NWSL's TV deal with ESPN aims to win soccer fans' attention

The National Women’s Soccer League announced dramatic changes to its national television schedule on Wednesday, highlighted by moving six games from lead partner Lifetime to ESPNews. Those games are also moving from the traditional Saturday afternoon time slot to Saturday night.

ESPN’s broadcasts will look and sound like Lifetime’s, with the same announcers and production crew. (Except for when Aly Wagner is away calling World Cup games with Fox. Kate Markgraf and Angela Hucles will take turns filling in for her.)

The only difference is that ESPNews games will kick off at eight minutes after air time instead of Lifetime’s traditional 20. Pregame shows for those broadcasts will move to the league’s online platforms.

This deal brings NWSL games back to the network for the first time since 2014, the only prior season in the league’s six-year history in which ESPN aired games.

The changes also raised a storm of chatter among fans and observers on social media about the potential for more NWSL coverage to move from Lifetime to ESPN in the future.

A+E Networks executive vice president of digital media Evan Silverman quashed some of the rumors in an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News. Though he helped bring the idea of a move to ESPN, A+E owns a 25 percent equity stake in the NWSL, and isn’t going anywhere.

“We are extremely committed to this league and continuing to see it grow,” Silverman said. “We think the schedule changes give us an opportunity to evaluate other windows to see how the games perform.”

Beyond that, though, the door seems wide open. It helps that A+E is 50 percent owned by Disney, ESPN’s corporate parent. So it’s really just an extension of the same family.

“ESPN genuinely believes in the NWSL [and] wants to support the league,” Silverman said. “They were excited when we brought the idea to them.”

NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy, effectively the league’s commissioner, was even more direct.

“It opens up more opportunities for cross-promotion of NWSL — not just the game of the week, but other NWSL matches each week — on ESPNews, and their family of channels in the ESPN network,” she said.

Could that include moving non-TV games from Verizon’s go90 streaming platform to ESPN’s site? ESPN already has MLS and USL games on its subscription streaming service, ESPN+. Adding the NWSL would allow fans to watch America’s top three domestic leagues in one place, though it would force fans to pay for streams that have always been free so far.

Silverman said there won’t be any changes this year. Duffy said Verizon’s three-year deal expires after the 2019 season (as does the Lifetime deal, by the way). She also noted that Verizon made “a significant investment” to get its rights, which the Inquirer and Daily News reported on at the time.

“They’ve made a big commitment in distributing NWSL games on a quality platform,” Duffy said. “We’ll continue to evolve that and explore ways to build on our relationship, but we’re excited about where it is right now.”

Some fans complained in the wake of the announcement that ESPNews is offered by some cable carriers on a more expensive tier of service than Lifetime. Duffy said it’s worth the risk.

“We understand there may be some concerns,” she said. “But we do think that from building the relationship, exploring new time slots, moving more games into ideal time slots for our teams and for fans and for players, that … the league will be in a better position and show a lot of progress.”

Duffy and Silverman also expect the increase in night games to boost attendance by removing schedule conflicts with youth soccer events.

While attendance may rise, TV viewership may be affected by games airing at the same time that other NWSL games are going on. That’s a strategy that MLS has learned to avoid in recent years.

Then again, Lifetime afternoon games often clash with marquee MLS national broadcasts on Fox, Univision and ESPN. Which strategy is better for the NWSL?

“I think that’s something we’re going to learn,” Duffy said.

Silverman said the league is “trying to attract sports fans and soccer fans, not just female fans.” He believes “the positives are significant enough that this will be a good thing for the NWSL.”

You may have noticed Duffy’s reference to the players when she listed the benefits of the time changes. That was intentional. The league was stung hard last year when Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly collapsed on Houston’s field from heat exhaustion late in a Lifetime game last year.

Moving games to prime time gets them out of mid-summer’s worst weather. Duffy said the nascent NWSL Players Association wasn’t consulted on the kickoff time changes, but she acknowledged players’ complaints about heat.

“This move was an opportunity brought to the league by Lifetime,” she said. “As a league, we believe it’s the right change for all elements of our broadcast agreement, and anticipate that [with] the players — based on their feedback that they’ve given for more than a year now on the broadcast windows — this will be well-received.”

The moves have certainly been well-received by ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for soccer, Amy Rosenfeld. She has 20 years of experience with televising women’s soccer, and will help get NWSL games promoted across ESPN’s soccer properties.

“The expectation is promotion within MLS coverage, within U.S. national team coverage — we have a women’s national team game on June 12,” she said. “It is soccer on ESPN, regardless of the league and gender. It is an important property that is part of ESPN.”

Rosenfeld also extended an invitation for more conversations. How about a weekly highlights show on ESPN+, akin to the new MLS Rewind show? There haven’t been any discussions yet, but Rosenfeld would be happy to hear them.

“The introduction of ESPN+ affords a lot of opportunities to do new and creative things,” she said. “The company recognizes that soccer has already become a programming mainstay.”

NWSL schedule changes

Games now on ESPNews

June 16: Chicago Red Stars vs. Orlando Pride (8 p.m.)
June 23: Washington Spirit vs. Orlando Pride (7 p.m.)
July 7: Orlando Pride vs. Washington Spirit (7 p.m.; Lifetime game had been Sky Blue FC vs. Chicago Red Stars)
July 14: Utah Royals vs. Orlando Pride (7 p.m.)
August 18: Portland Thorns vs. Chicago Red Stars (10:30 p.m.)
August 25: Washington Spirit vs. Portland Thorns (7:30 p.m.; Lifetime game had been Orlando vs. Chicago)

Lifetime schedule change

Sept. 7: Portland Thorns vs. Seattle Reign (game had been Utah vs Chicago on Sept. 8)