On February 2, the NWSL and A+E networks announced a partnership whereby Lifetime would become the national broadcaster of the NWSL starting with the 2017 season. The three-year agreement included weekly match broadcasts on Lifetime every Saturday throughout the regular season with the addition of the playoffs as well.
The current deal made A+E not only a broadcast partner, but also an investor and board member of the league. In addition, the league launched NWSL Media to serve as the league’s official marketing and broadcast arm. Non-televised matches were streamed throughout the season either via the NWSL’s digital properties or in partnership with go90. We reached a media breakthrough that NWSL had not seen before as Lifetime, go90 and the NWSL together created more ways for NWSL fans to be able to watch their favorite teams.
Upon the start to the fifth season, the addition of Lifetime as a national broadcast partner was a massive step towards league growth and sustainability. Not only did the league lock in a national media partner who carried a Game of the Week every Saturday of the season, by contrast to 2015-2016 deals with FS1 which consisted of three nationally televised regular season games each year, but the league also gained commitment from A+E as signaled by their investment as well as their joint venture, NWSL Media. Both A+E’s equity stake and the formation of NWSL Media show real commitment towards a league that’s facing sustainability questions. In addition, NWSL Media’s work to promote the league from a marketing and sponsorship standpoint can only help moving forward.
Accessibility and the ability to create appointment viewing are two major results that I feel came out of the national TV deal in 2017. Accessibility for one is majorly important for a league that’s trying to continue to grow. Lifetime as the viewership destination gave NWSL fans around the country, and NWSL fans worldwide via streaming options, the ability to see their favorite teams and players on the field week in and week out. Gone were the days of limited national TV viewing schedules and poor streams that hindered fan’s ability to really be fans of their NWSL teams. NWSL became more accessible to those it was trying to reach by using Lifetime as a platform to do that. Not only were more fans able to view NWSL, but the consistent Saturday afternoon window gave the league the ability to create appointment viewing and habits where fans knew that every week they could catch a game. Growth of viewership is incredibly important for a league looking to ensure sustainability and Lifetime’s Game of the Week, that A+E has said is in about 80% of all U.S. households, has helped the NWSL continue down that path.
While I do believe that the signing of this deal and the start to the larger partnership between the NWSL and A+E is indeed groundbreaking for the league and a major step towards progress, there’s still more work to be done and more kinks to be ironed out. Yes, Lifetime has provided a platform to increase fans’ ability to watch their favorite teams, but in a world where more and more millennials are cutting the cord and opting to go without cable, should that be taken into consideration? Yes, NWSL digital properties and go90 provided fans with streaming alternatives, but were they good enough? Poor quality and limited accessibility continued to be issues throughout the year and I think there could be an opportunity to involve A+E and Lifetime in future streaming options. Finally, yes, the NWSL was given more visibility via a network that reaches so many U.S. households, but I think we need to push Lifetime to do a better job at marketing the NWSL. A poor marketing campaign missed the mark towards the end of the season by seeming tone deaf to the reasons fans watch the NWSL – the talent, the players, the beauty of the game, and instead, highlighted celebrities with it’s massive platform reach. So, here’s to 2018, a year in which we will no doubt continue to see more progress, but I’d call on A+E, Lifetime, and the NWSL to help provide even more accessibility, better streaming alternative options, and higher quality marketing efforts by Lifetime to promote the game.