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The US National Women’s Soccer League has signed a $240mn four-year media rights package, 40 times as much as its last rights agreement, in an indication of the growing interest in women’s sport.
The domestic rights deal takes effect next year and will expand the league’s matches across Paramount’s CBS, Disney’s ESPN and ABC, Amazon Prime Video and Scripps Sports. The number of nationally televised fixtures will nearly quadruple under the partnerships, from 30 to 118, each year, according to NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman.
The current three-year, $4.5mn contract with CBS, which was signed in 2020, in effect expires after Saturday’s championship match between the OL Reign and Gotham FC. That will also be the final fixture for two of the biggest stars in US women’s football: Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger, who are retiring.
The NWSL deal reflects the resilient market for live sports as well as women’s sport. Over the course of the league’s existing contract with CBS, it has added three teams and announced plans for at least two more. Fees for adding new clubs have grown tenfold, and the league has tripled the size of its own staff.
Over the same period, a number of US professional and college sports organisations have signed record media rights contracts, including the National Football League’s 11-year deal, the most valuable in the world at roughly $110bn. Major League Soccer, the US professional men’s league, last year signed a first-of-its-kind $2.5bn 10-year contract to air exclusively on Apple’s subscription streaming service.
While pursuing the NWSL rights deal, Berman said she stressed the importance of expanding women’s football on free-to-air television. Over the past year, average viewership had risen 18 per cent on CBS’s linear network, and total viewership had grown 41 per cent, she said.
“In order for us to experience growth, we need to have massive exposure so we can’t be behind a paywall”, she said.
The package features a mix of rights for national TV broadcasts and streaming services. In addition to legacy companies airing live sports — Paramount’s CBS and Disney’s ABC and ESPN — the package includes two relative newcomers, including Amazon Prime Video as well as Scripps, which launched a sports division to secure broadcast rights for its Ion network just last year.
Adam Symson, chief executive of Ohio-based Scripps, said on an earnings call last week that its first season airing Women’s National Basketball Association games helped the women’s professional league increase its television reach by 30 per cent. He said “live sports rights drove new value for Scripps, with 65 per cent of the revenue we generated from sponsorships and advertising coming from new-to-Scripps accounts”.
The WNBA’s existing media rights with ESPN and Scripps expire in 2025. Their value varies from year to year but ranges between $13mn-$33mn, according to Forbes.
Berman said that she believed there was a “market correction” in progress for women’s sports, and that the WNBA “have been rooting for us and we will be rooting for them”.
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