NWSL at Important Crossroad

10/15/2022

The NWSL is at a crossroads in its history. As the most successful iteration of women's professional soccer in the United States, it has a vital role in the future of sports ahead of a new TV deal. Founded in 2012 and celebrating its 10th anniversary, the NWSL is also at a point where many of its old demons have reared their ugly heads, leading to feelings of frustration, confusion, anger, and dissatisfaction at a long list of shocking revelations.

Among that are scatting disclosures of physically and sexually abusive owners, coaches, and staff members who not only had their sins hidden from the public but were re-hired by different franchises around the league for years. It's enough for anyone to lose hope in the future of the NWSL.

But I am here to say the NWSL is going down the right path, and the opportunities to explore and revolutionize women's soccer remain.

The first detail to understand here is that the NWSL is still in its infancy, and we see the growing pains that usually come with a new league and industry. A lot of oversight with people believing they can get away with abusive behavior because of their positions of power and an overall setup where candidates are hired based on relationships, not qualifications.

In fact, I'd argue this is a good thing for the NWSL; look at a league like the NFL, founded in 1920, which is just now wrestling with its issues. It seems that at least once a year, we get a new scandal, and it's because abusive behavior has festered without consequences for decades in the league that now it seems like it's unavoidable and a part of the culture. In the case of the NWSL, they're identifying and dealing with the abuse early on, which constructs a positive culture and a future for the league where such behavior will be rare and punished anomalies.

But the key for this all to work is the NWSL cannot lose focus; the main thing has to remain the main thing, which is soccer.

It may seem logical to stop play until the issues that purvey the league are dealt with, but that would be a mistake. Momentum in sports can be fickle, and the NWSL has to find a way to solve its issues on the go. It is in a vulnerable position as a league capitalizing on the momentum it has generated off the back of the 2019 U.S. World Cup triumph. Anything that stops that wave could be catastrophic.

The current NWSL TV Deal ends next season. And for all those who want women to get paid more in sports, the money is not in asking the leagues to pay more when they barely have enough to stay afloat. The money is in the tv deals. The bigger the TV deal, the more the leagues can pay their players.

I have long held the belief that the NWSL can become the premier league for Women's soccer, but to do so, it must offer a better value proposition and more money than the rivaling European leagues.

One of their competitors is the Woman's Super League (WSL) in England, the female equivalent of the English Premier League, which started a couple of years before the NWSL in 2010.

  • The WSL currently averages around 400,000 views a game, enough to command the $21 million deal they signed in 2021, making it the gold standard for a women's professional soccer league.
  • Then you look at the current MLS TV deal, which expires this year, and pays about $90 million annually while averaging about 298,000 viewers per game.
  • But we know while 2021 numbers for the NWSL are not available and 2022 has yet to be disclosed, in 2020, across the 9 NWSL games broadcasted Nationally, the league averaged about 434,000 viewers per game.
  • However, despite more views on average than both leagues, the NSWL currently has a TV deal with CBS and Twitch totaling $5.5 million. That is not good enough to see the sustained growth and wages the league needs and deserves, nor is it of competitive value.

So it does not take rocket science to see that the NWSL signed a TV Deal that severely underpaid them. Add that the deal signed with CBS plays most of the games behind a Paramount+ paywall which decreases viewership as opposed to signing one that displays more of the games to a national audience. But fortunately, here comes a new opportunity to do things right.

With the anticipated momentum from the upcoming 2023 World Cup, the NWSL must capitalize on that and seek a luxurious TV deal that, at the very least, matches that of the WSL. The numbers are there that prove the league is a popular commodity. With that leverage, they should seek a deal with the money that allows them to pay their athletes the wages that attract the best in women's soccer. It would vault the league to the top of women's sports, attracting more owners, revenue, and an even better TV deal the next time around.

So while the NWSL is at a crossroads after months of disheartening revelations of abuse behind the scenes, we cannot be discouraged; the league has been magnificent on the field, allowing for a generational opportunity.

It may not feel like it now, but the heroes for the next generation are the courageous women who spoke out on their abuse and abusers in the face of losing their careers, along with the players who helped drive the quality of the league forward.

They are the stepping stone for a future where female players suffer less abuse and receive much improved financial compensation. 

Clean house and make the adjustments as you need to go, but the soccer side of the business must continue to maximize this next TV deal.


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