The NWSL is at a crossroads. The league’s three-year media rights deal with CBS wraps up at the end of the year, and commissioner Jessia Berman expects a new deal to be in place by the end of 2023 season.
The stakes of that next deal are significant. Get it right, and the league gets a cash influx, greater connection with fans, and a resulting boost in team valuations and expansion fees. Get it wrong, and not only could games be more inaccessible than they are now, but the NWSL will continue to lag behind other leagues in building a solid financial foundation.
There are lots of questions to address. What’s a fair valuation for the NWSL to expect, especially when we’ve seen MLS and U.S. Soccer command large fees? Should the league prioritize the financials over exposure, or the other way around? What’s the long-term play here?
With the clock winding down on the league’s self-imposed deadline, here’s what we know so far about the decisions the NWSL and its board of governors will have to make in selecting the right media partner (or partners), and what the league’s history of media deals and the overall landscape could indicate.
What we know
CBS, the NWSL’s current English-language partner in the U.S., had an exclusive negotiation period with the league that ended in January, according to NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. The NWSL has not shared any other rights-holders they may be engaged with.
A deal by the end of the season
Earlier this month Berman said the goal was to “be in a position to finalize our media deal in conjunction with the playoffs and the conclusion of our season.” The hope is that viewership numbers spike again for the NWSL Championship — maybe cracking one million for the first time — which would be the league’s best shot to advertise how to watch next season’s games.
Endeavor is involved
Berman and the NWSL front office are working with Endeavor (and subsidiary IMG), which distributes the league’s global media rights. Endeavor is a major player in the sports world — the company has partnerships with the NFL and NHL, owns the professional bullriding league and is the majority owner of WWE and UFC under TKO Group Holdings.
Endeavor also signed a deal earlier this year to become the NWSL’s data and streaming provider, which includes running the streaming platform for the league’s international viewers on the NWSL website.
Media industry issues impacting talks
Before the Challenge Cup final, Berman answered a question about how the current state of the media industry could impact the deal
“It is a tough time for the media industry, it’s extremely fragmented, and there’s cost-cutting measures happening in almost every media property,” Berman said. “That being said, although that dynamic exists and we’re certainly aware of it, we feel really proud of how far we’ve come in the negotiations and we expect to have a great deal that isn’t really inhibited by those external factors.”
Players could benefit
The league’s collective bargaining agreement with the NWSL Players Association says that, if the league becomes profitable for the final three years of the CBA’s term, 10% of any media rights deals will go to player compensation (detailed more thoroughly in section 8.13). That’s a big “if” right now, but it remains a solid win for the PA from a long-term perspective.
The league has shared some viewership metrics updates throughout the year with the public, but they don’t reveal anything about the actual quantity of regular viewership. The latest one of these came in June, stating that “regular season viewers on CBS have increased 21 percent, total unique viewers on Paramount+ has increased more than 50 percent.”
Without the full context, it’s hard to know if this will be enough to truly vault the NWSL into a more financially lucrative media rights deal moving forward.
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What the NWSL should expect
There’s no true standard for a men’s or women’s sports media rights deal — each is structured differently. The split between linear and streaming broadcasts, which entity covers production costs, editorial support, ad sales…all these and more are up for negotiation.
John Kosner, president of Kosner Media, and Ed Desser, president of Desser Media, are two industry veterans — both worked on the review of the NCAA’s media and sponsorship rights as part of the overall gender equity review of women’s college basketball. They spoke with The Athletic about what, in their view, the NWSL can expect from its next deal.
“You have to be a property that can generate, on average, a million people watching a broadcast if you want to be a true rights-fee sport,” Kosner said. “The traditional big-time deal that everybody wants would be a rights fee, with the (media) entity paying for production. For a variety of reasons having nothing to do with the NWSL, there are fewer and fewer of those to go around now.”
Right now, he said, there’s likely no network that considers the NWSL a “need to have,” but closer to a “nice to have,” and that’s entirely related to its audience size.
There is the reality, too, of a media ecosystem that has historically undervalued women’s sports.
“This traditional model relies on spreadsheets, and there’s circular logic in these spreadsheets right now,” said Colie Edison, the WNBA’s chief growth officer. She presented a hypothetical: a potential TV partner says they won’t give a women’s sports league broadcast windows because the league lacks advertisers. The advertisers won’t partner with the league without broadcast windows. Buyers tell the league that without the advertisers, they don’t get the windows. The cycle can be hard to escape (the good news here for the NWSL is that Ally has been a brand partner willing to step in on the league’s behalf with networks).
“We have to break the mold and introduce a new way to value women’s sports,” Edison continued. “That means pulling on levers around non-traditional aspects, such as who our audiences are, the diversity of our women who are playing, the strong stances they take on social justice, the community activism within our diverse audience spaces. That’s just a little bit of how we need to flip this narrative.”
In addition to the potential path the WNBA offers, there’s another sports property that could offer the NWSL a growth model according to Kosner: Formula 1.
When Liberty Media purchased F1 in 2017, the sport wasn’t pulling in a ton of U.S. viewers on a regular basis, and ESPN showed races without a traditional rights fee in their deal in 2018. However, Liberty was able to leverage the success of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” series to increase viewership. When ESPN re-upped last year, they signed a three-year term that is worth $75-90 million annually.
F1 and the NWSL aren’t a one-to-one comparison by any stretch, but there is certainly a lesson there — namely, that building an audience in creative ways might mean a bigger payday the next time the NWSL shops around.
“I would argue that the dollar number is less important,” Desser said. “I mean, it’s easy for me to say that getting money isn’t important to your business — of course it is.”
For Desser though, the NWSL is still in its infancy, and just putting games on TV doesn’t guarantee viewers.
“It’s a multi-pronged effort,” he said. “Just getting the shelf space alone doesn’t get it done.”
The history of NWSL media rights deals
The NWSL’s current $4.5 million deal with CBS was signed ahead of the pandemic (and extended an extra year after COVID-19 upended the season). The league has lost money on this deal because it bears the costs of production for matches.
The league simultaneously signed an agreement with Twitch for their international rights, though that deal ended as originally scheduled following the 2022 season. Both deals were negotiated with the help of sports marketing behemoth Octagon, via a partnership agreement that included media rights consulting and marketing strategy before the league started working with Endeavor.
The CBS deal calls for six games to air on the main linear channel, including the Challenge Cup final and the championship game in primetime. CBS Sports Network airs another 23, including the playoffs, but CBSSN isn’t Nielsen-rated. By 2019, it was available in about 50 million households, but that number has likely decreased since then following a greater trend of cord-cutting. The rest of the matches are on the CBS-owned Paramount+ streaming service, though some also air on CBS’s Golazo network, which is free to watch online.
With the conclusion of the Twitch deal, the league put together some smaller deals with Tigo Sports for free-to-watch Spanish language broadcasts, TSN for distribution of the league in Canada, and DAZN for “non-exclusive broadcasting rights” for some international markets including the UK, Brazil and Spain. In 2023, Endeavor has run free streams for international viewers on the league’s website.
History will likely judge the Twitch partnership to be a bust, especially when the platform stopped promoting the league on its homepage.
CBS has had its pros and cons, but overall has felt underwhelming. If not for league sponsor Ally stepping in to force the issue, the NWSL never would have swung a primetime slot for the Championship. CBS has collected plenty of soccer rights, and they have built out some programming around the league (such as Attacking Third), but the NWSL has never been its marquee property by any stretch.
Before CBS, the NWSL had only managed a short-term deal with ESPN for the back half of its 2019 season. The league needed that short-term deal after ending its partnership with A+E, which included an equity stake, a year early (disclosure: I worked for A&E and the NWSL’s joint media venture during this partnership).
Before that partnership, which ran from 2017 to 2019, the NWSL had one-year agreements since the inaugural season of the league in 2013, either with FOX Sports or ESPN.
The sports landscape
The MLS deal with Apple is huge ($2.5 billion, for 10 years), but it should not set expectations for the NWSL.
“It gave (MLS) an opportunity to leapfrog on revenues,” Desser said. “But they had to trade off exposure in the process.” Both experts said the NWSL still has to do the opposite in the interest of its long-term trajectory.
The NWSL could look to the WNBA as a benchmark, though Desser notes that “it’s been a long, hard road” for that league. Only after over 25 years has it reached a level where it’s “accepted in the pantheon of significant properties,” as Desser said.
Earlier this year, the WNBA signed a multi-year deal to air games on Ion Network for $13 million a year. Ratings have been up for the WNBA across the ESPN/ABC platforms, but Ion Network allows the league to build appointment viewership with its fans — and it will help the WNBA be in a stronger position to negotiate with ESPN when their current deal ends after the 2025 season.
“We understand that cable models are breaking down from declining subscribers,” Edison said about the Ion deal. “We took a bold move to go back to an over-the-air model with Ion. We’re in over 110 million homes on the fifth-largest network in the country. We’re seeing those numbers in viewership prove the point that you must reach your audience and your fans where they are.”
There are other women’s sports properties currently looking to upgrade or start their media rights deals, too, from the LPGA to the PWHL, the new women’s hockey league. Across the board though, the theme is that women’s sports viewers can be left frustrated by cost-cutting measures.
And above all of this? The NFL still rules all.
“Budgets are shrinking,” Desser said. “You’re trying to get a bigger drink of water out of a slowing flow. This is the reality, and this is at a time when the NFL just got a 40% raise. So talk about taking the water out of the pond.”
The NWSL will have to earn it
Viewership of women’s sports is on the rise across the board. According to Nielsen, the demand is there — the larger challenges are still access and lack of information. “To satisfy this demand, broadcasters need to prioritize women’s sports, make them more discoverable and promote them enthusiastically,” a 2023 report concludes.
“People look at the growth of women’s soccer, the excitement about the World Cup, and say, ‘Okay, it’s just gonna happen now for us.’ Our experience is that’s not the case,” Kosner said. “It doesn’t mean that it can’t be built, that it can’t be successful, but there’s a ton of hard work to do.”
That 915,000 viewer mark for last year’s Championship — up against 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 does have to make some sort of financial jump in their rights fee, while hopefully keeping the term fairly short so they can go back out to the marketplace again in the next few years with an even stronger audience.
The NWSL is going to have to break through existing biases around women’s sports to show potential partners that there is a waiting, untapped market to watch the NWSL — and that they can be a part of growing that audience.
(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)