Three days before the Women’s World Cup final, the National Women’s Soccer League announced a 14-game TV deal with ESPN for the rest of this season, delivering further proof of America’s rising interest in women’s soccer.
“In the leadup to and through the Women’s World Cup, there’s been a lot of building of momentum and interest in exposure for women’s soccer and for the NWSL,” league president Amanda Duffy told The Inquirer on Thursday. “I feel really good that we’ve been able to engage with and partner with ESPN to have games, and bring the NWSL back into a network that has such a vast reach and connection with the sport’s audience.”
ESPN will show eight games on ESPNews and six on ESPN2, including both playoff semifinals and the Oct. 12 final at WakeMed Soccer Park just outside Raleigh, N.C. All will be produced on-site at venues, in contrast to the league’s usual practice of remote production and calling games off monitors from Vista WorldLink’s studios near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The broadcast talent will be announced later.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“We are pleased to once again televise the National Women’s Soccer League and showcase many of the world’s top female players when they return to their professional club teams,” ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus said in a statement. “The success and excitement of the World Cup in France has been on full display and the NWSL represents the best women’s club soccer in the world.”
The slate starts July 14 on ESPNews, when the Portland Thorns host the Orlando Pride at Providence Park. Though the teams’ American stars won’t be back yet, Portland will have Christine Sinclair and Orlando will have Marta.
U.S. World Cup players are expected back the following weekend, when ESPN2 will carry the July 21 game between the Chicago Red Stars (Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davidson and Australia's Sam Kerr) and the North Carolina Courage (Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper).
At the top of the marquee is the Aug. 11 clash between the Thorns and Courage, which have contested the last two finals, in Portland. All hands should be on deck for that game, including the Thorns’ Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan.
On Aug. 18, Carli Lloyd and Sky Blue FC get the national TV spotlight hosting Megan Rapinoe's Reign FC (based in Tacoma, Wash.) at Rutgers' Yurcak Field.
All nine teams in the league will make at least one TV appearance. The only one that won’t get a home game is the Washington Spirit. Duffy said that’s because the league didn’t want to upend the schedule, not because of the Spirit’s small stadium.
"Our priority was to keep the integrity of our regular season intact," Duffy said.
Games not in the TV deal will remain on Yahoo! Sports’ online streaming platform. Some teams also have local TV deals which take those broadcasts to wider audiences.
ESPN’s agreement with the NWSL is the league’s first new rights deal since its February breakup with A+E Networks, which had put games on Lifetime for two seasons and took an equity stake in the league.
Duffy admitted that the split from A+E came about quickly, so there wasn’t enough time to put a backup plan in place to show games nationally during the first half of the season.
"We were't anticipating looking for and needing a new broadcast partner for the 2019 season," Duffy said.
There were multiple networks interested in the league’s rights this year. Duffy confirmed past reports that NBC, home of the English Premier League and the Olympics, was one of them. But ESPN’s standing as a longtime home of American soccer -- it currently carries MLS, U.S. Open Cup, USL and U.S. men’s and women’s national team games -- made it a natural fit.
"We felt like ESPN was going to be our best partner and provide the best exposure, and also the best support surrounding the games," Duffy said. "With the partnership that we've entered into for the 2019 season, it best positions us right now and leading into the future of this league."
Though this deal is only for this year, Duffy did not stand in the way of speculation that the NWSL and ESPN might strike a bigger deal this winter. A move to ESPN+ would put online streaming of all three major American domestic leagues in the same subscription package.
“There’s interest in having a long-term relationship, and hope that this is the start,” Duffy said. “ESPN understands it [the league’s short-term approach], and we’re pleased to get started here and have conversations about the future at the appropriate time.”
For now, Duffy is like millions of other soccer fans: waiting for Sunday, when the U.S. will play for its second straight Women's World Cup title. She said the NWSL has seen an increase in interest from commercial sponsors this summer and is preparing to capitalize on it.
“The wave is already building,” Duffy said. “I don’t think the wave is at its peak, and we’re prepared and expect that we’re going to be able to ride that for some time and be able to elevate and change our position here in the United States, and also globally, as a leader in women’s soccer.”
ESPN’s 2019 NWSL schedule
Sunday July 14: Portland Thorns vs. Orlando Pride (3 p.m., ESPNews)
Sunday, July 21: Chicago Red Stars vs. North Carolina Courage (6 p.m., ESPN2)
Saturday, July 27: Utah Rolays vs. North Carolina Courage (10 p.m., ESPNews)
Friday, Aug. 2: Houston Dash vs. Reign FC (7 p.m., ESPNews)
Sunday, Aug. 11: Portland Thorns vs. North Carolina Courage (3 p.m., ESPNews)
Sunday, Aug. 18: Sky Blue FC vs. Reign FC, 1 p.m. (ESPNews)
Sunday, Aug 25: Portland Thorns vs. Chicago Red Stars (3 p.m., ESPNews)
Wednesday, Sept. 11: Orlando Pride vs. Chicago Red Stars (7 p.m., ESPNews)
Tuesday, Sept. 17: North Carolina Courage vs. Houston Dash (7:30 p.m., ESPNews)
Wednesday, Sept. 25: Houston Dash vs. Washington Spirit (9 p.m., ESPN2)
Sunday, Sept. 29: Reign FC vs. Portland Thorns (2 p.m., ESPN2)
Sunday, Oct. 20: Playoff semifinals (2 p.m. and 4 p.m., ESPN2)
Sunday, Oct. 27: Championship game at WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, N.C. (4 p.m., ESPN2)