All this week, the National Women’s Soccer League has been spreading the news on social media of an upcoming announcement with A+E Networks. In naming the new partner, the NWSL was not being coy about what the press conference would be about. The only question was which network would it make sense and would it be digital-only. The press conference was this morning, and it revealed what I suspected: select games on Lifetime, developing digital platforms in partnership for other games. The centrality of Lifetime in this partnership was illustrated by its logo on the backdrop and not A+E networks’ logo.
This partnership makes sense for a number of reasons for both entities.
First and foremost, this is a godsend for the NWSL. TV deals are the life’s blood of finances for major sports leagues, and that is particularly true for soccer leagues around the world. One need only look at the massive amounts of money broadcasters have paid in recent years for rights to show the English Premier League and MLS on both television and digital platforms. Meanwhile, women’s soccer leagues have struggled to even survive beyond 3 year stints in the US. Following on the success of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s stunning 1999 World Cup win, the Women’s United Soccer Association formed in 2000 and folded in 2003. After the WUSA, the Women’s Professional Soccer league was founded in 2007 (the year of the Women’s World Cup in Bejing) and ran from 2009-2012. WUSA matches, like some NWSL matches for the past few years, would occasionally air on various cable channels, but did not have a regular television schedule or home. The WPS fared better regarding television, airing weekly matches on Fox Soccer Channel. However, in 2009-2012, FSC had minimal reach among cable television households. In fact, the deal made between the WPS and FSC in 2008 reads as very similar to the NWSL-Lifetime deal today. The major differences make all the difference: Lifetime is a basic cable channel with far greater market saturation than FSC (then or today), the deal includes non-linear digital platform distribution, and perhaps most importantly, the threshold for successful ratings is much lower in 2017 than it was even five years ago.
On the face of it, Lifetime is an odd choice for a live sports partnership. Lifetime has had some variation of its “Television for Women” brand since the 1980s, but that television has only once included live sports. As Nancy Dubuc, President and CEO of A+E Networks, pointed out at this morning’s press conference: Lifetime aired select WNBA games during the league’s early years, only shifting their coverage to ESPN in 2000. In 2000, a Lifetime executive described the move away from sports as “very exciting for us because now we will be able to do what we do best, which is tell women’s stories, and ESPN can do what they do best, which is cover live sports.” In the press conference this morning, however, the division between “live sports” and “women’s stories” was erased by Dubuc. She discussed the NWSL as a site of women’s stories and sports as entertainment. The way the NWSL was framed fits both with Lifetime’s emerging brand as a place for upscale women’s entertainment–soccer is an considered upscale sport in the US–and fits with a growing strain of sports discourse for which soccer is an epicenter: sport-as-narrative.
The discussion of sport-as-narrative in this instance is somewhat murkily playing into gender stereotypes of women seeking soap-opera drama in all genres. There is a sense from some of the press conference’s discussion of how the NWSL fits into the Lifetime brand that the process of narrativizing may also soap-opera-ize the approach to the sport because it’s assumed that that’s what women want. However, Dubuc was also quick to point out that half of NFL viewers are women, implying that the market for women’s sport is already there and doesn’t need gimmicks to be found.
Regardless of how Lifetime will package the NWSL come April, this partnership indicates the ongoing–and growing–importance of live sport in the television industry. As DVRs, waiting-to-binge practices, and chord-cutting all erode advertising deals, live sports remains a dependable site for live viewers and the advertising money they generate. As such, in the last few years, we’ve seen an expansion of cable sports channels with NBC Sports, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and CBS Sports joining the various ESPNs in more cable packages. Additionally, more elite and/or esoteric sports have started showing up on those channels and even occasionally on their broadcast parents, such as Formula 1 on NBC. However, even these live sports audiences are starting to dwindle, as are audiences across television as more and more options are available to them in the era of Peak TV. But in that context, a small, upscale, and committed audience, such as that of women’s soccer, can be a boon to any cable channel. Dubuc said as much in today’s press conference when answering a question about audience across platforms for the NWSL. She said,”The aggregate is what’s important and what we’re paying attention to.” Many small but significant slices of the audience pie will help to sustain the NWSL. This is why this partnership makes sense now for Lifetime, and why I believe it will do well for both entities in terms of branding.
And we really should have known this was coming based on this recent Lifetime channel promo. Just count the soccer players. Welcome to the fempire, indeed.