Why Lifetime is the best fit to air women’s professional soccer

Last Thursday, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) took another giant leap forward by announcing a new partnership with A+E Networks. The collaboration, which includes a broadcast deal with A+E subsidiary Lifetime TV and the formation of a new media and commercial venture through the network called NWSL Media, isn’t exactly outside of the box, but it’s still nontraditional in plenty of other ways.

For A+E president and CEO Nancy Dubuc, an atypical approach suits her just fine. “The business is anything but traditional these days,” she said at last week’s press conference for the partnership. “We don’t see the Lifetime brand as just a television brand—we see it as a female media brand. And it has to represent what she is interested in, up and down the spectrum, in terms of all kinds of of content.”

As Buzzfeed noted in a feature article about Lifetime published in April last year, the channel has been successful in pioneering a whole new form of entertainment for women, turning many of its shows, films and projects into media that win awards, viewers and ratings. 

“[T]o to dismiss Lifetime’s brand, content and viewership is to dismiss a media company for and by women worth almost $900 million,” Buzzfeed contribute Laura Goode wrote in the article. “Lifetime has been producing increasingly vanguard work on women’s issues and building the strongest employment hub for women in major entertainment for 20 years. Lifetime has long contributed to the mainstreaming of feminism, and now, feminism’s move to center stage has made Lifetime more relevant than ever.” 

With this kind of success rate, the channel could seriously raise the profile of the NWSL.

By adding a women’s sports league for the first time since 2000, when the network aired WNBA games, A+E adds another dimension to its relevancy. “It’s not just an empowerment message—it’s entertainment,” Dubuc said. “And I think that makes it all the more appropriate for us.”

While the biggest boost to the league is certainly the “multimillion-dollar commitment” from A+E, there is still the weekly business of running a sports broadcast and producing digital content for the NWSL— which will be the easiest way for both fans and other members of the media to judge how successful the partnership is. A few days after the announcement, there are signs that the league will be in good hands and but still plenty of unanswered questions on the specifics of how everything will actually work.

[More from Excelle Sports: How A+E Networks will transform the NWSL]

The NWSL Game of the Week

While the NWSL hasn’t been able to sustain a broadcast deal with one of the big sports giants like ESPN or Fox, Lifetime still gets them into plenty of homes in the U.S. The channel will air 20-plus games during the NWSL regular season— a big step over previous broadcast deals for the league. Lifetime TV will lead the way with the NWSL Game of the Week every Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.

There is one notable wrinkle to date with the Game of the Week, though: Lifetime Canada does not plan to broadcast these games. After Team Canada won bronze at the 2016 Olympics, in addition the country hosting the 2015 Women’s World Cup, that’s a big blow to fans up north who’d like to follow the likes of Canadians Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson in the NWSL.

For viewers in the U.S., the Game of the Week, though, is great news. NWSL players at the A+E press conference las week were simply excited to be able to tell people that their games will now actually be on TV. Boston Breakers No. 1 draft pick Rose Lavelle also pointed out that it will increase the chances that new fans will discover the professional game. “It’s really exciting just having a channel that people can flip through and stumble upon women’s soccer,” Lavelle told Excelle Sports. “I think it’s just going to contribute to grow the game even more.”

In addition to the Game of the Week, Lifetime is also committing to air an extra 30 minutes of NWSL programming every Saturday, with a full half-hour pre-game show. Details on the programming were short at last Thursday’s announcement, but the pre-game show will most likely include story-telling packages, such as player profiles. NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush also added that there’s a chance of more games making the broadcast.

[More from Excelle Sports: Lynn Williams and Rose Lavelle on new NWSL partner A+E]

As to the Game of the Week, there are pros and cons on its timing on Lifetime. The games won’t air on primetime, and Saturday afternoons can be a challenging time slot. Lifetime may be more interested in selling women’s pro soccer to its existing audience rather than necessarily capturing the dedicated fan. But if Lifetime does want the general American soccer audience, there are some notable conflicts with the already released Major League Soccer schedule. If casual fans are picking between the NWSL Game of the Week and the rematch of the MLS Cup Final between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC on May 6 at 4 p.m. on ESPN, that’s a tougher call.

What audience are they aiming for?

There’s a bigger piece of the optics puzzle of NWSL on Lifetime that still has to be answered: What audience is A+E hoping to get by airing women’s pro soccer games? Based on Thursday, Lifetime’s going to lean in for what’s worked so far: women. Dubuc obviously couldn’t point to empirical numbers for NWSL ratings yet, but job number one is to present the the games in a “compelling way” that will appeal to Lifetime’s existing base.

The deal isn’t just a one way street that benefits the league either; there’s definitely incentive for Dubuc to add professional women’s soccer to the A+E roster. Lifetime shifted out of the ghetto of “Television for Women” and into Dubuc’s vision of a female media brand. As Buzzfeed noted, that meant the channel, “had to get millennial: younger, more racially inclusive, more explicitly feminist, and a lot more hashtaggable.”

Sure, the NWSL might run the risk of losing potential male viewer—but it’s unlikely to lose any of their existing ones. Men who actively watch National Women’s Soccer League matches aren’t likely to break the habit because they’ll be aired on Lifetime instead of ESPN or Fox. Instead, the league and A+E are looking at a much wider female audience, and one that sports—while it might not reach them in traditional ways—can capture.

I think 45 to 50 percent of the NFL viewership is female, so women watch sports,” Dubuc said. “Sports are great, dramatic stories and if those sports stories are served up in an entertaining and relatable way and in a passionate way, women crave those those authentic stories of aspiration, of competition, of drive and determination, agony and defeat, to use the phrase. And I think we see a tremendous amount of overlap with our audience.”

And at the end of the day, there’s always the bonus of new viewers via the league. “It’s also an opportunity for us to bring younger girls and new fans to Lifetime,” Dubuc said.

Commissioner Plush also suggested that the ultimate goal is to drive ratings through family viewing—perhaps a leading factor the channel chose the Saturday afternoon time slot for the Game of the Week. During early negotiations with A+E, Plush said that the hope of families watching together was a driving factor in choosing the Saturday time, saying it would help engender “the idea or the reality of cross-generational viewing. The reality of moms and daughters or dads and daughters watching shows—dads and sons.” 

New York, NY - Thursday February 02, 2017: Christie Rampone, Jeff Plush during a joint NWSL and A+E Networks press conference at the A+E headquarters.
Christie Rampone and Jeff Plush during a joint NWSL and A+E Networks press conference at the A+E headquarters. (ISI)

Plush and the league have plenty of data on fans’ viewing habits from previously broadcast games and YouTube streams that have aired since the league launched in 2013. While those numbers aren’t public, there’s likely demographic information that points to targets in both age and gender—and were appealing enough to sell both the on-field and off-field product to A+E.

For Plush, the league will be a winner across all potential markets as long as the content is appealing. “It’s a new day about how people will consume media,” he said at Thursday’s press conference. “We hear this all the time, and it’s true. Content is what matters, and I will very happily put these players in that content and that platform against anything.”

Content is queen

While Lifetime and A+E might not have worked in the live sports broadcast business for more than few months, the rest of the partnership between the network and the NWSL points to the idea that they are ready to dedicate all their resources to a strong overall content strategy.

As important as Dubuc’s role in the partnership is, there’s another A+E executive who will be instrumental behind the scenes. Dan Suratt’s name was mentioned plenty by both Dubuc and Plush, and for good reason. Before heading to Lifetime and A+E, Suratt has years of experience with NBC in helping to produce its Olympics coverage, including of the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games.

According to Dubuc, Suratt is heading up a team that is “working hand-in-hand with Sunil [Gulati, U.S. Soccer Federation president] and [the] NWSL to bring the appropriate sports production group together to manage this. Just like any production we mount, everyone is different from the last. Live production is something that’s very familiar to A+E Networks, and its production skills.”

A+E's morning press conference with NWSL included Lifetime and NWSL cupcakes and champagne. (EXCELLE SPORTS/Meg Linehan)
A+E’s morning press conference with NWSL included Lifetime and NWSL cupcakes and champagne. (EXCELLE SPORTS/Meg Linehan)

[More from Excelle Sports: Everything we know so far about the NWSL and A+E partnership]

The network has shown that it can able to assemble a quality sports broadcast on a weekly basis, even if Dubuc couldn’t yet give specific names for talent in front or behind the cameras.

On the content side of the new NWSL Media entity, A+E did have an ace up its sleeve: Jacqueline Purdy, who now works for A+E, has reported for ESPN on women’s soccer during the Women’s Professional Soccer and 2011 Women’s World Cup era. Having Purdy in house gives the network a big edge, as she understands how to advocate for and cover the NWSL as a sport.

In addition to all the new offerings the NWSL Media plans to roll out, including a new league app for iOS and Android, existing media infrastructure is also getting a leg up. The official press release from the league said that the  NWSL Media would also redesign the league website and social media platforms. Perhaps best of all, Andrew Das of The New York Times reported that the media deal will result in better league stats, including real-time stats.

All of these improvements add up to the “transformative” partnership between the league and A+E, according to Jeff Push. While some might chafe at women’s soccer airing on Lifetime, they will still likely tune in when the season kicks off in April. Assuming the production values meet the promises made so far, any irritation will quickly fade into distant memory.

“I think it’s important to note that we’re not in the game of the week business necessarily. We’re investing in the NWSL,” Dubuc said. “Broadcasting the game of the week is one part of that. We’re equally motivated to make this successful on every platform and whatever scope it needs to be.”

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