In the early days of the Women’s National Football League, games were broadcast almost entirely on YouTube. that they It usually attracts a few thousand viewers at a time. And they were available pretty much for free.
Ten years later, it is safe to say that the situation has changed. NWSL has secured seven-figure streaming deals with CBS and Amazon Twitch-owned streaming platform. Valuations are trending higher, and there is a belief that revenue from the next deal or deals could be much greater.
“I think it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that we’re expecting significant growth,” Commissioner Jessica Berman told USA TODAY Sports.
And in the world of women’s sports, the NWSL is not alone.
As the interest of fans and sponsors in women’s sports continues to grow, and the media landscape continues to shift, many leagues are also nearing the end of their current broadcast deals. It’s a metaphorical perfect storm, a combination of market and societal factors that could lead to the blessing of television revenue in the next several years.
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“I think 50 years after class nine, we’re really in a moment of convergence,” said Elaine Storowski, professor of sports media at the Park School of Communication at Ithaca College.
“I think the sports industry understands that they’re leaving money on the table by leaving women out. And then we push from the other side, in terms of consumers…they’re knocking on the door saying, ‘Where are the women the women?'” ? “
In its 2020 report, Deloitte highlighted women’s sports as “mature for greater income,” and predicted that it would become a billion-dollar industry in the coming years. Rights fees from TV deals are expected to be one of the main drivers behind this growth.
NWSL will be the first major entity in women’s sports to get a crack at negotiating a new contract, as a three-year agreement with CBS is set to expire next year. Berman said the league has already had initial talks with the network about the renewal, but she did not provide further details about the nature or status of those talks.
The NCAA tournament package, which includes the television rights to the women’s March Madness movie, is set to expire the following year, in August 2024. The WNBA’s current deal with ESPN runs through 2025.
Expired TV deals come at a critical – and in many ways optimal – time for tournaments. Berman described the current climate as “vigilant” – a reference to the public’s view of gender equality and the realization of sponsors and broadcasters that “there really is untapped potential” in women’s sports.
“It has been largely ignored and ignored for so long,” said Berman, who was appointed as the NWSL commissioner earlier this year. “And I think there is an excessive and proper correction going on in the market.”
Public evidence of this market shift came last fall, in Report commissioned by the NCAA On gender issues in college girls’ basketball.
As part of an extensive review, sports rights consultants from Desser Media, Inc. Analyzes current NCAA sponsorship and rights deals—including a deal with ESPN that combines broadcast rights for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament with those of tournaments in 28 other sports.
According to the report, the NCAA currently receives $34 million annually in the deal. But Desser Media has estimated that women’s March Madness, on its own, will be worth nearly three times that amount starting in 2025 — setting its value at around $100 million annually.
“Our view at the time was that there was a lot of untapped value here,” said Ed Deisser, 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-launched it in 2011. As the deal remained stagnant, it brought competing streaming services to market. Ratings soared. And there’s evidence that stronger investment in women’s sports can push them higher.
Carol Steve, who oversaw ESPN’s women’s sports programming before retiring last summer, said broadcast windows — when and where matches are broadcast on television — are an important part of that equation. She recalled moments earlier in her career when a college women’s basketball game was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, during the slate of NFL and NHL games, and got poor reviews. So she was asking for a better primetime broadcast window.
She said, “I was told, ‘Oh, that doesn’t rate, Carol. There are no eyeballs.” And I would go, “It is not evaluated because no one can see it!”
Stiff, now a consultant for the Women’s Sports Network, credits ESPN for later giving it broadcast windows more suited to women’s basketball, and ratings suggest she reaped the rewards.
“I keep using that term, ‘If you build it, they’ll come,'” she said.
Similar stories have appeared in various women’s sports. Several College Women’s World Series games have surpassed 1 million viewers this year, either on ABC or prime time on ESPN. The 2021 WNBA regular season saw a 49% increase in viewership year over year. Having drawn no more than 190,000 viewers in the first seven years of its existence, NWSL averaged nearly 450,000 viewers on CBS televised games.
“We see that when we are placed in linear TV broadcasts, in good viewing windows — not programmed against competing properties — our holdings stack up against our biggest and best competing property pool,” Berman said.
As the NWSL looks forward to its next deal, Berman said it’s a priority for the league to secure high-quality broadcast windows for its games — 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 live and linear broadcasting is changing very quickly in all sports,” she said. “…I think all leagues need to know what that balance is.”
Streaming services can make it easy for die-hard fans to follow and access any game anywhere, anytime. But it is also more limited in terms of reach compared to networks on the air, which helps to attract more regular viewers.
NWSL’s current deals with CBS and Twitch are worth approximately $4.5 million and $1 million, respectively, According to the Washington Post,. The ranking features a handful of games shown live on CBS, with the rest scattered across CBS Sports, network broadcast service Paramount+ and Twitch.
WNBA broadcast houses are more diverse, with games showing on ABC, ESPN, CBS, NBA TV, Amazon Prime Video, Facebook Watch, and Twitter.
“There is a lot of upheaval going on in the media landscape today,” WNBA Commissioner Kathy Engelbert said at a news conference on Sunday.
“We’ve got 160 games on the national platforms this year, which is a WNBA record, which is great. We’re running, but I think our fans are frustrated (in terms of) where you find those matches.”
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 fees for women’s sports rights, in particular.
For example, the WNBA ratings compare favorably with that 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 stay on major broadcast and cable for the next cycle,” Desser said. “Anything else would be subject to some sort of finding its rightful place, figuring out a way to find a balance to generate revenue, making it easier for consumers and generating visibility.”
As female sports entities look to continue increasing ratings and rights fees, there is reason to believe that sports media companies will view them as smart investments.
Women’s sports tend to receive strong support from women — who, at least at the college level, make up more than 42% of all sports fans, according to a recent LEARFIELD study. Women represent an important target group for herders.
Jennifer Davis, the company’s chief marketing officer, noted that women are younger and more likely than the general population to have an annual income of more than $150,000.
“Women represent growth — significant growth, especially given the complexity of the media landscape,” said Staurowski, a professor at Ithaca. “So it’s about fairness. But I think it’s just about smart business as well.”
Contributing: Nancy Armor