February 20, 2019 will likely mark a pivot point for the history of professional women’s soccer in the United States. The news that the relationship between A+E Networks and the NWSL was being dissolved immediately after two years of a three-year deal has sent shockwaves through the world of women’s soccer in the U.S., and though the decision is likely to have little effect on the short-term viability of the NWSL, the long-term ramifications could be dire.
Few likely felt that the league and its broadcast partner had a long-term future after two years of what could generously be called lukewarm support from A+E. Approaching the deal with what seemed like an attitude of ‘air the games, and they will come’, A+E did indeed air the games through Lifetime but only drew test pattern ratings throughout the deal. There was little in the way of imagination from the broadcaster, though the presentation of the games themselves was often exemplary. There was no television coverage of the Draft, a chance to build hype in the brutally long offseason. There was also little in the way of flexibility with a late afternoon Saturday time slot that created logistical problems (sometimes to the point of endangering athlete safety), nor was there any real desire to develop shoulder programming, even as a web exclusive, to buttress a sluggishly small fanbase.
But the timing of the announcement could hardly be more auspicious for the league. I write this on a Wednesday, with the league’s regular schedule set to drop in less than twenty-four hours, a highlight of the offseason for most, but one which will now be overshadowed by the news that none of those matches will be on broadcast television barring an eleventh hour deal before the season or a truncated package settled with the season in progress.
Howard Megdal notes that an offer from NBC Sports Network is on the table. If the league is able to finalize that deal, the short-term pain would likely be eclipsed by the long-term gain such a partnership would provide. Though the footprint of NBCSN isn’t nearly as affecting as ESPN, the broadcaster has shown an aptitude in promoting men’s soccer that could potentially translate to the women’s game. Besides the game production aspect, NBCSN has excelled at shoulder programming such as highlight shows and docuseries that the NWSL is in desperate need of after an absence of such offerings since the league’s birth.
However, the odds of such a partnership bearing immediate fruit or even being sealed within the next month and a half look daunting. Broadcast production costs money, and it’s highly unlikely that NBCSN would be able to shift the necessary resources towards even putting on one game a week from the start of the 2019 season. Midseason would likely be more realistic, though the network could potentially wait for a potential spike in interest after the Summer’s Women’s World Cup in France.
The worst case scenario though is the absence of the league being on broadcast television for the entirety of the 2019 season. It’s scarcely believable that someone wouldn’t pick games up if the USA lives up to expectation and is triumphant in France in July, but an unexpected early exit could staunch demand at the worst possible time.
All of which brings us back to the timing of the announcement. The question of “why now?” has to be asked given the sudden shock of the decision to part ways. Did A+E Networks really view the league as such a loser that they were unwilling to even ride out a lame duck final year on their original contract? If the league itself initiated the breakup, how untenable was the situation so that they knowingly walked into the wilderness with the potential of being stuck in a non-televised abyss for a year (or even longer)? And why did this decision come down at the end of February? Surely, it would have been more prudent for a break to have been made shortly after the 2018 season had ended. The cynic in me wonders if the league knew the game was up well before Wednesday and chose what they felt was an opportune moment to release said news or simply waited until almost the literal last minute to tear the band-aid off.
The reaction to the news around the WoSo-verse (of which I admittedly pay fleeting attention to), has been decidedly mixed. But others outside of the insular WoSo community have taken notice of the spin from NWSL president and de facto commissioner Amanda Duffy, with the claim of the divorce with A+E Networks being a ‘win-win’ being met with raised eyebrows from Awful Announcing among other outlets. It is a darkly on-brand statement from the head of the league, whose tenure thus far has been a juggling act of statements resembling little more than pablum while also managing to remain muted in the face of crises, small and not-so-small.
Buried in the bigger news of the TV deal going away might be the bigger and more critical story in the long run, that of the equity that had been with A+E returning to the league/teams themselves. Duffy noted that:
“With team operators having full ownership and full control over the league – and also with commercial properties in NWSL Media – we feel that this is a welcome element for expansion conversations, that new team owners would be excited about,”
Never mind the fantasy of potential owners being lured to a league without a national television deal, what of the owners having total control once more? It’s a tantalizing thought if you believe the Portlands and Utahs of the league can transfer some of their box office success to some of their brethren. But the opposite side of the coin is just as true, with the deadbeat ownership of Sky Blue and the malaise of Orlando just as likely to be a threat to the long-term viability of the NWSL.
Until the league can bring in a dedicated television partner to replace and improve upon what was just lost, it’s largely going to be up to the nine franchises to determine if they collectively sink or swim. Whether that’s reassuring heading into arguably the most crucial season in the history of the NWSL is largely in the eye of the beholder.