Lifetime’s deal with women’s pro soccer is about much more than expanding the brand.
Let’s face it.
Sports without television would be like peanut but-ter without chocolate, smoke without mirrors or Bert without Ernie. Each is perfectly fine on its own, but put them together… well, that’s when the magic happens. More than 107 million viewers watch sporting events every year on TV, according to a recent survey.
So if a sport wants to make it in America, it doesn’t hurt to show up on the air as frequently as possible. And since two-thirds of the 100 most-watched programs in 2016 involved sports, there’s plenty of incentive for networks to get their game on the air.
Given all that, it’s not surprising that the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and Lifetime were pretty stoked this past February when they announced a partnership that would put NWSL games on live TV every week.
“We were starting our fifth season at the time, and this afforded an opportunity to grow out of our infancy stage and into a truly thriving women’s pro soccer league,” explains Amanda Duffy, the NWSL’s managing director of operations. “I’m not sure that could happen without a TV partner.”
Indeed, to be in the sports mainstream, “you have to be on television,” says Aly Wagner, a two- time Olympic soccer gold medalist who is now an analyst for Lifetime’s NWSL broadcasts. “There’s a camaraderie that televised sports creates. You want to be able to talk with your friends and neighbors and say, ‘Did you see that goal yesterday? How good was that player!’ That’s how you know you’ve moved to the next level.”
Lifetime has broadcast live sports before: from 1997 to 2000 it aired WNBA basketball games. “This isn’t a stretch in terms of our history,” says Nancy Dubuc, CEO of A+E Networks, Lifetime’s parent company.
Still, she adds: “We’re not so naïve that we think sports will become our brand. That’s ESPN. However, with women’s sports, there is quick and easy connective tissue for our audience. There are mothers out there with a relationship to soccer, or they have daughters who are playing the game.
"Plus, there are advertisers, like Nike and beer companies, that might not otherwise come to Lifetime. So as the league continues to grow and the value of its franchises goes up, these women on the field will become household names — and Lifetime has a vested interest in that happening.”
Dubuc acknowledges that the network — whose Broad Focus initiative is increasing the number of women working behind the camera on all of its programs — has to “walk the talk” when it comes to programming for and by women.
It’s one thing to offer entertainment via scripted shows like UnREAL and reality shows like Project Runway. But it’s equally important, she says, to offer varied content that supports women in other aspects of their lives. That includes showcasing female athletes. Besides, she points out, “Sports has great drama going on in every game.”
The network plan calls for more than airing matches every week. Lifetime and the league have launched NWSL Media, a joint venture that will oversee global broadcast and sponsorship rights, as well as production of game telecasts on live streaming and digital platforms.
For the league’s first four seasons, Fox Sports and ESPN had separate deals to air a handful of games. However, until 2017, the only places to view the majority of NWSL games (outside a stadium) were on YouTube or on teams’ websites. Under the terms of its three-year pact, Lifetime will broadcast a game live every weekend until the season ends in October.
A multiyear content agreement makes Verizon’s go90 streaming service the league’s exclusive streaming partner. It will feature 98 NWSL games in the 2017 season, with the exception of the Game of the Week, which is available only on Lifetime. But Lifetime’s branding is cross-platform: players on all 10 NWSL teams will wear the network’s logo on their sleeves.
“We deserve to be on TV,” says Ali Krieger, a U.S. national team member and a defender with the Orlando Pride. “This is the best game in the world, and all the players are inspired now to play even harder so the world can see how great we are.”
The Lifetime broadcasts are not the first exposure most American sports fans have had to women’s soccer. The 2011 Women’s World Cup final drew more than 13 million viewers, at that time the most ever for a soccer telecast on ESPN (regardless of gender). The 2015 World Cup final, in which the U.S. team beat Japan, was the most-watched soccer telecast ever in the U.S.: nearly 27 million tuned in.
No one involved in this new undertaking expects those kinds of numbers for the NWSL. At least, not yet.
“The players are used to having an audience, and now a window has opened,” says Jenn Hildreth, a play-by-play announcer for the broadcasts. “There’s the chance to bring a newer [audience] into the mix. When that happens, the product will sell itself.”
There’s no rush. As Hildreth explains, the men’s soccer league, Major League Soccer, took a while to find its audience. Formed in 1993, MLS now airs games on ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision.
But the Lifetime–NWSL deal is about more than scoring goals on the field. It’s also about accomplishing goals the network and the league have independently set for themselves, which are the same factors that drove this partnership in the first place.
When discussions about the deal began in late 2015, the parties realized they were “at a point where we had similarities and commonalities in our missions,” Duffy says. Not only did they both want to make their products more visible to the public, they also wanted to inspire women to achieve bigger and better things in their daily lives.
That’s why part of the game plan has been to establish a regular time and place for people to discover female athletes who could inspire more girls to get involved in sports.
“Sports was a very powerful shaper of my professional existence,” explains Dubuc, who rowed for Boston University’s crew team.
“I’m a huge advocate for keeping girls on the field and in the game. That’s not the only reason we are working with the NWSL, but it is an incredibly important mission we should all take some responsibility for. It’s hard to show women and girls the opportunities that are out there without having a dedicated home for these games.”
The women on the field certainly agree. “It’s critical to show the equality and the evolution of women’s soccer,” says Lynn Williams, forward for the North Carolina Courage. “The broadcasts are important, because they can inspire young girls to play the game, and they also show us current players that we are important, too — that what we’re doing is just as important as the men’s game.”
But the broadcasts should also draw men and boys, says analyst–Olympic medalist Wagner: “The one thing that was lacking for the league was that ability to show an amazing product that can get boys as well as girls inspired to play. This game crosses genders in terms of popularity, and I hope men will land on our broadcasts as well.”
While the weekly games demonstrate equality on the field, they are expected to do the same for the broadcast booth, showing young women that “they could have a career in broadcasting sports as well as playing them,” Wagner says.
For her part, Hildreth notes that when she was growing up, there weren’t a lot of women’s sports to watch on TV — and even fewer women were providing on-air commentary. That’s why she feels “kind of like a trailblazer,” getting to call the NWSL games.
“To be able to turn on the television and hear a woman’s voice doing the play-by-play as the norm, and not a novelty, is significant,” she explains. “Young women, especially some of the players who want to get on TV when they’re done playing, don’t have to settle for being a sideline reporter for a college game.”
Hildreth spent plenty of time herself providing sideline commentary for college basketball and football games on ESPN and Fox Sports.
“Sometimes women were on the sidelines for the right reasons, and sometimes not. There was a time when the networks just thought, ‘Let’s put a pretty face out there.’ But now, we’re starting to see more women hosting and providing analysis for several sports on all the networks, and [NWSL games] are another positive step in that direction.”
With the network and league still in their first year of partnership, it’s too soon to quantify how well things are going.
“We’ve faced some logistical challenges when it comes to broadcasting on the internet and the layout on the field at certain venues,” Duffy admits. “We’ve only had a short window to put all the pieces into place. Right now, it’s really all about understanding the nuances of television.”
If social media is any judge, that cautious approach seems to be working. There’s “a lot of excitement out there now,” Wagner reports, “even though there was some skepticism at first about how this was going to work. People realize this is the real deal. I’m getting nothing but positive reactions.”
The same is true for Krieger’s social-media accounts, where, she says, she regularly hears from “people who say, ‘I saw you on Lifetime.’ We really are getting people talking.”
That kind of feedback, she says, “gives us more incentive to win — that extra 2 percent boost to show people how great we really are. As a player on the national team, I’m kind of used to the attention, but a lot of women in the league have never had this opportunity. It’s great for them to get that game-day feeling.”
Of course, there’s room for improvement. As happy as she is with the current plan, Williams, of the North Carolina Courage, would love to see more than one game broadcast live each week. And she hopes bigger advertisers will ultimately sign on, which would help the NWSL reach a new audience.
The NWSL’s Duffy is confident the league can live up to all the potential the Lifetime deal has created for both the network and her organization. “It’s exciting to bring this narrative to the new audience we get from TV exposure,” she says, “and it’s been tremendous so far. We expect that we’ll continue to grow in terms of ratings, and over time that will also translate into getting more fans into the stadiums to watch our games in person.”
If viewership does begin to climb, that could also translate into something more significant for Lifetime: the network, Dubuc says, is considering additional sports programming.
“We understand that we’re not a women’s sports network,” she stresses. “But this deal with the NWSL has shown us that we have the potential and the capability to do something more. If there’s something else out there that would make sense for us — if there’s a built-in audience and business potential — we’d consider it.”
The ball is on the field.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017