Media Microscope: A+E now owns part of the NWSL – what does it mean for the league?

Craig Barritt
The television network made a groundbreaking investment in the NWSL that could pay off for both parties.

When A+E Networks entered negotiations with the National Women’s Soccer League over a television contract, it was supposed to be a straightforward deal in which the network paid the league for the rights to show its product on TV.

As A+E learned more about the NWSL, though, the nature of the transaction changed dramatically.

“When we started to talk more about what the league’s aspirations were, where they saw the business going and what the opportunities were with the league, it made more sense for us to think about it from a larger perspective,” Dan Suratt, A+E’s president of corporate development, strategy and investments told Goal.

That larger perspective meant A+E ended up not just signing a contract to broadcast the NWSL on television, but also purchasing a stake in the fledgling league in a deal announced last week.

Regarding A+E’s investment in the NWSL, which will give his company two seats on the league’s board, Suratt said: “We don’t own a majority but it is a significant stake in the league.”

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Under the terms of the three-year broadcast deal, Lifetime — one of the channels in A+E’s portfolio — will broadcast 22 regular season games in 2017, all of which will be on Saturdays at 4 p.m. ET. The network will also air three of the league’s postseason matches.

After Fox networks aired six total games last season, the dramatic increase in televised games is a boon in and of itself for the league. But A+E’s deal entails much more than just a consistent television home.

A+E has helped the league launch NWSL Media, which will oversee broadcast and sponsorship rights and produce livestreams in high definition. It will also be heavily involved in a redesign of the league’s website and the launch of a new app.

In addition, the cash infusion stemming from the deal is likely a major reason the NWSL was able to double the league’s minimum salary from $7,200 in 2016 to roughly $15,000 in 2017.

So what did A+E see in NWSL that warranted purchasing a stake in the league?

“If you look at it from the outside, this is the first [American] women’s soccer league ever to make it past the third season so when we first started having conversations, they were preparing for their fourth season which was record breaking in some regards,” Suratt said. (The league is now entering its fifth season.)

“When you look at all these opportunities of how the league could grow, whether through increased sponsorships, repetitive broadcasting or expansion, all of those things could lead to this league really becoming a staple of women’s professional sports in the U.S. if not the world overall.”

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Women’s soccer has shown it can be a draw, as evidenced by massive TV ratings and crowds pulled in by the U.S. women’s national team, and pockets of real interest in NWSL cities like Portland, Orlando and Houston. A+E hopes its unique expertise can turn a fragmented and regional movement into a national one.

“We are investors in companies and this is one that we saw as having an enormous growth opportunity and one where we can strategically align to help it grow,” Suratt said.

“It’s clearly got an opportunity to really resonate on a larger scale but it has not gotten a lot of attention. That’s not because the level of play isn’t good enough, it’s because they haven’t had the spotlight shone on them enough yet and that’s what we really hope to be able to do.”

That spotlight could come through a vast network of cross-promotion opportunities. A+E Networks is a subsidiary of the Disney-ABC Television Group, whose large array of holdings present enticing possibilities.

Suratt said A+E president Nancy Dubuc has already been in discussions with ESPN president John Skipper over the prospect of utilizing ESPN properties to promote the NWSL.

“I would expect that we will figure out creative ways to work together to promote the league,” Suratt said.

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Despite all the positives, there are also some reasons for skepticism. Perhaps the league has pigeonholed itself too much by aligning with Lifetime, which Dubuc described as a “female media brand” at a press conference last week. Lifetime has not broadcast sports of any kind since a WNBA broadcasting deal nearly 20 years ago, though the network has said it will hire experienced soccer broadcasting talent, both in front of and behind the camera.

There are a lot of reasons for optimism for A+E though, as the network embarks on a groundbreaking relationship that could have immense mutual benefits for itself and women’s soccer in the United States.