The NWSL halted preseason play after just one week on March 12, the same day virtually every professional sport across the U.S. also went dark.
Like other properties, the NWSL and its first-year Commissioner Lisa Baird were left to monitor an escalating global pandemic while considering how to bring back competitive matches safely in the age of COVID-19. Ideas for how to resume play were first kicked around in early April, with each proposal emphasizing the shortening of the 2020 season.
On May 5, the league presented the NWSL Challenge Cup, a 25-game tournament, to its competition committee and ownership group. The NWSL then announced its return in Utah at month’s end, following the evaluation of several bids submitted by teams and cities eager to host the tournament.
The NWSL will now become the first team sport to resume action in the U.S. on June 27, with players living in a league-quarantined “NWSL Village.”
“It wasn’t our intention to be back first. It was our intent to be back safely,” Baird said. “And so everything was driven by the league working hand-in-hand with 15 physicians on our medical task force.”
All nine NWSL franchises will participate in the NWSL Challenge Cup with players’ salaries and benefits guaranteed through the end of the season. However, players are not required to participate. For example, OL Reign and U.S. Women’s National Team superstar Megan Rapinoe will forgo the tournament.
The league, founded in 2012, enters the tournament season with two new marketing partners. P&G and its brand Secret will be the presenting sponsor of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Verizon was also announced as a multi-year league partner on May 27. Other partners include Nike and sports supplement supplier Thorne.
The NWSL says it is working with all its sponsors on activations during the tournament. Budweiser, as an example, will sponsor the MVP award after each game as well as the championship match.
“We wanted to come up with an idea that was appealing to sponsors,” Baird said. “Once we had the format and location in place, we were able to put together a timeline and an execution plan because we’re relatively small and don’t have the complexity that the bigger leagues have.”
Production for the Challenge Cup will be handled almost exclusively by the NWSL. The league will work with long-time production partner Vista and the broadcast team of Utah Royals FC to produce streams for online audiences.
The NWSL Challenge Cup will be streamed by first-year media partners CBS Sports on CBS All Access in the U.S. and Twitch internationally. Two games are also scheduled to appear on CBS linear. Previously broadcast by ESPN and A&E Networks, the NWSL signed a multi-year deal with CBS and Twitch in March.
For CBS, the televising of the NWSL Challenge Cup adds to the network’s strategy of bringing more exclusive sports coverage to its over-the-top streaming platform that also features movie and entertainment options.
CBS All Access, along with ViacomCBS’ other paid streaming platform Showtime OTT, helped grow total SVOD subscribers by 50% in the first quarter compared to the same period last year. The combined subscriber count for both services currently stands at 13.5 million. ViacomCBS additionally owns Pluto TV, which is free to consumers.
“Putting NWSL games on CBS All Access makes sense for subscriber growth, but we think it also makes sense for the consumer where through a subscription they can watch everything,” Jeff Gerttula, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Sports Digital, said. “The NWSL is a good fit for the demographic that we’re seeing on the service and for the demographics that we’re interested in for our sports exclusives.”
CBS All Access users are already accustomed to watching local NFL games, college basketball, and SEC football on the service.
CBS says it is currently fielding a lot of calls from marketers interested in advertising around the NWSL Challenge Cup. Some plans around how the network will amplify the upcoming tournament are still being discussed. But they are sure to include extensive editorial coverage on CBSSports.com and heavy promotion of games on digital channels.
On June 1, CBS also aired the NWSL Challenge Cup Draw. The 30-minute broadcast on CBS Sports HQ – the network’s free sports OTT offering – featured a live draw, analysis, and reactions from players. CBS did not disclose viewership data for the telecast.
“We worked hard to get that up on short notice. But all things considered, we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out,” Gerttula said. “We know that the fan base for NWSL is passionate, and it was one of our first chances to create something for them.”