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Volume 23 No. 18
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ESPN gets NWSL rights, aiming to ride World Cup wave

Most of ESPN’s rights deals these days center around its ESPN+ streaming service, but ESPN made an exception this month when it picked up television rights to the National Women’s Soccer League. 

The reason for ESPN’s change of heart? It wants to capitalize on the popularity of the U.S. team that won the Women’s World Cup.

“The deal we did is not exactly the way we’d want it to be,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling. “But we did not want to miss the window of opportunity to seize upon the post-World Cup bounce, to the extent that there is one. … Rather than waiting until next year, there was the ability to do the package that we did, then start working on the future.”

ESPN will carry 14 games: six on ESPN2 (including both semifinals and the championship) and eight on ESPNews. ESPN will not pay a rights fee. The league’s digital rights are tied up with Yahoo this season.

Magnus said the popularity of U.S. stars including Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe give him confidence that the current league will succeed where others haven’t. While accepting an ESPY award as the top female athlete last week, Morgan thanked ESPN for agreeing to carry the games.

Magnus, though, warned that the league’s ultimate success will come from areas outside of media.

“Our piece of it is only one slice of the pie relative to the viability of the league, ultimately,” he said. “They still have to have appeal in order to get people to purchase tickets and have sponsor support and get venues — the whole 360-degree proposition of making the business work.”

Magnus expressed optimism that the NWSL will be successful, based on the sport’s growing popularity in the U.S. and the changing media landscape that makes it easier to make content available to fans.

“We feel like ultimately, with all the ways that content gets distributed now, that works in favor of the league,” he said. “It’s an easier proposition to get content out, get distributed, go direct to fans.”