In the early days of the National Women’s Soccer League, the games were streamed almost entirely on YouTube. They usually drew just a few thousand viewers at a time. And they were largely available for free.
Ten years later, it’s safe to say the situation has changed. The NWSL has secured seven-figure broadcasting deals with CBS and Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. Ratings are trending upward, and there’s a belief that revenue from the next deal, or deals, could be substantially larger.
“I think maybe it won’t surprise you to know that we expect significant growth,” commissioner Jessica Berman told USA TODAY Sports.
And in the world of women’s sports, the NWSL is hardly alone.
As fan and sponsor interest in women’s sports continue to grow, and the media landscape continues to shift, several leagues are also nearing the end of their current broadcasting deals. It’s a metaphorical perfect storm, a combination of market and societal factors that could lead to a TV revenue boon in the next several years.
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“I think 50 years post-Title IX, we’re effectively at a convergence moment,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports media at Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications.
“I think the sport industry understands that they’re leaving money on the table by leaving women out. We then have pushing from the other side, in terms of consumers… knocking on the door saying, ‘Where the heck are the women ?’ “
In a 2020 report, Deloitte spotlighted women’s sports as “ripe for greater monetization,” predicting that it will become a $1 billion industry in the coming years. And rights fees from TV deals are expected to be one of the main engines behind such growth.
The NWSL will be the first major entity in women’s sports to get a crack at negotiating a new contract, as its three-year deal with CBS is set to expire next year. Berman said the league has already had preliminary conversations with the network about a renewal, but she did not offer further details about the nature or status of those talks.
The NCAA’s championships package, which includes TV rights for the women’s March Madness, is then set to expire the following year, in August 2024. And the WNBA’s current deal with ESPN runs through 2025.
The expiring TV deals come at a critical—and, in many ways, optimal—time for the leagues. Berman described the current climate as “an awakening” — referring to both the public’s view toward gender equity and realizations from sponsors and broadcasters that “there really is untapped potential” in women’s sports.
“It’s been largely under-indexed and ignored for a long time,” said Berman, who was hired as the NWSL’s commissioner earlier this year. “And I think there is a massive and appropriate overcorrection happening in the marketplace.”
Public evidence of this market shift came last fall, in an NCAA-commissioned report about gender equity issues in women’s college basketball.
As part of a wide-ranging review, sports rights consultants from Desser Media, Inc. analyzed the NCAA’s current sponsorship and rights deals — including a deal with ESPN that bundles broadcasting rights for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament with those for championships in 28 other sports .
The NCAA currently receives $34 million per year in the deal, according to the report. But Desser Media estimated that women’s March Madness, on its own, will be worth roughly three times that amount starting in 2025 — pegging its value at roughly $100 million per year.
“Our view at the time was that there’s a whole lot of untapped value here,” said Ed Desser, the sports media industry veteran whose team conducted the analysis.
The explanation is simple: The NCAA first negotiated its deal with ESPN in 2001, then re-upped it in 2011. As the deal has remained stagnant, streaming services have brought competition to the marketplace. Ratings have gone up. And there’s evidence that stronger investment in women’s sports could drive them even higher.
Carol Stiff, who oversaw women’s sports programming at ESPN before retiring last summer, said broadcasting windows — when and where the games are televised — are a significant part of this equation. She recalled moments earlier in her career when a premier women’s college basketball game would be scheduled for Sunday afternoon, during a slate of NFL and NHL games, and get poor ratings. So she would ask for a better broadcasting window, in primetime.
“I was told, ‘Oh, it doesn’t rate, Carol. There’s no eyeballs,’ ” she said. “And I’d go, ‘It doesn’t rate because no one can see it!’ “
Stiff, who is now an advisor for the Women’s Sports Network, credited ESPN for later giving women’s college basketball more favorable broadcasting windows, and ratings indicate that it has reaped the rewards.
“I keep using this term, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” she said.
Similar stories have played out across women’s sports. Several Women’s College World Series games eclipsed 1 million viewers this year, either on ABC or primetime on ESPN. The 2021 WNBA regular season saw a 49% increase in viewership, year-over-year. And after drawing no more than 190,000 viewers in the first seven years of its existence, the NWSL has averaged nearly 450,000 in games televised on CBS.
“We see that when we are placed on broadcast, linear TV, in good watching windows — not programmed against competing properties — that our property stacks up against the biggest and the best in our competitor property set,” Berman said.
The streaming balance
As the NWSL looks ahead to its next deal, Berman said it is a priority for the league to secure quality broadcasting windows for its games — both to generate exposure and protect the health and safety of its players.
Another sticking point could be the platform on which the games are shown.
“The balance between streaming and linear is shifting very quickly, across all sports,” she said. “…I think all leagues need to figure out what that balance is.”
Streaming services can make it easier for diehard fans to follow along and access any game, anywhere, at any time. But they’re also more limited in terms of reach compared to on-air networks, which help draw in more casual viewers.
The NWSL’s current deals with CBS and Twitch are worth about $4.5 million and $1 million, respectively, according to The Washington Post. The arrangement has a handful of games being shown over-the-air on CBS, with the rest scattered across CBS Sports Network, network streaming service Paramount+ and Twitch.
The WNBA’s broadcast homes are even more varied, with games shown on ABC, ESPN, CBS, NBA TV, Amazon Prime Video, Facebook Watch and Twitter.
“There’s a lot of disruption going on in the media landscape today,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a news conference Sunday.
“We have 160 games on national platforms this year, a record for the WNBA, which is great. We’re getting exposure, but I think our fans get frustrated (as to) where do you find those games.”
Desser, who has negotiated more than 70 rights deals in his career, said the rapid growth of streaming services has had a far-reaching impact on the industry — and could help drive up rights fees for women’s sports, in particular.
The WNBA’s ratings, for instance, compare favorably to those of Major League Soccer, which just signed a landmark deal with Apple TV worth about $2.5 billion over 10 years.
“The biggest products, most of them will remain on broadcast and major cable for the next cycle,” Desser said. “Anything else is going to be subject to kind of finding its rightful place, and figuring out a way of finding the balance of generating revenue, making it easy for consumers and generating exposure.”
As women’s sports entities look to continue to grow both ratings and rights fees, there’s reason to believe sports media companies will view them as smart investments.
Women’s sports tend to receive strong support from women — who, at the college level at least, make up more than 42% of all sports fans, according to a recent study by LEARFIELD. And women represent an important target group for sponsors.
Jennifer Davis, the company’s chief marketing officer, noted that women are younger and more likely than the general population to have annual incomes over $150,000.
“Women represent growth — important growth, especially given how complicated the media landscape is,” said Staurowsky, the Ithaca professor. “So it is about justice. But I think it’s also just about smart business, as well.”
Contributing: Nancy Armor