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NWSL risks losing its global audience

Growing pains are inevitable in any league but the rollout for the NWSL’s new streaming services was ham-fisted at best.

SOCCER: JUN 30 NWSL - Chicago Red Stars at Orlando Pride Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This past Wednesday night saw the effect of NWSL’s new deal with ESPN come into play. While viewers in the U.S. were still able to log on to Yahoo!Sports to watch the games between the Chicago Red Stars and the Orlando Pride, and the Washington Spirit against Utah Royals FC, international viewers were greeted with a blue screen and a script asking them to look below for information on where to see the games in their countries.

The concept was a solid one but unfortunately for both NWSL and its fans, if you tuned in to either game at kick-off, the information below the screen would have been a timeline of the game and not which streaming platform to use to watch the game. All of that information had been placed in the preview section for each game, but the league had not made any announcement prior to Wednesday night’s fixtures so that people could prepare for the switch. Even if you could find the information in time, there was a likelihood that a) the platform now used to stream NWSL matches either wasn’t reliable or cost extra if you didn’t already have it or b) you would not be able to view the games on any platform in your country.

For all of the talk about growing the league, if the roll-out of major changes in product delivery is this confusing, NWSL will have a hard time convincing new viewers to stick with them while it sorts out all the kinks in their system. As Wednesday night showed, for those outside of the U.S., the NWSL continues to take two steps forward and one step back

A mid-season roll-out leads to mass confusion

The NWSL announced its partnership with ESPN not too long ago but did not go into detail about how exactly international fans would now have to watch the NWSL. The league then decided to roll-out this new global platform that ESPN had given them without prior forewarning, leaving many viewers outside the U.S. confounded by what used to be their source of all things NWSL on the NWSL website. The league did try and direct people to where they could now view the games in their country but again, the communication was shoddy at best.

As I am in Canada, the only way for me to view NWSL from now on is on the TSN app. As a ‘chord cutter’ whose primary sports viewing was on the NWSL website and on DAZN, adding another subscription service is something I had not planned to do. As DAZN continues to grow globally, the need to use TSN for myself has become less and less so the sudden change from watching the NWSL on the league’s website to now having to acquire the TSN app has been jarring.

Pescara v Foggia - SerieB
DAZN is quickly becoming one of ESPN’s biggest global competitors
Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Most international viewers will be in the same boat as I am right now over the coming months, and possibly years. Outside of the UK, DAZN has become a strong sports streaming force in Europe, providing their subscribers with access to almost all English Premier League matches and more. ESPN has become a lesser option for many there as the platform is not as sleek as DAZN’s and also does not offer as much for viewing consumption. Now, if anyone in Europe wants to watch NWSL, they will have to get the ESPN app or whatever affiliate is in partnership with ESPN in their country (if it’s even available). On top of that, if the ESPN platform (or TSN in my case) is substandard, the likelihood of international viewers retaining the subscription just for NWSL becomes less and less with each season. Again, as NWSL is based in the U.S., the league may have considered that the benefits of partnering up with ESPN globally are greater than the overall retaining of their international fans, but with how global the women’s game is becoming each year, that could prove to be a mistake. There is an opportunity to gain another revenue stream for the league but with this roll-out faux pas, international fans may be hesitant in signing up for a new subscription service.

NWSL as a product may not be enticing enough to keep international viewers unless changes happen

When watching NWSL, the average viewer has become accustomed to low standards in many areas of the game. Commentary is not always the greatest, streaming glitches often occur, the level of officiating seems to have gotten worse over the years, and the overall production of each game is not always up to standard. Some of that is not entirely on those paid to produce each game but the standards should be set and implemented by NWSL, and it seems as though on many occasions, the league turns a blind eye to this issues.

SOCCER: AUG 11 NWSL - NC Courage at Portland Thorns FC
How many more games will international fans tune in to see?

The standard of play over the last six years has risen notably which is a positive, but how much more are fans willing to take just to see their favourite players week-in, week-out? New audiences may also be discouraged by the poorer standards across the board, especially coming off the production values of watching the USWNT at the World Cup, which would impede growth from a viewership standpoint. With all of this in mind, a sudden extra cost for a new subscription or in some cases, a dubious platform, to watch the NWSL in the middle of the season could decrease international impact for the league moving forward. In men’s soccer, the leagues have grown each season due to not only how they reach wider audiences, but also how the product itself is displayed and marketed.

NWSL wants to be the premier women’s soccer league in the world, but this current roll-out may end up alienating the global audience they once had. No one can determine the future but the partnership with ESPN is certainly a turning point. I hope it ends up being a big step in the right direction rather than the wrong one.