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Volume 22 No. 49

Leagues and Governing Bodies

The NWSL hopes that interest around World Cup stars such as Megan Rapinoe will attract more bidders.
Photo: Getty Images
The NWSL hopes that interest around World Cup stars such as Megan Rapinoe will attract more bidders.
Photo: Getty Images
The NWSL hopes that interest around World Cup stars such as Megan Rapinoe will attract more bidders.
Photo: Getty Images

In an attempt to capitalize on this summer’s World Cup momentum, the National Women’s Soccer League has hired Octagon to help sell its next media rights package.

 

The league’s terrestrial TV deal with ESPN and digital media deal with Yahoo end Oct. 27 with its championship game in Raleigh, N.C. Any new deal is expected to tie those rights together.

Back in July, with the enthusiasm and interest around women’s soccer after the U.S. Women’s World Cup win, ESPN agreed to carry 14 NWSL games, but did not pay a rights fee. ESPN has told the league it is interested in renewing, though its exclusive negotiating period has expired. The league wants to have a deal wrapped up in the next few months. The new season starts in April.

As the league takes its rights to market, it is counting on the increasing interest around the Women’s World Cup team, as it features 23 players from the winning squad (including stars Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan) and 35 players from other Women’s World Cup teams.

“This is the best women’s soccer in the world with the best players from all over the world,” said Daniel Cohen, Octagon’s senior vice president of global media rights consulting. “Where can you look at the rest of the U.S. broadcast landscape and find the best league in the world?”

Octagon’s media rights consulting business largely has been focused on international markets. The NWSL is significant for Octagon in that it covers the U.S. market.

Said NWSL President Amanda Duffy: “There has been a considerable amount of outreach and interest in the league’s domestic and international media rights this year, and at this juncture, in order to properly assess the domestic and global landscape, we chose to engage an agency that has the knowledge and the experience to help evaluate the opportunities.”

Fox signed a short deal to carry NWSL games after the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup in 2015. ESPN signed a short deal after this year’s win. Cohen said he is looking for a network to sign a longer deal this time.

“We always talk about the need to promote women’s sports,” Cohen said. “Here we are with the best women’s soccer league in the world, and we as a broadcast industry are not getting behind it to promote it.”

Sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch InBev and Nike, have stepped up their support of the league, Cohen said. Part of Octagon’s deal with the league will also see the agency advise the NWSL on sponsorship sales and marketing strategy.

While the U.S. women’s national soccer team is popular and the league has identifiable players, its TV viewership still is small. Cohen will try to convince network executives that it is a league worthy of investment.

“There needs to be those conversations,” Cohen said. “It’s not about just riding the wave from the Women’s World Cup for six months and being done with it. That’s not efficient, and that doesn’t do right by the rights holder.”

To that end, Cohen suggested that the NWSL will be more open to pushing the envelope on TV production and sports gambling.

“We can be a league that does multiple customizable camera angles, where you pick how you’re listening to it or where you’re watching it,” Cohen said. “Let’s put a camera on someone’s shoulder. After, say, Alex Morgan scores a goal, let’s go up to her and ask her a couple of quick questions on camera.”

The WNBA continues to be the leader in diversity and gender hiring practices within sports, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

 

The 2019 WNBA Racial and Gender Report Card, created by the institute known as TIDES, again gives the WNBA an overall A+ for its hiring practices, the same grade as last year. 

TIDES gave the league an overall score of 94.8 points, down from a record 97.6 points in 2018. The WNBA earned an A+, or 95.6 points, for its racial hiring practices and an A, or 94 points, for its gender hiring practices compared to 99.9 last year.

It is the 15th consecutive year that the WNBA has been awarded an overall grade of at least an A for its gender and racial hiring practices. This year, the league again had the highest number of A+ grades and the lowest number of grades below an A- compared to any other professional sports league tracked by TIDES.

“For us to sustain these results shows the long-term commitment and it is baked into the core of how the organization is run,” said Oris Stuart, chief diversity and inclusion officer for the NBA. “One of the things we focus on is the attention that is drawn on the leadership levels. It reflects what people see, but we have to remain focused on the pipeline of talent in the organization on the professional level and outside the organization.” 

The report did note that the number of women holding league office jobs dropped for the fourth consecutive season to 48.9% from 50% in 2018.

Despite the decrease, the WNBA is the most diverse league in sports with 45% of all team professional positions held by women and 29% of all team professional positions held by people of color, according to the report. The highest percentage of women in any WNBA category was in the assistant coaches category at 61.5%. There were three African American head coaches in the 12-team league, the same as last year, and five female head coaches, one fewer than in 2018.

“The highlight is that the WNBA continues to lead all professional and collegiate sports in diversity and inclusion, including at senior level positions,” said Richard Lapchick, director of TIDES and the primary author of the report. “Here, the number of vice presidents of color increased from 16% to 27% and other such increases are encouraging. We note any decreases, but we are not alarmed.”

Lapchick stressed the importance of the league hiring Cathy Engelbert as WNBA commissioner, the first time the league added the commissioner title to the top WNBA executive position, replacing the league president title that had been used in the past.

“The fact that they appointed a commissioner instead of a president is a symbolic statement that the NBA and WNBA views it as a commissioner-level position,” Lapchick said.

Shenzhen takes over the WTA Finals from Singapore, which had hosted since 2014; Gemdale Sports will operate the tournament.
Photo: WTA
Shenzhen takes over the WTA Finals from Singapore, which had hosted since 2014; Gemdale Sports will operate the tournament.
Photo: WTA
Shenzhen takes over the WTA Finals from Singapore, which had hosted since 2014; Gemdale Sports will operate the tournament.
Photo: WTA

The prize money offered for the inaugural Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, starting later this month, is $14 million, double the $7 million total from when the tournament was held last year in Singapore, and it comes with a 10-year commitment by Shenzhen for the event.

 

That level of support, which tops Grand Slam prize money, is symbolic on several levels. 

First, it represents how far the women’s game has come. The tour’s season prize money has increased 90% in the last decade; this year's winner is guaranteed more than $4 million, outdoing the men’s ATP Finals. Also, an undefeated doubles team will win $1 million, the largest doubles prize money ever. 

“Money talks,” said Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon. “It says this is as big a sporting event with athletes that are as important as any in sports.”

Additionally, the purse and commitment by Shenzhen signifies the growth of China in the tennis world. By ponying up those dollars and contributing toward a new 12,000-seat stadium, Shenzen topped bids from other cities including Manchester, Prague, Singapore and St. Petersburg.

“We believe women’s tennis will become more and more popular in Asia,” said Kentaro Fujiwara, president of Shiseido China. The tournament title sponsor is a Japanese-based maker of personal care products.

Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen

When
Oct. 27-Nov. 3
Where
New 12,000-seat stadium. (This year’s event is at Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. The new stadium is under construction for future WTA Finals).
Purse
$14 million at stake for the top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams; singles champion will earn $4.1 to $4.7 million depending on her round robin record; the runner-up takes home $1.8 to $2.4 million.
Top sponsors
Shiseido (title), Gemdale, Kaisa, Porsche and Rolex


The WTA’s popularity has been climbing around the world. Globally, the broadcast linear audience rose 33% last year, reaching nearly 600 million viewers overall, while the digital audience is trending for 42% growth compared to 2018. The largest events this year have all seen record attendance. 

WTA CEO Steve Simon said this is the payoff for significant commitment to marketing and an improved on-site fan experience, including this year’s “It Takes” campaign. Beyond improving its social media connection to fans, the tour has provided players for more in-depth interviews and appearances at charitable events during tournaments. 

The WTA has more than doubled its sponsorship revenue in the last four years and has diversified its sponsor portfolio to include technology, finance, automotive, fashion, wellness and beauty. Brands like Moroccanoil and MCM have joined partners such as Porsche and SAP. 

Audience growth has driven those sponsorship gains. One significant move was reuniting in America with the Tennis Channel, where the average household audience is up 41% and age 18-49 viewership is up by 68%. The WTA had sold its rights to all overseas tournaments to BeIN sports starting in 2017. That provided cash but damaged viewership due to BeIN’s weaker distribution and erratic scheduling. The tour cut short the U.S. part of its worldwide deal and this year returned to the Tennis Channel. 

“Our first day back with the WTA, our viewership was up triple digits,” Solomon said, adding that his network’s distribution and digital growth in the interim paid big dividends for the reunion. It is now in position to deliver 2,000 WTA matches a year across all platforms. The WTA’s appeal has boosted ratings across the network, he said.

Simon said the tour’s foundation remains in Europe, with 23 events from April through July, but it now has a better global balance than ever. There are 10 Asian events in eight weeks between Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and mainland China. 

Gemdale Sports, a subsidiary of a leading real estate developer in China, is operating the WTA Finals. The company has promoted the growth of tennis in China for decades. In 2000, China had only two players with a year-end ranking in the top 250; there were six by 2009. At Roland Garros in 2011, Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam (she won another in Australia in 2014), inspiring young Chinese women further. Now there are 16 in the top 250, including four in the top 50. 

“It is very important for fans to have local players to focus on, and event sponsors know that a mix of local players with international stars is how you attract big crowds,” Simon said.

Gemdale Sports CEO Eddy Liu, who is also the Shenzhen co-tournament director, said Gemdale wanted a longer term deal with the WTA to make the event “a cultural landmark that integrates the WTA Finals into the city of Shenzhen. [It’s] the best way for WTA tournaments, urban development and tennis to thrive.”

The 10-year commitment “justifies investment from sponsors and for infrastructure because you need time for an event to grow and become special,” Simon said. “This has the opportunity to truly unlock a lot of value.”

Top-rated Chinese women players*

#22: Wang Qiang
Winner of two WTA titles, she reached the quarterfinals of the 2019 U.S. Open
#36: Zheng Saisai
Winner of two WTA titles, she has reached two Grand Slam quarterfinals and won the doubles crown at the 2019 Australian Open
#46: Zhang Shuai
Winner of one WTA title, she reached the French Open finals in doubles in 2019
#47: Wang Yafan
Winner of one WTA title and three WTA doubles titles


* As of Oct. 14

Audiences in China are expanding, with a 36% television viewership increase and 42% digital growth. WTA’s digital or social media Chinese audience has soared 61% since 2017. (Solomon said technology makes time zone differentials less problematic for Tennis Channel, as fans watch tournaments where and when they want. “You can watch it live, you can take it with you or you can watch it ‘live enough’ — we get bigger numbers on second and third plays for some of those matches,” he said.)

WTA President Micky Lawler said the tour identified China early on as a key market for its growth potential and has spent decades building an infrastructure. She cited long-standing tournament partners like the China Open (which had the tour’s third-highest TV viewership last year) and investment partners Gemdale, iQIYI and now Shiseido. “The China market is an undeniable massive growth opportunity for global businesses and our partners see that as well.” 

Porsche is the title sponsor of the qualification ranking for the WTA Finals — the Porsche Race to Shenzhen — and Oliver Eidam, director of brand partnerships and sponsoring for Porsche AG, is all in. “Asia has been a very important region for Porsche for several years now, and it will gain in importance in the future,” he said. “China especially has become one of the most important sales markets for Porsche.”

Simon said Shenzhen was chosen because that region has 59 million people, young demographics, is the fastest growing city in China and has the third-largest GDP. And Lawler said the Chinese government responded with a policy to support Shenzhen in hosting large-scale international sporting events and cultural exchanges.

Simon said China’s political issues — Hong Kong, Taiwan, human rights, the U.S. trade war — are not a factor. “We have nothing but great respect for the country and for our partners there,” he said.

When given a chance to revisit the subject after the NBA’s controversy with China, Simon declined to comment further. Efforts to reach members of the WTA Board of Directors and the WTA Players’ Council were unsuccessful. 

Stuart Miller is a writer in New York.

Seeking increased visibility and accessibility, the United States Polo Association is debuting an OTT network next year. The Global Polo Network, set to launch in the first quarter of 2020, will include live events, shoulder programming and lifestyle content, along with archival programming.

 

The GPN OTT offering will be distributed through its website, globalpolo.com (launching early next year), and through Vimeo and will be accessible through programming apps such as Amazon, Google and Roku.

At the same time, what’s being called Global Polo Entertainment is building its own production facility, along with a content development division and a licensing body for the polo video and still photography owned by U.S. Polo.

With the moves, the organization looks to have a more comprehensive sponsorship and content offering, along the lines of most major sports properties. The OTT launch comes a year after the organization tied together the sport’s top three tournaments into a series with a million-dollar prize purse called “The Gauntlet of Polo.’’

“It’s our latest step in building a true properties organization,’’ said USPA Senior Director of Marketing Shannon Stilson.