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The Lowdown: Looking at 3 issues facing NWSL

NWSL's deal with A+E is a landmark one for the league, but like all business deals comes with its concerns (graphic by NWSL)

NWSL’s deal with A+E is a landmark one for the league, but like all business deals comes with its concerns (graphic by NWSL)

We’re not even two weeks out from NWSL announcing a major media deal with A+E and already the league is preparing for a crush of negativity with the expected move of Carli Lloyd to Manchester City. If that happens as expected, Lloyd will be the fourth player to start 2016 on the subsidized list who will be starting 2017 in Europe. That along with NWSL’s relative silence since the A+E announcement has some NWSL fans on edge.

As usual, the real story about the state of NWSL lies somewhere between the unfettered euphoria over the A+E partnership and the utter despair over another national team regular leaving for Europe.

NWSL, A&E deal

Overall vibe: extremely positive

Backing it up: Having an outside entity not only take an interest in the league but a stake in it (Caitlin Murray of FOX Sports reported A+E now owns 25% of NWSL) cannot possibly be viewed through anything but a positive lens. The deal includes a Game of the Week on Lifetime in a set time slot including a fully produced, 30-minute pregame show plus an investment of capital.

The television deal covers three years, which is the opposite of the last four years which were all limited, one-year rights deals. They often had messy rollouts, too. The 2015 announcement was made less than two hours before the United States-Germany World Cup semifinal kicked off and included a hidden change in date for the NWSL Championship. Last year the commissioner teased an announcement ahead of the regular season opener. It came, but with the codicil that the first televised match was five months in the offing. The new agreement not only means more games to watch, but for the first time an NWSL off-season will begin with no questions about where and when fans will be able to find matches a year down the road.

The deal also calls for NWSL and A+E to form a media and sponsorship arm for the league, NWSL Media. This could turn out to be the most significant part of the A+E venture. As much as the 2015 World Cup delivered an injection of energy into NWSL, the league was unable to capitalize on it from a sponsorship standpoint. Lining up with a partner to help push this area forward could have more long-range impact on NWSL than being able to see a match on television every Saturday.

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Cause for concern? Every partnership looks and sounds good at its outset. But every partnership has a red flag or two attached, and this one is no different. The marketing strategy and iffy broadcast window are among them, but those are two factors that can easily be adjusted if and when it becomes necessary.

Of more concern is what happens as the end of the three-year agreement approaches. If things go poorly, will there be a soft landing point for NWSL owners? If things go well, will they progress in a manner that suits the vision and needs of both sides? Will other, bigger networks like FOX be in play, or does the exclusivity to A+E (ESPN is under the same umbrella as A+E) remain for as long as they are business partners with the league? That will be a good problem to have obviously.

There is also no answer yet to how and where the non-televised matches will be streamed which has fans, especially those from outside the United States, in a mild state of panic. With 60 days until the presumed season openers, it will likely be a scramble to have everything up and running in time. That could make for a messy launch, but that too can be overcome.

USWNT exodus to Europe

The vibe: very negative

Carli Lloyd appears to be the next USWNT player to leave NWSL for Europe(Getty Images)

Carli Lloyd appears to be the next USWNT player to leave NWSL for Europe(Getty Images)

As I said above, Lloyd would be the fourth player from last year’s allocation list to go to Europe. One of them, Heather O’Reilly, is retired from international soccer and was not slated to be paid by U.S. Soccer again. Another, Alex Morgan, stated her long-term commitment to Orlando Pride in her announcement about going to Lyon. Crystal Dunn said not this year for NWSL, and Carli Lloyd has so far said nothing.

So what gives?

Backing it up: Losing prominent players is never good for any league. Morgan and Lloyd in particular can literally move the ticket sales needle, and all four add levels of intrigue and sophistication to matches. And Morgan’s absence could be crippling to the Pride, who paid a king’s ransom to acquire her when they came into the league and may not be deep enough to withstand her absence. The same can be said of Dunn in Washington, although the situation there is far more complicated.

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I’ve been firmly on the side of keeping an even keel on this since Morgan made the first announcement in December. But obviously the more players that leave NWSL, the more difficult it becomes to justify as a one-off and to sell the league to fans as the place to see their favorite national team players every week. So just how alarmed should we be?

Silver linings: When A+E was introduced as NWSL’s partner, it was with a specific aim at trying to make stars out of the league rather than making a league out of stars. That mentality will prevail over the loss of any single player, and probably over the loss of any four players. And NWSL is still filled with excellent players including international talent like Jess Fishlock, Rachel Daly, Sam Kerr and others—all of whom could easily land contracts in Europe.

NWSL is also the home to some great young talent like Lynn Williams, Lauren Barnes, Shea Groom, Leah Galton and Vanessa DiBernardo, just to name a few.

Jeff Plush last month said the league is not looking to add a mechanism similar to Major League Soccer’s designated player rule that allows clubs to spend beyond the salary cap to attract specific players on a limited basis. I’m with the majority though who believe that is the surest way to start competing with the likes of Lyon and some of the FAWSL clubs whose purse strings are tied to major men’s clubs.

The collective bargaining agreement

The vibe – uneasy

Reasons to worry: The lack of a new agreement between the national team players and U.S. Soccer appears to be the reason for the list of subsidized players not being announce to this point. It has also been the source of uncertainty surrounding the contract status of all national team players. Morgan has said she plans to return to the Pride after the Lyon season but it does not appear she has a contract binding her to that arrangement. Similarly, Dunn and now likely Lloyd are off to Europe, apparently without any sort of transfer involved.

NWSL was founded on the basis that U.S. Soccer and its CONCACAF partners in Canada and Mexico would help offset player costs and fund the league office. The lack of a CBA at that time nearly unhinged the league before it started. Four years later the league and its clubs are established and A+E is on board as a major partner. In other words things are not tied to US Soccer quite as much as they were at startup. But Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, was part of the A+E announcement and the organization is still very much involved.

A slightly greater, short-term concern is that neither Plush nor some players have guaranteed the remaining national team players will be at preseason without a deal.

Reasons for optimism: The threat of a work stoppage has lingered for a year and has not happened yet. That coupled with Gulati’s recent comments that the tone of talks had changed with new players in the room are just two indicators that this is more likely to be resolved than not, even if the timing is something less than perfect.

Furthermore, if the players are balking at NWSL preseason, it only means they prioritize it more than we might meet the eye. Even if they miss some time, and even if some are in Europe, that’s a good thing.

Free kicks

-The schedule should be out this week, possibly with home openers out ahead of the full monty. Note that should when it comes to any schedule should be taken lightly. So while it should be out this week, hang tight on planning any NWSL schedule discussion parties for this weekend.

-The season is supposed to open the weekend of April 15-16 which would put the Lifetime debut on the 15th. The five NWSL venues best suited for television–Portland, Orlando, Houston, Chicago, and North Carolina–are all booked that day.

-The Pride acquired an international slot from the Red Stars in exchange for their 2nd round pick in 2018. That puts the Pride completely out of next year’s draft for the moment. I believe this trade will turn out to be a bigger deal for the Pride than it seems like.

-Michelle Betos is heading to Norway which is maybe the most surprising defection from NWSL this off-season. After starting her career as a backup, Betos went on to win NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year in 2015 and helped the Thorns win the Shield in 2016.

-Happy to see the Courage bring Scott Vallow back as Paul Riley’s assistant. Vallow ran the sideline for the then Western New York Flash in last year’s NWSL Championship after Riley was sent off during the semifinals and suspended for the final.

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