Fox Sports 1 will broadcast six National Women's Soccer League games this season. It's the second consecutive year that the network and the league have teamed up, and the total number of games is the same as it was in 2015.
Of the six, three will be the NWSL's postseason: two semifinals and the championship game. Dates for those contests have yet to be determined - and notably, the location for the final.
Update: The league announced a few days later that the final will be played on Sunday, October 9 at Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium. The time still has not been announced.
The three regular season games that will air on FS1 are (all times Eastern):
Wednesday, September 7: Chicago Red Stars vs. FC Kansas City (8:00 p.m.)
Sunday, September 11: Portland Thorns vs. Western New York Flash (9:30 p.m.)
Sunday, September 25: Houston Dash vs. Seattle Reign (9:30 p.m.)
All of the contests will be streamed live on Fox Sports Go, the network's free-with-authentication streaming platform; and Fox Soccer 2 Go, the network's paid subscription-based streaming platform.
You might be surprised to see that the broadcast schedule starts so late in the season. It's one thing for a national TV deal to get announced mid-season, as last year's was, but this one was announced before the start of the campaign.
You might also be surprised to see that even though two of the biggest games in NWSL history will take place on the first two weekends of the season - Portland-Orlando this coming Sunday, and Orlando-Houston the following Saturday - neither will be televised nationally.
The former contest is Orlando's first ever game. It's also Pride star Alex Morgan's first game against her old team, which now features fellow U.S. national team regulars Lindsey Horan and Meghan Klingenberg. The latter contest is the Pride's first home game, and the team is making a huge push to draw a big crowd to the Citrus Bowl for the occasion. It helps that the visiting Dash will bring Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian to town.
At least, neither will be televised nationally for now. In his preseason state-of-things conference call Wednesday afternoon, NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush hinted that another rights deal might be coming that would run alongside the Fox package. But he didn't say much more.
"It's not exclusive," he said. "I want to be very clear in speaking about how excited and proud we are of our Fox relationship, but there are other conversations going on."
The Thorns and Pride are already promoting the broadcast of their matchup on YouTube, where you can watch every NWSL game that isn't on national TV. It would be a bit surprising if the league is able to pull a rabbit out of its hat just three days before that contest and get it on a big TV network.
We will have to wait and see how the situation evolves. For now, though, I know this much: even though Fox hasn't expanded its NWSL television package, the network cares a lot about the league and wants to see it succeed.
"We believe this is a league that is going to grow into the future," Fox Sports head of business operations David Nathanson told me. "We're investing in the league because we think it has upside, both from a viewership perspective as well as a sponsorship perspective, and we're supportive of what this league represents - which is that a club competition featuring the best female football players in the world can generate a real audience. And we believe it will."
When I asked Nathanson why the NWSL deal won't get on the air until September, he told me it was the Fox's preference to feature late-season games in order to build up storylines toward the playoffs.
"From a television standpoint, there are significant costs associated with producing these events and ultimately we're choosing games later on in the season because they have an impact on the postseason," he said. "We feel these games not only feature some of the best players and the best teams in the league, but I think ideally they'll have an impact on who you have in the postseason... There is significance, I think, in showing these games in September week after week because the goal is to try to build momentum for the teams by marketing them, giving them broad distribution and driving interest in the postseason."
That Nathanson raised the production cost angle might in turn raise eyebrows among some of you. It's not like a NWSL game costs more to produce than a MLS game. But the greater truth there is that every sports broadcast costs a lot of money to produce. Those costs are easier to bear when you have a good idea of what the audience will probably be. From where I sit, there haven't been enough NWSL games on big-time national TV yet (for better or worse) to have that good idea as of now.
So I asked which entity will bear those production costs, and whether Fox is paying a rights fee to the NWSL - or whether the NWSL is buying the air time.
"The air time is not paid for, and Fox is bearing those costs," Nathanson said. "This is not a time buy. This is not something that the league is throwing at."
It is a product that Fox wants to spend its money on, but prudently. And Nathanson is well aware that there's a straight line from the quality of the NWSL to the quality of the United States women's national team.
"This is something that Fox is choosing to invest in, and we believe in the women's league," he said. "We believe that it has significant impact on keeping the U.S. women's team at a top level, and those players at their peak."
Fox also intends to present the NWSL as a soccer property just like all of its other ones. That happened last year, and Nathanson is proud of the philosophy.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that the two Sunday regular season games will be presented as twin bills with Major League Soccer broadcasts on the same night.
"Having a MLS lead-in to these NWSL games will naturally drive a soccer-affiliated audience into this league," Nathanson said. "For many who may not have watched the league in the past, I think it will showcase the fact that this league should generate support from American soccer fans, and ultimately serves in showcasing the top female players in the world on our own soil. So it's something that should be supported by soccer fans across the country."
I concluded by asking Nathanson a question that I've been asked by many readers over the last year or so: Why isn't the NWSL included in the broad rights deal between Fox, ESPN, Univision, the U.S. Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer? Especially knowing U.S. Soccer's significant financial investment in the NWSL.
Nathanson's answer was pragmatic. Much of the negotiating of the big deal was done late in 2013, when the NWSL had just completed its first season. When the deal was announced in May of 2014, the NWSL was just over a month into its second campaign. At that point, the league wasn't as stable as it is now.
"At that point in time, the league was in its nascent stages of really establishing itself, establishing the teams, distributing the players, and at that stage I don't think it would have been in a position to be part of that deal," Nathanson said. "It was a bit premature to consider that at that stage. When we're done with the current MLS deal [which runs through 2022], is that something that we'd have a conversation about? Is it necessary? I don't know."
It would take some amount of negotiating to break into the MLS/U.S. Soccer deal, which runs through 2022, and incorporate the NWSL. That's not to say it's impossible, but it's not something you see in the television industry very often.
And consider this musing from Nathanson on the NWSL's relationship to those other entities.