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NWSL’s Record Deal Caps Banner Season, Marks Turning Point For League

  • The 2023 campaign saw gains in attendance, TV, and franchise expansion.
  • A $240 million set of media rights deals set a new record for women’s sports.
Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports
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Saturday’s 2023 NWSL Championship game represents a culmination of perhaps the single most important season in league history, and celebration surrounding the sport that many other properties would envy for their title events.

The week-long build-up to the match between OL Reign and NJ/NY Gotham FC at San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium — complete with the dishing out of league and player awards — helped put a bow on what has been a banner campaign for the league.

That breakthrough season has included record combined attendance of 1.37 million, news of forthcoming franchises in Boston and the Bay Area with $53 million expansion fees, new ownership in Chicago in a deal with more than $60 million in planned total investment, unprecedented commercial activity, a 21% boost in national TV and streaming viewership, and an overall surge in women’s soccer both domestically and internationally. 

Perhaps the biggest prize of all for the league arrived on Thursday with news of the NWSL’s long-awaited media deals, a set of four-year pacts with ESPN, CBS, Amazon, and Scripps Sports worth a collective $240 million — a new record for the largest media deal in women’s sports history. 

“We are resetting the standards by which women’s sports can be valued,” said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman.

Higher Stakes

Amid this week’s joyous vibe — one also centered on the final match of U.S. women’s national team legends Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger — the NWSL also remains focused on both its deeply troubled recent past and its still-uncertain future. 

A joint investigation from the league and NWSL Players Association last year found widespread misconduct and failed oversight within the league, which heavily factored into the ownership shift in Chicago and the 2021 resignation of former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird. 

Even after the spotlight from that probe — plus a separate one from former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates on behalf of the U.S. Soccer Federation — influenced a series of corrective measures, abuse continues to occur in women’s soccer and incidents in Europe and elsewhere are closely monitored in the U.S. 

At the same time, the record-level franchise fees, attendance surge, and new media rights, collectively present an entirely new set of expectations for the NWSL.

“This moment is a celebration of how far we’ve come, but most importantly, where we’re heading,” Berman said. “We’re betting on ourselves.”

Turning The Page

Since Berman became commissioner in March 2022, she helped oversee the completion of the collaborative league-union report on the abuse allegations, imposed a series of sanctions that included permanent bans for the worst offenders, and introduced a series of reforms. 

Among those corrective measures were enhanced personnel vetting procedures, strengthened anti-harassment policies, heightened collaboration with the players’ union, and the creation of an anonymous league-wide hotline to report misconduct.

But even as the NWSL has become a safer place for players, the initial whistleblowers who brought the abuse to light acknowledge their task is not yet complete. 

“I’m really grateful for all the progress we’ve made, but we’re still following along,” said NJ/NY Gotham FC midfielder Mana Shim, also chair of U.S. Soccer’s Participant Safety Taskforce. “Our work isn’t over, and when we’re done playing, our work won’t be over. It’s something that we always have to remember.”

A New Level Of Exposure

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus — a 46-year veteran of sports TV who has seen and done pretty much everything in the business — still found something rather unique in the NWSL’s new media deals.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of media announcements and press conferences. But I’ve never been at one where there are four major media companies making an announcement [together] on one property,” McManus said. 

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to reach consumers, as we all know, and if you’re going to be a successful league, you’ve got to be able to reach them over-the-air broadcast TV, on linear cable TV, and on direct-to-consumer free and subscription video, on syndication, on streaming. You need to have all these platforms.”

Not only did the NWSL secure that cross-platform presence and boost its annual national media rights revenue by a multiple of 40, but it also nearly quadrupled its number of national games from 30 per year to 118. 

“Women’s sports, and especially women’s soccer, are at an inflection point,” said Marie Donoghue, Amazon vice president of U.S. sports content and partnerships. “There’s incredible demand, and we have an opportunity to meet and grow that demand.”

The four-year length of the deals was also specifically chosen. The term, including the 2024-27 seasons, is long enough to allow for the NWSL to show additional momentum within that period and enjoy some stability after the recent turbulence — but still short enough to allow the league another opportunity for a sizable fee increase.

That will be particularly true if the U.S. is successful in its bid to host the 2027 Women’s World Cup, as intended

Regardless of that decision, though, the NWSL is pushing for many more weeks like this one.

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