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The Lowdown: From cupcakes to radio silence

There were cupcakes at the media event that joined NWSL with A+E. There has been radio silence ever since. (Photo by MEG LINEHAN)
There were cupcakes at the media event that joined NWSL with A+E. There has been radio silence ever since. (Photo by MEG LINEHAN)

There were cupcakes at the media event that joined NWSL with A+E. There has been radio silence ever since. (Photo by MEG LINEHAN)

Fifty-four days ago, the NWSL and A+E held a massive media event in Manhattan to announce a new partnership. The proverbial landmark arrangement calls for the fifth-year league to appear on national television. Every week. At the same time. If that were not the answer to what NWSL fans have been clamoring for ever since the YouTube stream of the very first game ran about six minutes behind real time, there were other nuggets as well. A redesign of the NWSL website is in the works as is a new NWSL app. Meanwhile, A+E took an equity stake in the league and the two entities combined to form a marketing arm, NWSL Media.

The event had the feel of something important, even for those of us unable to be there. And there were cupcakes.

As of Tuesday though, only 18 days remain until opening day. That means we’re three-quarters of the way from announcement to kickoff. During that time, no details have been announced about a streaming platform for non-Lifetime matches, the league site is slightly enhanced but not redesigned, there is no app, and no announcement about on-air talent has been made. In the meantime, fans are antsy. They want to know when, how, and at what cost they can watch matches this season. A reasonable request, even if the reasons for the delays are equally reasonable.

The question then, is how did we get so close to the season with so little public information? How did we go from cupcakes to radio silence?

The production is going to be good: All indications are that the television product is going to be somewhere between strong and spectacular. Having spoken off the record to people involved at many different levels of the group that will put on the games, I’m expecting good things. There are big time and experienced soccer and television people in the mix at all levels. Anyone thinking we’re going to get soft, aw shucks coverage is mistaken.

At some point I expect Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wager to be announced as the broadcast team for the national games and they will travel to each city. Any production can only be as good as its voices, and these two will offer immediate legitimacy to NWSL on Lifetime. Hildreth has called the last two NWSL Championships—and with this deal it seems, the next three—and has been involved since WPS. Her call of Amy Rodriguez’s goal in the 2015 title match, while recognizing on the fly that beaten right back Elli Reed had just subbed into the match unexpectedly, was a stroke of brilliance.

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Wagner, noted for her commentary of international matches, dipped her toe in the NWSL waters as an analyst at the draft. She is one of the few who has been able to balance the knowledge she acquired from having played the sport at its highest levels with unflinching balance and hard-hitting critiques when needed.

Having been personally ousted from Sky Blue FC’s local broadcast team so the remainder of the matches can be handled out of a central studio, I will withhold my opinion on that arrangement. But for those in agreement with my colleague Hannah Kronick, keep in mind there will be benefits to having the broadcasts centralized.

But why so quiet? Immediately after the announcement, I set out to book an interview with someone at A+E to discuss how the deal came about and to gain a deeper understanding of how things will work, the expectations, and things of that nature. The interview, as well as one with then-NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, was eventually cancelled. This is not intended as a woe-is-me tale, but taking me out of the mix, I have yet to see a single item from either the league or A+E with any quotes outside of what was said at the launch event.

Even if NWSL is on the verge of using Lifetime to break through into the public consciousness, this is, simply put, a public relations fail. Every outlet that covers women’s soccer, and probably several who don’t, would have easily been sold on doing an interview with anyone high up the food chain at A+E or NWSL. This has not happened. Instead NWSL was left holding the bag when Carli Lloyd announced her move to Manchester City (she herself has said she expects to be back in Houston this summer) and slipped Plush’s resignation in midway through the SheBelieves Cup.

On Tuesday, an NWSL spokesperson told me they league is working hard on finalizing linear and digital broadcast plans for the 2017 season. The person added that there have been positive developments and offered optimism that the broadcasts would be of greater quality and be in more households this year. No details though on a partner or timeline.

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The virtual radio silence gives this all the feel of episodic television. But guess what? Many of those shows are experts at keeping themselves in the public conversation. Pete Nowalk, the showrunner for How to Get Away With Murder, often conducts interviews to be posted in the minutes after an episode airs. Many cast members will do the same. A deep dive into these Q&As reveals that that tell us very little—maybe a nugget about what we might find out in a week’s time. But they serve notice that the show is alive and well and they undoubtedly drive conversation among viewers and even potential viewers.

It makes sense that all parties want everything in perfect order before announcing details on the new streaming partner (at this point you can rule out YouTube.) There was a lengthy conference call with A+E executives and the clubs on Monday, but multiple sources have indicated there was no reveal about who the new streaming partner will be. Could they really not know yet? That’s doubtful, but these things take time to test and develop. My original thought that the Portland tournament would be used as the testing ground for the new streaming partner did not happen.

Regardless, the silence is boggling to the mind. If you watch even a little Major League Soccer, you know that its commissioner Don Garber takes every possible opportunity to wax poetic about the league’s growth and future. Of course MLS, despite its recent successes, is not quite as healthy or vibrant as Garber will have you believe. But neither is NWSL as desolate as its perpetual silence would have you believe. And I ask, which of those arrangement has a better feel to it?

In conclusion: I’ve been among the most vocal skeptics of the A+E arrangement, but despite that I really do believe this will be a major net positive for the league. Especially if the production value on the Lifetime games is as high quality as I expect it to be, this should be a banner year for NWSL. The texture of the schedule is the best it has ever been for any season of women’s pro soccer dating back to WUSA, the quality of play is only getting better, and with a sustainable league we finally have clubs with established identities we’re all familiar with.

The radio silence is deafening though. We enjoyed the cupcakes, but we’re ready for the rest of the meal.

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