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Volume 20 No. 42
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For A&E Network, NWSL both a property and an investment

What began as a rights discussion between A&E Networks and the National Women’s Soccer League turned into an equity stake and joint venture that both sides feel will drive the league to its next level.

The league, which began its fifth season in April, broke barriers for women’s professional soccer in the U.S. simply by lasting this long — no other league had survived more than three seasons. However, while the league is financially stable due in part from backing from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the lack of a robust broadcast deal and an extensive partnership portfolio has hampered its growth.

Amanda Duffy, NWSL managing director of operations
Lifetime, which had been evaluating getting back into sports programming since phasing out live coverage of the WNBA in 2000, was drawn to the NWSL by the popularity of the players and ratings for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Dan Suratt, president of corporate development and strategy and investments at A&E Network, said while it thought just doing a media rights deal would lead to growth, the network thought a larger investment could supercharge things.

“This is a league that had no broadcast partner, and to make a real sponsorship deal, you have to have that,” Suratt said. “Not only did we feel we could grow the game by doing that, but by also infusing some capital without diluting the player pool, we thought it was a great opportunity.”

While the investment was not disclosed, sources said the multimillion-dollar deal struck in January gives A&E a roughly 25 percent stake in the league, along with two seats on the league’s board and a sponsorship patch on every jersey sleeve. The deal also includes a three-year television deal with an optional extension that will see 25 games aired this season, including 22 in a new Saturday time slot at 4 p.m. Eastern. Perhaps most important, the partnership creates a joint venture that manages the league’s commercial rights, NWSL Media, which Suratt said is in talks with potential sponsors. The league also recently closed a deal with Verizon’s Go90 streaming service to broadcast the rest of its games.

Amanda Duffy, NWSL managing director of operations, said that the national reach on both the broadcast and commercial sides will further elevate the league. “To have this added expertise from A&E now, this really enables us to move forward on these opportunities,” she said. “To have the human resources now to dedicate a team to national sponsorships is going to be a big step in making inroads with those who want to get involved in the game.”

The NWSL has partnerships with Cutter insect repellent, Nike and nutritional supplements company Thorne.

Duffy said that the deal has also elevated the thinking across the league from local to national growth. The league is expected to nearly quadruple its staff to more than 20 by year end. Duffy is overseeing the league’s operations after former Commissioner Jeff Plush left in March, and the search continues to replace him.

“The front of mind for everyone has been just getting past year three or four. Now it’s very much about how do we operate and function in a way that grows how we believe it can,” she said.

Suratt said A&E’s belief in NWSL’s future means it would even accept losing the media rights in the next bidding cycle. “This is not Lifetime buying into a league and sitting on top of it. We want to make this a partnership that really accelerates the league and teams to levels they haven’t seen before.”