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Lauletta, Kronick discuss NWSL media partnership

Thursday was a red-letter day in the tenure of Jeff Plush as NWSL commissioner. (Photo Courtesy NWSLsoccer.com)

Thursday was a red-letter day in the tenure of Jeff Plush as NWSL commissioner. (Photo Courtesy NWSLsoccer.com)

Thursday, NWSL announced a breakthrough agreement with A+E Networks that will see a weekly match broadcast on Lifetime every Saturday during the regular season over the next three years and makes A+E an investor and board member. They will also jointly launch NWSL Media to serve as the league’s official marketing and broadcast arm. All non-televised matches will now be streamed in HD under the NWSL Media banner.

Dan Lauletta and Hannah Kronick are here to discuss their thoughts on the new agreement.

Q: What are your general thoughts on this partnership?

Dan: It is a very good day for NWSL. After scratching and clawing to slip into leftover time slots on the major sports networks for the last four years, the league now a has a media partner that signaled its commitment by investing its own capital into the project. I very much like that the broadcast deal covers both television and streaming. Though the TV industry looks to be heading in the wrong direction it is still a vital part of getting out the product, but the streaming element will help keep NWSL in touch with the changing landscape of how sports are being distributed. And NWSL Media looks to be NWSL’s answer to when MLS created SUM. That was a much bigger undertaking but the rise of Major League Soccer can be traced to that day.

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Hannah: Overall, very positive. NWSL took a major step on the path towards continued growth today. This deal includes quantity of games and regularity—something the Fox deal in 2016 severely lacked. However, my biggest concern is whether Lifetime is the best broadcast partner. Are we certain that the audience that Lifetime attracts on its network is one that is also a women’s soccer fan, or better yet, a sports fan? Although Nancy Dubuc, the CEO of A+E Networks actually denied this challenge this morning during the press conference, there may be a possibility that the Lifetime viewer is not necessarily a sports fan—so I struggle a bit to see the overlap there. Nonetheless, this partnership, as Dan mentioned, solidifies an investment in the future of the league and a national TV rights deal is THE platform for broad reach and awareness.

Q: Since you mentioned some of the potential challenges with Lifetime, how do you think NWSL will overcome them?

Dan: Two potential concerns I see here. One, as Hannah mentioned, Lifetime is not a sports network. Dubuc seems to think the audience is there to be pulled in. I’m sure she has done far more extensive research than my mere anecdotal studies, but I’m not sure the Lifetime market intersects with the sports market as much as would be ideal. The second is that NWSL has landed on a station that is pretty much targeted exclusively to women. And I thought a good bit of the press conference was aimed that way as well. I took a lot of social media heat for that view and suspect I will get a bit more here, but it concerns me if a large part of the potential market it lopped off from the start. As to how they overcome it, I will start by trusting that Dubuc knows what she is doing and hope that there is just enough overlap in marketing that things balance out.

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Hannah: My additional concern here other that what we have already stated regarding the audience of the network, is the association with the network. To capture casual fans, the NWSL may have benefited from airtime from an ESPN or FOX where sports fans automatically go once they turn on their TV. With the current agreement, I would argue that it will be much harder to acquire casual sports fans on Lifetime than it would have been on ESPN or FOX since Lifetime does not come top of mind when thinking about where to find a game on TV. However, if the NWSL audience and Lifetime do end up overlapping more than we think, maybe it’s more of an effort to turn more females into women’s soccer fans than to turn sports fans into women’s soccer fans.

Q: It seems like the league will be moving away from YouTube as a platform and using a different avenue for streaming matches. While it is early in this process, what are your thoughts?

Hannah: As the only way (outside of the six nationally televised games last year) to access weekly NWSL games and content, YouTube did its job—it was free and it was accessible. I do, however, think that the league is being smart in considering a new streaming partner. Again, while accessible and free, the NWSL YouTube streaming experience was not great. Poor quality video really hindered the viewing and I would venture to say that it may have deterred fans over the last few seasons. A new streaming partner that ensures high quality content would be a great step for the league. The caveat here would be which streaming partner that would be. If the league licensed digital rights to another streaming provider that required cable subscription authentication, there may be some serious distribution issues between Lifetime and said streaming partner. How could we ensure fans had access to both in their current cable packages? Although Jeff Plush has not alluded to a near-term possibility of the league’s own paid streaming product, I do believe that this could be a very viable option to complement the Lifetime deal. This type of product would retain the accessibility we had from YouTube, but create a brand new digital-first platform that the league could monetize and utilize as a new avenue to market itself to its most qualified audience.

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Dan: Straight up –YouTube was always going to be temporary. When the league started, streaming games on YouTube was considered a breakthrough compared to WPS when non-televised games were relegated to raw highlights where you could hear a spotter calling out numbers to assist the statisticians. Furthermore, the league was in its infancy and just trying to figure out how to get by. At some point there was going to have to be an exit strategy to get to a stronger, more flexible platform. But here is what YouTube did for us. It allowed every match to be watched live or on delay at anytime with what amounted to full DVR capabilities. Whatever comes next, it would satiate most fans if those two features were able to remain.

In terms of a pay service, assuming it does not happen this year, I would like to see NWSL start some sort of supporters club so that when it does happen, those who have been with the league from the start can be in line for some sort of break to ease the transition.

Q: The 4 p.m. ET ‘appointment’ viewing window seems like a boon for the league. Could there be drawbacks?

Dan: Yes. First, the 4 p.m. window has been problematic in the past, at least so far as MLS can be used as a guide. Maybe MLS just wasn’t ready for it at the time, but two things that won’t change are that no one wants to play soccer at 4 p.m. on a hot summer day in Orlando or 3 p.m. in Houston; and that it cuts into the audience that doubled up on youth soccer tournaments. It will also be interesting to see how different markets respond to having some of their game times adjusted. A few years ago Plush was preaching market relevance. This seems to fly in the face of that. The good news is that if it does not work out, Lifetime is likely much more flexible to tweaking it than any of the major sports outlets would ever be.

Hannah: Although this time slot is going to be tough, I think that it actually might be okay. Reason for that being—what is the alternative? There are too many sports programming conflicts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday primetime such as the NBA or the NFL across a variety of networks with higher viewership—competing against that would be tough. Weeknight prime is also reserved for sports programming such as weeknight NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL and most likely conflicts with Lifetime’s original content and programming schedule for their owned series. For those reasons, I would argue it is Okay; not ideal, but not horrible. However, MLS, in addition to owning Soccer Sunday, will be adding a variety of Saturday windows to its national broadcast schedule and this adds to Dan’s argument that this timeslot is problematic. On Saturdays where game windows overlap, it will be tough for the NWSL to go up against MLS programming on either ESPN or FS1. In any event, I am sure Lifetime will evaluate after (or during) year 1 of the deal and re-assess if necessary.

Q: The agreement is for three years. Where do you see the league at that time?Any other thoughts?

Hannah: The end of the agreement will mean the NWSL will have completed its seventh year—which is pretty incredible. At that time I hope we will see a) expansion and b) more MLS partnerships. Expansion is important for league growth and Plush knows that, but has also stressed it must be done in the right way at the right time. Over the next three years, I hope we see 4-5 new clubs strategically placed in growing women’s soccer markets. In addition to expansion, partnerships between MLS and NWSL clubs are going to continue to be important. With models like Portland, Houston and Orlando to follow, it’d be great to see the Washington Spirits and Sky Blue FCs of the world to be able to form strong partnerships with their MLS in-market teams to increase growth of each club and the league as a whole.

Lastly, by year three of the agreement, the league will be looking to what’s next in a year (2019) where women’s soccer and U.S. women’s soccer specifically will be more relevant and top of mind than ever before as the USWNT return to the World Cup stage to defend their title and avenge Olympic disappointment. Riding on the coattails of what I foresee as a massive year for women’s soccer in awareness and momentum might just be exactly what the league needs to re-start negotiations with the sport media conglomerates such as ESPN and Fox, touting the previous three year’s success stories.

Dan: Great point about 2019, Hannah. In the madness of the day it had not occurred to me that the end of this TV agreement expires during the next World Cup year. That figures to make for a solid ending in terms of ratings and hopefully sponsorships. Here is my question though. If A+E has an equity stake in the league, can NWSL then go and look for a better broadcast partner at the end of 2019? ESPN is under the same umbrella as A+E so that may be an easier transition a la the WNBA but shifting to FOX could prove challenging. Additionally, if A+E wants out at that time, will they have the league in too deep to break away and survive on its own?

Those are the worst-case scenarios though. What I expect out of the next three years is for NWSL to grow and become firmly established rather than its current state which I would call tenuously established. I expect more teams and more partner teams though some of those might come from surprising areas as opposed to MLS. And I’m cautiously optimistic that more quality players will come and ply their trade here even if a few more U.S. players meander overseas. All in all this is a very good day for NWSL and the creation of NWSL Media reminds me of January 2001 when MLS owners opted not to fold and instead doubled down and created SUM. This will be much smaller scale, but for those of us looking for the league to commit to an aggressive vision of growth, this is surely it.

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