NWSL Needs National TV Coverage
By Simon Allen
Without Television You're Nothing.
Okay! that's a bit harsh! so let me say it in a kinder way.
If it didn't happen on Television it didn't happen!
On July 26th 1966, Jim McGuire, president of the American Football Association conducted an interview in regards to the Soccer League in America that was debuting in 1968. He noted that TV was the most important thing when it came to promoting soccer. “All sports on television have had explosive growth in the States.” In 1967, Robert Hermann, President of the National Professional Soccer League said “We expect that television will create a new breed of sports enthusiast- the American soccer fan.”
So on Sunday April 16th 1967 “The CBS-TV Network for two hours each Sunday after noon...present(ed) a “game of the week” of the newly formed National Professional Soccer League.” Rick Du Brow of the Reading Eagle ended that statement with “the broadcasts are in color.” Yes America! Soccer was covered Nationally each week on TV in 1967. What you are seeing now in 2013 is nothing new. MLS or the old NASL didn't invent Soccer on Television.
The old NASL knew that their league would not work without massive TV coverage. TV was important in it's infancy and TV coverage would be vital for it to remain a proper league into the future.
In 1968, CBS covered all the teams in the newly formed NASL. In 1967 the television contract for the NPSL was $500,000.00. In today's money that's about $3.5 million and comparing it to MLS' $8 million contract with ESPN that's not too shabby. But by 1981 things were a a bit different...there was no Live coverage of Soccer Bowl 81. “Except for scattered radio coverage by local stations, at-home soccer enthusiasts will be unable to follow the action until Sunday afternoon when the ABC television network will air the match.” reported The Spokesman-Review on September 27th of the same year.
In the case of women's soccer, The WPS had, back in 2008, a deal with Fox Soccer channel to air a national “game of the week.” Rachel Epstein who was WPS' director of marketing said at the time that signing with Fox brought “Credibility and authenticity to the soccer landscape...” Fox Soccer reached 34 million cable and satellite homes in the US and Caribbean. “(Fox Soccer Channel) allows (WPS) to reach our target market” said Epstein. And for a short while it did. It didn't matter where you lived in the US, once a week you could tune in and watch what was arguably the best women's soccer league in the world. This was very important because women's soccer fans, however large or small in number could watch The Atlanta Beat in Los Angeles or Las Vegas or Tulsa...you get the idea! Back in 2001 the WUSA also knowing that eyes on TV sets were vital for league survival were granted a release from from its 4 year deal with Turner Sports after the first season. WUSA signed on with PAX TV that guaranteed 22 matches would be broadcast LIVE on Saturday afternoons. The deal was worth $2 million dollars (that's about 2 and half million dollars in today's money) which wasn't too bad for a league that was reaching about 292,000 homes per match. At the time, WUSA president and CEO, Lynn Morgan said “We're excited about our new agreement...which provides our audience with a single destination, day and time of the week...”
And that's the key. A Single Destination, Day and Time of Week. For women's soccer (and perhaps even lower league Men's soccer) to succeed in America there has to be a place where the entire league is represented every week in one place...nationally! The third incarnation of Women's Pro soccer-The NWSL has learned it's financial lessons from WUSA and WPS except when it comes to eyes on screens. As of this writingBoston Breakers Vs Washington Spirit then they will have to go to their computers and watch it onPortland Thorns will have radio coverage with Freedom 970 AM this season. The Thorns will be sharing the airwaves with Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee and Laura Ingraham which raises an eyebrow or two. This is better than not having (radio) coverage but I can't see families gathering round the old wireless to hear radio coverage of women's soccer. Mainly because it's not 1934. Let's be honest, NWSL and The Portland Thorns have a marketing bonanza with Alex Morgan. Non Soccer fans know about her and the way she plays soccer. Lads go gaga over her good looks, the camera loves her and people all around the world think she's the perfect player to promote women's soccer- The Beauty in the Beautiful Game. Believe it or not, none of that translates on Radio!
It's the same with stream cast matches. Yes, the hardcore fans will do what ever it takes to watch but at then end of the day I don't think too many New fans will watch the matches on their computer screens. On Saturday night, I actually set up my lap top next to my TV so I could watch The Thorns play while I watched Dallas Vs Los Angeles on NBC. I clicked the play button and was greeted with Los Angeles Blues beat the Champions, Orlando City, LIVE! In the stadium! It was a great match to watch. Bone Crunching Tackles, Pace, Guts and Glory. Done right the match could have been on National TV for a lot of people to enjoy. The new NASL will never come close to being the old-NASL until it gets National TV coverage. Women's Domestic League Soccer in America won't either. Bone Crunching Tackles as well as Finesse just don't come through when you're watching it on a computer screen.
“U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body...is subsidizing the league by paying the salaries of about two-dozen national team regulars who committed to the NWSL. The Canadian and Mexican federations are also involved, paying several of their top players to compete here.
The arrangement serves the USSF’s best interests because it expands the national team’s talent pool and keeps the players in a competitive environment. Without a domestic league, the federation would have to consider implementing a full-time residency program (for players who do not sign overseas) and scheduling more international friendlies than desired.” wrote Steven Goff in the Washington Post. That's brilliant! The players will be taken care of. But the casual fan will probably not.
The New Women's League is on sure business footing. USSF President Sunil Gulati has said “It’s an investment in the sport. Public assistance was necessary to make it work. The likelihood of sustainability is greater.” To which I reply “Where's the media investment?” Without eyes on the screen and product availability to a wider audience, NWSL may have to reinvent itself as a league when (hopefully not if) it becomes a Nationally televised weekly event. TV should have been part of the deal. US Soccer should have worked out at least one National Deal to show one “Game of the Week.” (Much like the NPSL did in 1967). Each team would then have to have local television coverage to grow it's base. The Media Pyramid would consist of One Nationally Televised match, Three Locally televised Matches, All Four matches Stream cast and All four on Local Radio. Easier Said than done and I wonder who to point to and claim “short sightedness.”
The same networks that show Top Flight International Soccer should be clamoring to show Top Flight Women's soccer. There are enough time slots available in the broadcast work week between the 4 soccer networks to fit in 2 hours of Women's Soccer. Frankly, there are way too many reruns of old matches. How much revenue does a third-run match actually make? Bringing in a new demographic should be key to expand viewership. Relegating Top Flight Women's Soccer to second division status is just ridiculous. This weekend I watched Poker on NBC. I was told it was the World Cup of Poker but I couldn't care less to find out if that was true. It was on NBC so I assumed it was a big event. I just shook my head and thought that the 650,000 kids who play soccer with AYSO and the 250,000 volunteers that help them play would be scratching their heads looking for some soccer to watch. As well as just about everyone else who's looking to watch some (more) Soccer. Since 2004 Poker ratings have been dropping faster than “insert diving players name here” in the penalty box, I wondered why this was on TV to begin with. In 2011 NBC totally scrapped The National Heads Up Poker Championship. Epic Poker got a .5 rating for CBS. In 2012 The Main Event averaged a 0.7 rating. In August of 2012, The US Women's National team on NBC garnered 3.326 million viewers. In 2011, Soccer hit the 100 most viewed sporting events on American broadcast and cable....twice! Poker didn't make it. Just on a side note Honey Boo Boo got a 2.1 rating which doesn't surprise me. A lot of TV-folk will tell me that Women's Soccer isn't shown on TV because it doesn't get ratings. To which I reply Women's Soccer is not broadcast long enough to garner the ratings. Seinfeld's first three seasons on NBC weren't that great. From 1989 to 91 it was ranked no higher than number 42 in the ratings. In it's fourth season the show moved up to number 25 and it was only in its 5 season did it shoot to the heights of popularity. Apples and Oranges? Maybe! WPS and WUSA only had three seasons. Perhaps if they stayed in business the ratings would have gone up. Perhaps if TV Networks get behind Women's Domestic Soccer then Women's Domestic Soccer will succeed and perhaps flourish after its third season. Ratings for NHL on ABC slowly dipped from a 1.7 in 1993 to a 1.1 in 2003. In 06, NBC could only get an 0.7 rating. In the 07 season the ratings were anywhere from 1.1 to 0.7. In the 2007-2008 season the average ratings were at a 1.6 The Networks stuck by the League and after that season there was enough of an audience for NHL to not think about hockey as a second tier sport. TV folk know that most sports can't be Monday Night Football which was essentially an instant hit when it debuted in 1970 the same way they know that no TV show will ever get a TV rating of 67.3 the same way I Love Lucy did in 1953. The Ratings game is pretty funny, some people say Honey Boo Boo wouldn't be on TV unless it had such high ratings. My theory is, Honey Boo Boo has High Ratings Because it's on TV.
Women's Soccer and WPSL needs a to have a patient TV Network backing it. ESPN recently reached a new 10 year, $12 million dollar a year television media rights deal with WNBA. During last years Finals the highest TV rating was a 0.5 for Game 2 between the Indiana Fever and the Minnesota Lynx. A year before that the average TV rating was a 0.32 Hardly stellar numbers but most fans of Women's Basketball had predicted the WNBA would be out of business almost 2 weeks into their first season back in 1997. Much like my Honey Boo Boo theory, Women's Basketball has viewers because WNBA is on TV. The Networks were patient with the League and put the games on TV for people to watch it. Basketball fans slowly gravitated to the League and now WNBA has a 10 year deal. Now WPSL has to attracted a network to do the same thing. Without that the going may get tough.
NWSL needs TV. The old NASL had lasted 6 seasons without a proper National Network contract. In 1985 the league shut down. Every old NASL “fan” can tell you of it's hey day but without eyes on TV screens it couldn't get new fans to watch. Old NASL coach, Ron Newman said it best “ I challenge all the other sports to go without television and see how long they survive.”