The National Women’s Soccer League has secured a $240 million domestic broadcast deal with four major streaming and cable partners, the league has announced. It’s a landmark deal that is 40 times larger than the previous, paltry agreement the recently revived league had before.
The new deal will pay the NWSL about $60 million a year for four years, a person familiar with the deal told Fortune.
Games will be broadcast across a medley of different platforms. Amazon, CBS, ESPN, and the Scripps-owned ION network, will broadcast a portion of the regular season and playoff games between them. CBS and ESPN will air games on both their linear networks and respective streaming services, Paramount+ and ESPN+.
“We have taken great care to ensure our games are discoverable by increasing our reach in order to expose new audiences to everything that makes our league special, without compromising the economic value of our product” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said.
The NWSL opted to spread out its game broadcasts across several different partners, unlike Major League Soccer, which signed a 10-year $250 million exclusive deal with Apple. It’s not uncommon for sports leagues to work with multiple partners. The NFL, for instance, has signed an 11-year, $110 billion deal with NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, and Amazon. While the NBA, whose media contract is set to expire in 2025, has deals with Warner Bros. Discovery-owned TNT, ABC, and ESPN. In the past, Berman has cited the NBA as a model for the NWSL. “There is no fundamental reason why a women’s soccer league like the NWSL can’t be as successful as the NBA,” she said in a May interview with Fortune.
A growing league
All four media partners also made commitments to promote the league, each other’s broadcasts—critical for consumer awareness in a non-exclusive media deal—and up their investments in production. In the NWSL’s previous deal, worth just $1.5 million a year for three years, the league was on the hook for production costs associated with its broadcasts, meaning it effectively lost money because it was footing a bill greater than the value of the agreement, according to The Athletic.
“In lockstep with the NWSL, they are going to transform the ways in which fans can discover and engage with the games, assuring deserved exposure for these world class athletes on the broadest stage,” said Hillary Mandel, executive vice president of IMG Media, which brokered the sale on behalf of the NWSL.
The new media rights partners will only air about 60% of the NWSL’s games. In an interesting move, the NWSL decided to keep about 38% of its games for itself, opting to show them on its own streaming platform. The NWSL had experimented with a proprietary, direct-to-consumer streaming platform for international broadcasts of its games over the course of this year. That service, developed in partnership with the talent agency holding company Endeavor, was free of charge.
The new deal brings a windfall of cash to the burgeoning league, which was reformed in 2012 from the remnants of the defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league. CBS Sports, which has broadcasted NWSL games for the past four years, will maintain the rights to the league’s championship match. (This season’s championship game is on Saturday.) Just a year ago, the league struggled to secure a primetime slot for its championship game, the most important of the season. In 2022, the championship game had been relegated to a noon start time, outside of CBS Sports’ primetime window, until one of the NWSL’s sponsors upped its media investment prompting the network to shift the game to the more desirable 8 p.m.
The league has been eager for new commercial partners, such as broadcasters that can help it grow and become a staple in American sports culture. “Do you think of women’s soccer and women’s sport as a business or are you here because you have a daughter or granddaughter?” Berman said in the May interview. “Because [the latter is] not going to be enough to drive the future of this business.”
The new broadcast rights deal continues the league’s upward trajectory financially. In 2022, sponsorship revenues increased by 87% compared to 2021. Team valuations in the NWSL have set records for women’s sports in the U.S. In April, an NWSL expansion team in the Bay area sold for $53 million. Previous expansion fees for women’s soccer teams hovered between $2 to $5 million. While the Los Angeles-based Angel City FC—which features A-list celebrity investors like Billie Jean King and Natalie Portman—has ambitions to become the first women’s sports franchise valued at $1 billion.
The league is set to add two new teams for next season, one in the Bay Area and another based in Utah.