networks was now an equity partner in the NWSL, putting up serious investment in the league, as well as holding two seats on the board. No one would comment on how much money A+E was investing in the league, but many felt it to be “substantial.”

“This is an integrated partnership,” Plush said. “They are an investor. I can’t get into the details, but it’s a long-term partnership.”

“It’s a strategic partnership,” said Dubuc.

“The investment from A+E allows for us to do some other things that the league might not have been able to accomplish,” Gulati said. “It’s somewhat indirect, less a straight line and more of a dotted line.”

On its face, such an investment would suggest that A+E is committed to not just getting into the sports broadcasting business, but rather wishes to be a player in the women’s sports business as a whole. Dubuc certainly speaks in such terms.

“Not only is soccer an incredible and dramatic sport, but also in the narrative of empowering women, being an incredible athlete is an enormous part of being a successful woman,” she said.

“Being a college athlete was a huge part of me becoming a CEO. You have to be aggressive, and you have to compete. We want to show girls and women around the world different ways to think about themselves.

“This isn’t a short-term project. We are committed to growing the league. US Soccer’s involvement is important. Growing a business doesn’t happen overnight. Growing a league is similar to growing a media brand. Our executive team understands that.”

Needless to say, US Soccer, the NWSL, and its owners and players believe that this deal is a win for all involved. How it will transpire over the next three years will be very telling, of the growth of the league and of the sport in the United States. In the meantime, Christie Rampone sipped champagne with Rose Lavelle, the Mewis sisters, Lynn Williams and Stephanie McCaffrey while the most important people in American women’s soccer milled around, savoring their accomplishment.

  • I hope that all of the Lifetime advertising doesn’t center around the “Play Like a Girl” slogan. This is a professional league and the players are WOMEN, not girls.

    • Steglitz49

      They could always show some women’s MMA in the interval.

    • GT

      I mean no disrespect, but don’t be too sensitive. Clearly the “Play like a girl” slogan speaks to the strength of females of all ages.

      • wosofan

        Exactly, just like the phrase Girl Power.

        • Steglitz49

          Do chickens read or write? Or light cigars?

  • Som Termanni

    > If you’re going got be a media brand, you have to make sure you’re speaking to all women with all interests. That’s our job. It’s an opportunity to bring younger women and girls to Lifetime.

    Any ideas about what, if anything, they’ll do to bring soccer fans who aren’t younger women and girls to Lifetime?

    > Dubuc pledged for additional ancillary content that will be part of the core of Lifetime’s brand, going beyond just a pregame, halftime, and postgame show.

    Soccer-geared (In-depth analysis, women’s soccer news not limited to the NWSL) or personality-geared (what the teams already do on social media)?

    NYT reported advanced real-time stats are included in the deal. No mention of that? Any details? Existing STATS LLC partnership expanded, or move to Opta?

    > Lifetime Network—a basic cable channel carried in 96 million homes worldwide

    Per Bloomberg, that number is 91.6M, not 96M.

    > In addition to the broadcast of 20 game-of-the-week-style matches on the Lifetime Network

    Per NYT, 22 regular-season matches, playoffs, and finals are in the deal.

    • Steglitz49

      4% of 95% is more than 70% of 5%.

      As the old Swedish children’s program was called: “Five ants are more than four elephants”.

      • GT

        Stick to meatballs.

    • mockmook

      Perhaps both are correct.

      20 regular season

      1 Semi

      1 Final

      22 total

      • Rdalford

        text from NYT article of NWSL A+E deal re number of games
        “The initial package for the 2017 season, which will start in April, is for 25 games: 22 games of the week, on Saturdays at 4 p.m. Eastern, and the league’s playoff semifinals and final.”

        • Bruce

          A 20 game regular season with 2 bye weeks per team = 22 weeks of soccer, right?

          • tonysocref

            Per Lauletta and his sources, 2017 is going to be a 24 match schedule. Sounds like there is going to be some midweek matches scheduled this year.
            Now that they have this (TV) taken care of, hopefully the schedule will be out soon. Camps open in about 5 weeks.

    • GT

      Their daughters, wives and girlfriends?

      • Steglitz49

        “… and our daughters’ daughters will adore us
        and sing in grateful chorus:
        well done, sister suffragette!”

  • Som Termanni

    > More than 14 years after ESPN2 kicked the WUSA to to the curb

    WUSA rejected an ESPN deal when the league launched. Their deal was with TNT, then with PAX. http://www.newsday.com/sports/wusa-the-epilogue-lack-of-television-insight-is-no-1-reason-league-is-on-the-shelf-1.368183

    • Steglitz49

      The picture used to illustrate this article tells us more about WoSo than we would like to acknowledge.

      • LL11

        That’s a real stretch there. This is merely a picture of the league’s athletes who were at the event.

        • Steglitz49

          Which tells you even more.

  • Som Termanni

    Won’t be aired by Lifetime in Canada: https://twitter.com/lifetimetvca/status/827270621746716673

    • guest

      disappointing – with Sinclair/other fairly well know Canadian WNT players active in NWSL would seem to be a missed opportunity not to also provide TV coverage viewable in Canada

      • Steglitz49

        Is there any evidence that Canadians care about WoSo?

        • frosty

          Yes

          • Steglitz49

            Good.

  • Steglitz49

    Sweden’s TV has agreed to show Sweden’s matches in the Algarve Cup live on mainline SVT2, National Swedish TV. They are the matches against Australia, China and The Netherlands.

  • Guest

    I’m mostly interested in how streaming will work. I hope they get everything sorted out before the season starts, and if not they should put games on YouTube until their app is ready.

  • Som Termanni

    Excelle gets Plush on the record saying the TV deal had no connection to the minimum salary increase: http://www.excellesports.com/news/nwsl-ae-growth-standards-salary/

    • GT

      It would make sense that there is a connection, but why would he lie. Would it show weakness to admit it was connected?

      • A_Dog_Without_A_Clutch

        I think the HAO (and to an extent Crystal Dunn) situation has scared them up to increase the minimum wage for stability sake. It seems like a move to retain the Jen Hoy-types of the NWSL.

        • GT

          I’m sure it was business driven and not out of the goodness of their hearts. (I know, synical.)

      • Som Termanni

        The best I can figure is that the minimum salary increase was small enough to be handled by the league’s slow growth, and the Lifetime deal involved Lifetime taking equity and shouldering risk instead of paying the league a significant amount of money.

        It also sounded like at least some terms of the Lifetime deal weren’t solidified until a few days before the announcement (for instance, the league schedule is still being revised to account for the Sat. 4pm scheduling, players had no idea about the deal, and the top available WNT stars were already booked for the announcement date). The minimum salary increases were leaked and confirmed weeks ago.

  • mockmook

    Wow, Lavelle looking super cute there — perhaps trying to get a jump on being a “star”

    • Steglitz49

      Nice to see them in civil garb for a change. Real women.

      • Stegpitz49

        you are such a subtly misogynist troll

  • Ando91881

    Not sure I agree with the statement that 45-50% of the NFL fanbase is female. Maybe the merchandising aspect is. The TV audience for the NFL regular season is more like 38% female. Maybe The Super Bowl hits 45% but that is an exception.

  • GT

    This sounds like a fantastic idea. This may be transformational. Finally someone thinking outside the box. Good luck!!!!

  • wosofan

    Kristie Mewis is going to be to 2017 what Kealia Ohai was to 2016.

    • guest

      that girl has less of a chance than huerta at ever suiting up in a NT kit again. aka less than zero.

      • mockmook

        People would have said the same about Long a few years back.

  • GT

    Why weren’t all 10 owners there? This may make them richer?

    • Arcie Tillydee

      In Merritt Paulson’s case, the Timbers have been right in the middle of the process of adding an expensive Designated Player (“expensive” to the tune of about $5 million in combined transfer fee and salary). Paulson tends to take a direct hand in roster moves at that level (not in terms of soccer evaluation, of course…but in the financial end of any such deal).

      • Som Termanni

        It also sounds like nobody outside of the league office knew about the deal until a few days ago. Making spur-of-the-moment travel plans is probably difficult for folks with schedules like theirs, and in Lynch’s case he might not be able to afford to take the train up to NYC willy-nilly unless the military is somehow involved.

  • wosofan

    The deal could take this league to year 8 which would be a huge win for the sport.

  • Lifetime will be broadcasting sports for the first time since it aired WNBA games

  • FawcettFan14

    I will be sad to lose YouTube as a consistent, universally-accessible platform to watch NWSL on. The games could be viewed whenever and wherever you pleased, from anywhere around the world. For all its merits and the production values it brings, the Lifetime televised games and streaming might be more limited in their access. Not sure how geoblocking will work, for example. I hope Plush et al realize how much NWSL fans love the access we’ve enjoyed to this point.

    • FawcettFan14

      Follow-up to my own post, a quote from Meg Linehan’s article on Excelle.

      “Balancing commitment and growth isn’t always easy, though. In its rapid evolution, the NWSL doesn’t want to leave anything behind, particularly its international audience. While the days of free YouTube streams of NWSL games are likely over, Plush says he wants to use the advantages that free streams brought—primarily, increased accessibility and a larger global audience—as a selling point to find a new digital partner. Right now, though, he doesn’t have an answer to who that partner might be.”

      Here’s the full story link: http://www.excellesports.com/news/nwsl-ae-growth-standards-salary/

    • Rdalford

      echo your point about value (to local and international fans) of YouTube stream that providing consistent non-geoblocked access and ability to view whenever and wherever one wanted.

  • Som Termanni

    A new draft executive order extends the immigration and visa bans to Egypt, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, Venezuela, Philippines, and Mali. It could be signed within the next two weeks: http://www.icontact-archive.com/XWhzD1MzXjck4ZhvIu5IAkMTwGRAoVGH?w=3

    This could potentially affect Nadia Nadim, a Dane who is from Afghanistan, when she returns to the US for the NWSL, whether directly via the order or indirectly through misapplication of the order by CBP. It would not affect members of the French, German, or English national teams for the SheBelieves Cup.

    CBP have not respected court orders to allow dual citizens or travelers not from the list of affected nations, nor do the existing order nor the new draft order exempt P-1 visas for athletes.

    • Bruce

      The cited source of the leaked information (AILA) is now reporting that the State Department has stated that no travel ban extension is in the works.

      Again, saddened that this is even a topic of discussion.

      http://www.aila.org/infonet/practice-alert-travel-warning

      • Som Termanni

        Thank you for the update.

    • sudeep das

      Can’t believe they are not including the Saudis – the funding source of Islamic terrorism?

      • guest

        or the other Gulf States where our dear leader has business interests? He is owned by foreign banks.

        • whataboutism

          who cares. Hillary emailed abortions to benghazi that’s all that matters.

      • Arcie Tillydee

        It’s all about the Benjamins (and pandering to the two-digit-IQ crowd).

        • mockmook

          What a shocker.

          The hypocrite AT (always criticizing and blocking other commenters for “political” talk on a WoSo site), comes out throwing firebombs when it suits him.

  • Som Termanni

    NWSL Media is already hiring. Here’s the job description for lead counsel:
    http://nwslsoccer.teamworkonline.com/teamwork/r.cfm?i=108421

    Some notable details:

    – Work with sales team and broadcast partners to negotiate, administer, and draft comprehensive sponsorship deals that take advantage of all available inventory

    – Work with GM to negotiate, administer and draft content licensing and carriage agreements with traditional and digital broadcast partners

    – Work with NWSL League office to negotiate, administer, and draft retail licensing deals alongside sponsorship agreements, including travel from NY to Chicago

    The retail push is exciting. Seeing licensed gear, merch, and NWSL sponsorships in mainstream retail outlets would be amazing.