The National Women’s Soccer League was focused on adding a new television partnership before the end of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The league accomplished the goal, with NWSL and ESPN announcing a broadcast agreement on Thursday that will help boost the league’s national exposure after the World Cup.
ESPN has the rights to 14 of the remaining matches during the 2019 season. Eight of these matches will be available on ESPNews, while six — including the league semifinals and championship — will be available on ESPN2. All 14 games will also stream live on the ESPN app.
NWSL declined to disclose any financial terms of the deal. ESPN typically includes non-disclosure language in its contracts.
Games that are not covered by ESPN family of networks will continue to streamed via Yahoo! Sports.
The league entered this year without a cable agreement after A+E backed out of its broadcasting agreement months before the season opener.
NWSL President Amanda Duffy told Pro Soccer USA A+E’s decision was a surprise and the league began pushing to negotiate a new television agreement in February.
“It was important that, at a minimum, we come out of the Women’s World Cup with games for the remainder of the season,” she said. “… The timing really works out coming out of the tournament. To be able to build NWSL’s momentum, coming off an international tournament in which not only have the U.S. women’s national team players been exceptional, there’s been so much visibility of all the players in NWSL who have represented their national teams at a really high level. ”
The pace of the 2019 TV negotiations were relatively quick and coverage for 2020 and beyond will be negotiated separately.
“It does give us a great position to build a relationship with ESPN and have strong performances,” Duffy said. “… It is important for NWSL to have a network partner and is something that’s a priority for us in 2020. We want to make sure we’re positioned well next season and going forward.”
The news comes only two days after the U.S. women’s national team set viewership records, roping in 6.2 million viewers on Fox and 8.2 million television viewers on their way to beating France 2-1 in the World Cup semifinals. The game was the most-watched soccer match on English language television since last year’s men’s World Cup final. FIFA predicts that at least 1 billion viewers will have tuned into the World Cup by the end of the final match on Sunday, and more than 55 of the players participating in the tournament will immediately return to play for their NWSL clubs.
“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 president of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus said in a news release announcing the new TV agreement. “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 NWSL has struggled to find a consistent partner for broadcasting and streaming rights. During its inaugural season in 2013, the league signed a one-year agreement with Fox Sports to broadcast six regular season games on Fox Sports 2, along with the league semifinal and final games. The league then moved to ESPN for the 2014 season, with a similar structure as this recent agreement — three regular season games and the semifinals and championship on ESPN2, with an additional three regular season matches on ESPN3.
For the following two seasons, the league returned to Fox, splitting broadcasts between FS1 and Fox Sports Go, the company’s streaming platform. The NWSL then made the move to A&E, which offered the most expansive broadcasting opportunity — 22 regular-season matches, along with all three postseason games, broadcast on Lifetime. The remaining games were streamed on Go90, an online platform.
The agreement gave the NWSL a weekly broadcast for the first time in the league’s history, and it reflected an investment by A&E in the league as a whole as the company purchased 25 percent stake in the NWSL and sponsored team kits. However, it also sparked controversy over the Go90 stream qualities and scheduling difficulties due to the rigid Lifetime structure.
After scrapping the Go90 stream and moving the final six games of the season to ESPNews, the agreement did not survive its original three-year term. On Feb. 10, the league announced that A&E had backed out and returned its stake, although Lifetime remains a kit sponsor. The announcement came only two months before the season began, and the NWSL did not establish a new cabe broadcasting agreement before entering its seventh season.
The return to ESPN will maintain the NWSL broadcasts under the overarching umbrella of the Walt Disney Company, of which both A&E and ESPN are subsidiaries. The move kept the league from returning to Fox, which claimed exclusive broadcast rights for the World Cup.
“We’re tremendously excited about this agreement with a network that’s a leader in the sports industry,” Duffy said.
Portland Thorns FC vs. Orlando Pride: Sunday, July 14 at 3 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS
Chicago Red Stars vs. North Carolina Courage: Sunday, July 21 at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Utah Royals FC vs. North Carolina Courage: Saturday, July 27 at 10 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS
Houston Dash vs. Reign FC: Friday, August 2 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS
Portland Thorns FC vs. North Carolina Courage: Sunday, August 11 ET on ESPNEWS
Sky Blue FC vs. Reign FC: Sunday, August 18 at 1 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS
Portland Thorns FC vs. Chicago Red Stars: Sunday, August 25 at 3 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS
Orlando Pride vs. Chicago Red Stars: Wednesday, September 11 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS
North Carolina Courage vs. Houston Dash: Tuesday, September 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS
Houston Dash vs. Washington Spirit: Wednesday, September 25 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Reign FC vs. Portland Thorns FC: Sunday, September 29 at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2
NWSL Semifinals Game One: Sunday, October 20 at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2
NWSL Semifinals Game Two: Sunday, October 20 at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2
NWSL Championship: Sunday, October 27 at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2