The NWSL is at a crossroads. The league’s three-year media rights deal with CBS expires at the end of the year, and commissioner Jessica Berman expects a new deal to be in place by the end of the 2023 season.
The benefits of the next deal are significant. Get it right, and the league will increase cash flow, greater contact with fans, and team evaluations and expansion fees. Get it wrong, and not only will games become more accessible than they are now, the NWSL will continue to lag behind other leagues in building a strong financial base.
There are many questions that arise. What is the fairest assessment the NWSL can expect, especially when we see MLS and US Soccer commanding huge payouts? Should the league prioritize financial exposure or the other way around? What’s the long-term game here?
As the clock ticks down on the league’s self-sanctioned deadline, the decisions the NWSL and its board of governors will make in choosing the right media partner (or partners) and what we know so far about the league’s history, media deals and general landscape may indicate.
Potential rights holders
According to NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman, CBS, the NWSL’s current English-language partner, had a unique negotiation period with the league that ended in January. NWSL does not share with other rights holders they may be affiliated with.
Agreement at the end of the season
Berman said earlier this month that the goal is to “be in a position to finalize our media deal in conjunction with the conclusion of the game and the season.” The hope is that viewership for the NWSL Championship will rise again — perhaps cracking one million for the first time — which is the league’s best shot at promoting how to watch next season’s games.
Effort is involved
Berman and the NWSL front office are working with Endeavor (and subsidiary IMG), which distributes the league’s international media rights. Endeavor is a major player in the world of sports – the company has partnerships with the NHL and the NHL, owns the Professional Bullying League and owns the majority of WWE and UFC under TKO Group Holdings.
Endeavor signed a deal earlier this year to become the NWSL’s data and streaming provider, which includes running a streaming platform on the NWSL website for the league’s global audience.
Influences media industry discourse.
Ahead of the Challenge Cup final, Burman was asked how the current state of the media industry might affect the deal.
“It’s a tough time for the media industry, it’s very fragmented and cost-cutting measures are happening across all media properties,” Berman said. That being said, even though that dynamic exists and we’re certainly aware of it, we’re really proud of how far we’ve come in the negotiations and we expect to have something big that won’t be held back by those externalities. He said.
Players can benefit.
According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the NWSL Players Association, if the league is profitable in the last three years of the CBA, 10% of any media rights deals will be player compensation (discussed in detail in Section 8.13). That’s a big “if” right now, but from a long-term perspective for PA It remains a solid win.
The league has publicly shared some attendance metrics over the course of the year, but they haven’t disclosed anything about regular attendance. The latest of these came in June, “CBS regular season viewership up 21 percent, with total variety viewership up more than 50 percent on Paramount+.
Without full context, it’s hard to know if this is actually enough to make the NWSL a more lucrative media rights deal.
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What to expect from the NWSL
There is no exact standard for men’s or women’s sports media rights deals – each is structured differently. The split between linear and streaming broadcasts, the legal entity covering production costs, editorial support, ad sales… these and more are negotiable.
Cosner Media President John Cosner and Desser Media President Ed Desser are two industry veterans – both worked on the NCAA media and sponsorship rights review as part of a comprehensive gender equity review of women’s college basketball. Talk to The Athletic about what the NWSL expects from the next contract, in their view.
“If you want to be a real rights-paying sport, you have to be a property that averages a million people,” Kosner said. “The traditional big-time deal that everybody wants would be a rights fee, where the (media) entity pays for the production. For a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the NWSL, there are fewer and fewer of them going now.
Right now, he says, there may not be any network that considers the NWSL “wanting,” but it’s close to “interesting,” and that has everything to do with the number of listeners.
There’s also the reality of a media ecosystem that has historically undervalued women’s sports.
“This traditional model is about spreadsheets, and now there’s circular logic in these spreadsheets,” said WNBA Chief Development Officer Colleen Addison. She offered a hypothesis: Because the league doesn’t have advertisers, potential TV partners won’t offer broadcast windows to women’s sports leagues. Advertisers will not cooperate with the league without broadcast windows. Buyers tell the league they won’t get windows without advertisers. The cycle can be hard to escape.
“We need to break the mold and introduce a new way of valuing women’s sport,” Edison continued. “That means pulling levers around non-traditional issues like who our audience is, the diversity of our women who play, their strong stances on social justice, community activism in our diverse audiences. We need to flip that narrative just a little bit.”
In addition to the potential path the WNBA offers, there is another sports property that could provide a growth model for the NWSL, according to Cosner: Formula 1.
In the year When Liberty Media bought F1 in 2017, the sport wasn’t consistently pulling in large numbers of American viewers, and ESPN announced a traditional pay-per-view race in 2018. Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” series to increase viewership. When ESPN rebounded last year, they signed a three-year deal worth $75-90 million per year.
F1 and the NWSL are by no means a one-to-one comparison, but there’s certainly a lesson there – namely, that building audiences in creative ways can mean a big payday the next time the NWSL sells out.
“I would argue that the dollar number is less important,” Deser said. “It’s easy for me to say that making money isn’t important to your business – it really is.”
For Deser, though, the NWSL is still in its infancy, and just putting games on TV doesn’t guarantee viewers.
“It’s a multifaceted effort,” he said. “It’s not just getting the shelf space.”
History of NWSL Media Rights Agreements
The NWSL’s current $4.5 million deal with CBS was signed before the pandemic (and extended an extra year after Covid-19 upended the season). The league lost money on this deal because it bears production costs for matches.
The league also signed a deal with Twitch for their international rights at the same time, though that deal is slated to expire after the 2022 season. Both deals were negotiated with the help of sports marketing behemoth Octagon before the league began working with Endeavor through a partnership agreement that included media rights consulting and marketing strategy.
The CBS deal calls for six games to be shown on the main linear channel, including the Challenge Cup final and the championship game in prime time. CBS Sports Network offers 23 extras, including playoffs, but CBSSN is not Nielsen-rated. In the year It was in 50 million households in 2019, but that number has since declined due to more cord-cutting trends. The rest of the matches are on the CBS-owned Paramount+ streaming service, although some will also be broadcast on CBS’s Golazo network, which is free to watch online.
As part of the Twitch deal, the league put together some smaller deals with Tigo Sports for free-to-view Spanish-language broadcasts, TSN to broadcast the league in Canada, and DAZN for some international “non-exclusive broadcast rights.” Markets including the United Kingdom, Brazil and Spain. In the year In 2023, Endeavor made free streams available to international viewers on the league’s website.
History may judge the Twitch partnership as a punch, especially when the platform stops promoting the league on its homepage.
CBS has its pros and cons, but overall it felt underwhelming. Had league sponsor Ali not stepped in to force the issue, the NWSL would never have earned a primetime spot in the championship game. CBS has amassed a lot of soccer rights, and they’ve built some programming around the league (like Attacking Third), but the NWSL has never been its most glamorous property.
Before CBS, the NWSL only managed a short-term deal with ESPN through the middle of the 2019 season. The league needed that short-term deal after it ended its partnership with A+E a year before it would have added an equity stake (disclosure: I did joint media work for A&E and the NWSL in that partnership).
Prior to that partnership, which lasted from 2017 to 2019, the NWSL had a one-year deal with either FOX Sports or ESPN since the league’s inception in 2013.
The MLS deal with Apple is huge ($2.5 billion, over 10 years), but it shouldn’t set expectations for the NWSL.
“It gave (MLS) an opportunity to jump on revenue,” Desser said. But they had to change the exposure in the process. Both experts said the NWSL still needs to do the opposite in terms of its long-term path.
The NWSL can look to the WNBA as a benchmark, though Desser said it’s been “a long, hard road” for the league, more than 25 years after Desser said it has reached a level of “acceptability in critical assets.”
Earlier this year, the WNBA signed a multi-year deal to broadcast games on the Ion Network for $13 million a year. Ratings are set for the WNBA on ESPN/ABC platforms, but the Ion Network will allow the league to build appointment viewership with its fans — and help put the WNBA in a strong position to negotiate with ESPN after the current deal expires in the 2025 season.
“We understand that cable models are losing subscribers,” Edison said of the Ion deal. “With Ion, we’ve taken a bold step to return to an over-the-air model. We’re the fifth largest network in the country in over 110 million homes. We’re seeing those numbers prove the point in viewership that you need to reach your audience and your fans where they are.
There are other women’s sports properties currently looking to renew or start their media rights deals, from the LPGA to the PWHL, the new women’s hockey league. Across the board, however, the theme is that female sports viewers may be left disappointed by the cost-cutting measures.
And above all that? The NFL still buys it all.
“Budgets are shrinking,” Deser said. “You’re trying to get bigger water in a cooler flow. That’s the reality, and that’s when he got a 40% raise in the NFL. So talk about taking the water out of the pond.
NWSL should get it.
Women’s sports viewership is increasing across the board. According to Nielsen, the demand is there – the biggest challenges are still access and lack of information. “To meet this demand, broadcasters must prioritize women’s sports, make them more visible and promote them more passionately,” the 2023 report concludes.
“People look at the development of women’s soccer, the excitement about the World Cup, and say, ‘Well, it’s going to happen for us now.’ There is hard work.”
That 915,000 viewership mark for last year’s championship — along with the World Series and college football to boot — is a strong data point for the NWSL, but it’s only a single data point. The NWSL will have to make some financial leaps in their rights payments.
The NWSL needs to break the stereotypes surrounding women’s sports to demonstrate that there is an untapped market and that they can be a part of growing the audience.
(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)