The National Women’s Soccer League and A+E Networks are breaking off the equity partnership and rights deal they agreed to in 2017, with a year remaining on the rights contract.
A+E will remain a sponsor of the NWSL, specifically its cable channel Lifetime, which has been the league’s main national TV home for the last two years. The sponsorship deal that put Lifetime’s logo on the sleeves of NWSL teams’ jerseys will continue through this year.
But the network is returning its 25 percent equity stake in the league to the league and its owners. That includes oversight of the league’s website staff, which has been based at A+E’s office in New York, while the NWSL’s top executives work out of U.S. Soccer Federation in Chicago. It also includes a 50 percent equity stake in the league’s commercial, sponsorship, and marketing operations through an entity called NWSL Media.
NWSL president Amanda Duffy said Wednesday afternoon that the separation decision “came about very quickly," and was “a result of discussions between the principals of the entities as we were looking at the future of the league [and] how to best set up the growing league for continued success.”
The biggest question to fans is where the NWSL’s national TV games will go. Duffy said those talks are ongoing, and a new broadcast partner will be announced “in the coming weeks.” The league’s 2019 schedule will be announced on Thursday. (Duffy also confirmed that Sky Blue FC will continue playing.)
“We are in discussions with a few potential broadcasters for the 2019 season and seasons ahead,” she said. “I’m excited and feel confident about the conversations that we’re already having for this season and beyond, and the next agreement will be centered around a longer-term agreement for the league.”
The obvious candidates are ESPN, which put a few NWSL games on ESPNews last year — Disney owns part of A+E — and Fox, which has the Women’s World Cup and aired NWSL games in 2015 and 2016.
Comcast-owned NBC Sports may also be a possibility. Multiple sources said the network has shown interest, though a Forbes report that the NWSL “has an outstanding offer" from NBC might have gone too far.
This much is certain: The American home of the English Premier League televises U.S. women’s national team games at the Olympics, and Telemundo has Spanish-language rights for the women’s World Cup. NBC Sports also had a package of MLS and U.S. national team rights from 2012 to 2014.
NBC notably has a content partnership with Yahoo Sports, whose corporate parent Verizon has had streaming rights for non-televised NWSL games since 2017. Yahoo Sports’ website and apps will be the exclusive home of non-televised NWSL games this season.
Duffy put it on the record Wednesday that Verizon paid the NWSL a rights fee as part of the deal. She did not disclose the sum, though when the deal was signed, a source told the Inquirer that it was a “significant” and “meaningful” amount that was “a huge factor in this deal.”
Outside of the United States, streaming will still be available through the NWSL’s website.
“We’ve been very happy with that [Verizon] partnership, and the distribution that they’ve given to the league," Duffy said. “We’ll respect that agreement, as it has been a very positive and productive one.”
Duffy didn’t deny that upending a major rights deal in a World Cup year isn’t a great look for her league. But it was a consensus among the league, its club owners and A+E that it was better to do this now than after the tournament in the hope that it will prepare the NWSL to capitalize better off a World Cup bounce.
“This was an evaluation of where the league is today, what our future is, and how we want to shape the future of this league,” she said. “This is a NWSL that has more control over its future in the form of expansion, sponsorship and the commercial enterprising of the business. We’ve worked endlessly the past two years to strengthen [club] ownership, to build relationships with players, to elevate the profile of the league, to enhance our footprint — competitively, digitally, commercially — and we’ll continue on this journey as we take our next steps into the future.”
She put a specific emphasis on the league’s owners getting the equity stake back.
“We have stronger ownership, and our owners now having full control and full equity of both the league itself and its commercial arm, NWSL Media, puts us in the strongest position for the best possible future,” she said, and later added, “With the owners that we have today and the lessons that we’ve learned over the past several years, it’s very important and very valuable that the owners have full control over shaping the future of this league."
That includes control over commercial sponsorship deals, which should be front and center in this World Cup year.
“This is a good opportunity to evaluate where we are [and] strategize about where we want to go, and what opportunities make the most sense to us," Duffy said. "We believe in the league, we believe in the players, and we believe that we can partner with many different companies to build this league, and we understand it will take time. We’re invested in taking that time, and shaping this to support the league in the right way as we go forward.”
She further said “our sponsorship conversations … have been healthy over the last year-plus,” though she did not give any specifics.