NWSL’s TV deal will help the league grow

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The NWSL announced its next media rights deal. It gives the league an opportunity for substantial growth.

SAN DIEGO — The NWSL is booming, and investment is increasing. The league’s viewership was up 41 percent on CBS and 83 percent on Paramount+ in 2023. Each move the NWSL makes likely will have implications for its future development. Arguably the most important of them all relates to its broadcast partners.

On Thursday, the NWSL announced its new media rights deal with Amazon, Scripps, CBS, and ESPN. Many fans’ immediate reactions were characterized by disappointment, as four platforms means spending more money to catch all of the NWSL’s action.

But the deal may be better than many people think. 

One of the biggest challenges in the NWSL is its broadcast quality and amount of cameras. The league debuted Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in 2023. However, the need for more cameras limited its effectiveness. One example of VAR’s shortcomings occurred when Angel City played the Chicago Red Stars. Angel City midfielder Madison Hammond appeared to interfere with a goal from an offside position. However, VAR did not have an angle to determine whether Hammond touched the defender, so they gave Angel City the goal.

“We would need a different angle,” an assistant VAR said.

The new deal helps with the need for cameras as NWSL is doubling the number of cameras. That means improved broadcasts and more effective VAR. The new deal is not only increasing the league’s quality off the field but improving its on-field product. A higher-quality product should engage a newer viewer more than before, increasing the growth potential.

Another way the new deal offers the potential to add new fans is through its four providers. Yes, it is costly to have multiple subscriptions. But that is the unfortunate reality of watching sports in 2023. The NFL, the United States’ most viewed sports league, requires fans to have subscriptions to Amazon Prime Video (to watch Thursday Night Football), NFL Sunday Ticket on YouTube TV (to watch most of the games), and more (to watch local teams and other primetime games). Broadcasting through multiple platforms could help the NWSL increase its viewership.

Notably, Amazon will host NWSL matches on Friday through Prime Video, and Scripps’-owned ION Network will show a Saturday doubleheader. Scripps will also host a weekly studio show before its doubleheader. 

More pre-match shows could help draw in fans. Having four platforms also means increased chances for potential fans to tune in to an NWSL match and be impressed by it since each plans to market the league and the other’s broadcasts: “all have made significant commitments to marketing and promoting the NWSL, and importantly, cross-marketing each other’s scheduled broadcasts.”

The NWSL is known for its drama while having many of the best women’s soccer players. The 2023 NWSL Championship showed such qualities as it featured exceptional skill from Gotham forward Midge Purce and OL Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle. It also had stoppage time drama as Gotham midfielder Nealy Martin briefly played goalkeeper after the referees showed goalkeeper Mandy Haught a red card. The four platforms could introduce fans to such action and make them regular viewers. 

The NWSL is also not trapped in a long-term deal that could stunt its growth. While the new deal is a record investment into women’s sports, the league believes it will continue rising. The deal ends in 2027, after the World Cup, which should add an influx of fans to the NWSL. Increased viewership, plus the post-World Cup hype around women’s soccer, should help the league find a record-breaking deal again in 2027. 

Unfortunately, the new deal makes it more costly to watch the NWSL. But its ability to increase the quality of the product and attract new fans makes the shortcomings worth it. Sports leagues are increasingly splitting broadcasts between multiple providers. At least the NWSL is doing so to improve its league and take advantage of an upcoming opportunity (the 2027 World Cup).