On Wednesday, Ellen Degeneres and Julia Roberts premiered a PSA on the Ellen show featuring celebrities like Zendaya, David Beckham, and James Corden called #Passtheball, in promotion of the NWSL. It’s a strange spot in that, while its intentions are obviously good, it showcases no actual teams or players from the league, nor indicates that those involved have ever actually watched NWSL soccer. The timing is also interesting in that it dropped in anticipation of the Lifetime broadcasts of the NWSL postseason, and during a week where many clubs have opened up their season ticket sales for 2018.
It feels a bit odd to use this promotional push as a way to look at the greater NWSL 2017 media campaign, with games still left to play, but this PSA seems to set a distinctive tone that reaches past post-season matches and into an uncertain future. Here we are 5 years in, and the NWSL remains a difficult beast to explain to sports fans outside of the WoSo community, even though there are still many people out there who’d admit to the casual knowledge that the USWNT is probably the best soccer team in America. And ultimately, while it’s certainly still possible for new entities to carve space within the scattered eco-system of modern entertainment, the NWSL is going to have to decide if it’s a sports league first, or if the actual soccer is always going to be a secondary aspect of its branding.
Verizon’s Go90, the other main broadcast platform for the 2017 NWSL season, continues to be a niche market, still known best for investing in new digital media projects by creators that have made their reputation in the YouTube space (similarly to the way the NWSL was able to broadcast to their growing audience through YouTube live-streaming). However, while that investment could still prove to be financially sound, the actual streams from Go90 over the course of the season have struggled to overcome the feeling that the producers involved don’t actually know that much about the soccer they’re broadcasting. Graphics are frequently muddled, basic typos are still being made, and stat mistakes for things as simple as the league standings indicate a general lack of seriousness with which the whole enterprise is being taken. If the broadcasts of the matches, truly the first line of promotion, give off the vibe that they’re making the rules up as they go and the points don’t matter, soccer fans that aren’t yet familiar with NWSL are going to notice the difference in basic quality that they’re used to.
It’s here as well that the Ellen PSA feels like a deeper acquiescence of something, with an open plea to support one vague idea of an entire league, as one would a charitable donation. When the NWSL announced the Lifetime deal at the beginning of the season, it really felt like they were trying to grow and change as they expanded into their lifespan. And there was always a possibility that with that growth would come a natural loss of some of the league’s traditional audience base. But if a media partnership is intended, first and foremost, to create a map between a viable art form and its greatest possible audience, then one has to be cognizant of cutting down on the ability to reach people by making certain demographics (like..soccer fans?) feel uncomfortable simply by participating. Almost every move at this point, from Julia Roberts asking for support as if it’s your civic duty right down to the continued existence of that ponytail on the NWSL championship trophy can feel like a tiny internalized apology for the league’s entire existence. These are small things that James Corden’s young daughters might not notice, but young adults of all genders probably do. This includes the league’s athletes, for whom basic respect as professional athletes playing at the literal highest level of their sport can still feel difficult to come by, from within the league as well as outside of it.
However, despite the odd timing and scope of the video, an entire league is obviously a large ship to steer, and fighting for support and respect for women’s sports isn’t ever going to be the easiest of battles. Perhaps this just serves as a reminder that the real support for the NWSL has to come on the team level. The playoffs this year feature four squads that are exceptional examples of the best that women’s soccer can offer, with some hardcore star power to go along with it. And those teams are responding to the challenges of their higher profiles by adapting in new ways. The moment the Orlando Pride clinched a historic playoff spot they dropped very cool, playoff-specific merchandise. The Chicago Red Stars have had a consistent branding campaign all year that presented their players as skilled, intrinsic parts of their city. The NC Courage have maintained their team-first identity on and off the pitch despite their location move and the Portland Thorns remain the gold standard of a team that expects not only support from their base, but for them to take actual pride in their team. As long-time fans know, the league has reasons to believe in itself; there’s still so much potential here.