The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has made a deal with the ESPN family of networks to broadcast the three-game playoff series, as well as six regular season games, triggering fans to create an online petition denouncing the move. Previous NWSL games for the 2014 season were streamed live on YouTube, free of charge to watch; now fans of the premiere women’s soccer league in North America will need to have a premium cable subscription to ESPN2 in order to view the final games of the season.
Of the original eight teams from the 2013 inaugural season, four came from the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league, and four teams were created to bring the total to eight. After initially rejecting the idea of expanding in 2014, the NWSL approved a bid from the Major League Soccer club Houston Dynamo to build a women’s side, and the Houston Dash joined the league for the 2014 season.
Many players from the nine teams in the league have represented the United States, Canada and Mexico in FIFA international play, including familiar names like Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Mónica Ocampo. Strikers Samantha Kerr (Australia) and Lianne Sanderson (England) are among the top ten in the league in assists.
Unlike men’s soccer in America, where the stiffer competition is overseas and players hope to transfer to bigger leagues, America is one of the most competitive environments for women’s soccer, and some of the best players in the world play here.
For the 2013 season, games were streamed live on the league’s YouTube account, with only the Boston Breakers charging an access fee. In April of 2013, the NWSL signed a deal with the Fox Sports Media Group to broadcast nine games, including the three playoff games, on Fox Soccer Channel. Prior to this, all matches were available online, but fans without premium cable access or a Fox Soccer 2Go subscription—as well as international fans, which the league has on nearly every continent—were unable to watch the final nine games of the season.
The same story seems to be unfolding for the 2014 season. The NWSL has made a deal with ESPN to broadcast three regular season games on ESPN3, while ESPN2 will broadcast three regular season games and the three playoff games in August. Fans without premium cable packages or access to WatchESPN—and international fans—will not get to see the games live, and this has led one fan to create an online petition directed at NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey and Sunil Gulati, President of the United States Soccer Federation.
Broadcasting games on major networks like Fox and ESPN generates interest in the league, tapping into demographics outside of the hardcore fans who seek out the games on YouTube. Affiliations with major sports networks can help gain support and sponsorships that aid the organization financially, helping it to grow. The petition acknowledges this, but asks the NWSL not to “turn away regular fans in the hope of gaining new ones.”
Fans of other major sports would likely say that they have to have premium cable access to watch most games (excluding the NFL, which broadcasts nearly all games on local channels like ABC and NBC). Still, it is frustrating for fans to be able to watch almost an entire season for free, and then suddenly be asked to pay. That is like inviting people over to watch a movie, and then turning it off just before the climax and requesting everyone pay to find out what happens.
The petition currently has only 40 signatures, and needs 3,000 by August 20 according to the website. Of course, August 20 will be too late, as the first game to be broadcast on ESPN2 is Sunday, July 20. With less than a week to go before the broadcast deal begins, it is unlikely the petition will enact a change in time, but at the very least it may cause the NWSL to rethink this format for next season.
Commentary by Christina Jones