Women's soccer had a great 2020 even in the midst of a pandemic, thanks to broadcast and streaming deals that brought the sport to more viewers than ever.
Finding viewers outside a devoted core fan base and providing matches on a handful of consistent platforms will be key to continued growth in 2021. Women's sports is a feel-good story, but the next stage is about achieving the hard numbers attract new broadcast partners and corporate sponsors.
In summer 2020, the National Women's Soccer League was the first U.S. professional sports league to return to action and broke its viewership records by nearly 300%. The Challenge Cup's first and last games, which were the only ones to air on CBS rather than the subscription service CBS All Access, drew 572,000 and 653,000 viewers, respectively — on par with an English Premier League match that week and a Major League Baseball game on TBS airing in the same time slot. Last year's NWSL final, which aired on ESPN, drew just 166,000 viewers.
"The league has oddly thrived" during the pandemic, said Lindsay Barenz, the NWSL's VP of Business Development.
Multiyear partnerships with CBS Sports and Amazon's Twitch were "game changers," Barenz added. For regular seasons, CBS would show a few matches on its main network, 14 on CBS Sports Network and the majority on CBS All Access. Twitch would stream all matches internationally and a handful of free ones domestically.
Even as more sports leagues returned to competition in the fall, the NWSL averaged 383,000 viewers for its fall series matches that aired on CBS. According to the league, the games that also streamed globally on Twitch averaged just over 732,000 live views, and the most-watched broke 1,000,000.
Those deals came after the U.S. women's national team won the 2019 Women's World Cup and spurred new interest in the sport. In earlier seasons, most games were only available to stream online, whether on Google's YouTube, teams' websites or Verizon's go90. TV coverage for a handful of major games jumped between Fox Sports' and Disney subsidiary ESPN's secondary channels in different years. And the NWSL's multiyear deal with A&E Networks to air games on Lifetime fell through when A&E pulled out in 2019, a season early. The NWSL did not reach another TV deal until after the World Cup, when ESPN picked up 14 remaining matches to air between ESPNews and ESPN2.
The NWSL was hard for devoted fans to follow and hard for potential fans to stumble upon. The new rights deals were meant to guarantee consistency and high quality production for seasons to come.
Then the pandemic hit.
It was far from clear that women's soccer would be able to salvage the year, but coming back first with little sports competition likely helped. The NWSL's month-long Challenge Cup, held in a "bubble" in Utah, started on June 27 — two weeks before the men's Major League Soccer returned and a month before the National Basketball Association started its bubble in Disney World.
When it comes to growth, there's a trade-off between maximizing revenue and reaching the broadest possible audience. Under the current deal, most NWSL games are only available on CBS Sports Network or CBS All Access, which are paid subscriber services.
But the choice was "part of maturing as a league," said Barenz. "Part of having our fans mature with us is that there is an exchange of economic value to access our games."
Getting access to all games in other leagues like the Women's National Basketball Association and male counterparts also requires a paid subscription, Barenz pointed out. The longest-running professional women's soccer league in the U.S., the NWSL is now going into its ninth season (as the WNBA will hit its big 25).
A new business model might help more broadcasters buy into women's soccer as well. That's where the startup Atalanta Media comes in.
Atalanta buys media rights to smaller women's sports leagues and offers them, along with fully produced games, for free to broadcasters. In return the company keeps sponsorship opportunities so it can make money too. This fall Atalanta partnered with NBC Sports to air the FA Women's Super League, the top English women's league, to a U.S. audience for the first time.
Atalanta wants to break the frustrating standoff between skeptical investors and leagues desperately in need of more investment.
Broadcasters want "more proof" before buying the rights themselves, said Esmeralda Negron, company co-founder and former professional soccer player. "But there's no proof because [women's soccer has] never been readily available week in and week out on premium broadcast networks."
"If we don't do this," said Negron about buying the rights to leagues like the WSL, "it wouldn't be available."
With Atalanta's partnership, NBC Sports is airing 50 games of the WSL's season from September 2020 to spring 2021, either on the channel NBC Sports Network, the NBC Sports app or the NBC Sports website.
The first eight WSL games on NBC Sports Network averaged 63,000 viewers, and the most-watched game hit 100,000 viewers, according to figures provided by the network. A network executive emphasized to CNBC the value of tying women's soccer to Premier League coverage to increase exposure. Considering the games usually air on weekend mornings in the U.S. (given the time difference) and belong to an unfamiliar league, it's a good start.
2021 will bring new tests and opportunities. As more sports leagues prepare to return for full seasons and people have more to do outside, women's sports may have a tougher time drawing interest. But if the Tokyo Olympics go on as planned, a strong performance from the U.S. women's national team could also raise more awareness for club-level soccer.
Next year the NWSL plans to run the Challenge Cup again, followed by a full season. What was initially conceived as a way to salvage the year has become its own valuable property.
The league is adding teams as well, including a Louisville club that will play in 2021 and a Los Angeles team that will join the following year. The L.A. club, Angel City FC, will be majority-owned by women and backed by all-star investors, including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and actress Natalie Portman.
Growth opportunities exist in existing deals as well. The goal for women's soccer is presumably to get more matches to air on flagship networks such as CBS and NBC, not just their sports networks or apps.
"Premium broadcasting plays a massive role in elevating the visibility and profile of leagues and players at the club level," said Negron. "That's never really existed on the women's side."
Women's soccer must capitalize on its improved visibility this year or risk losing hard-won momentum. As Negron said, "Viewership drives everything in this sport."