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The Cost to Fans of the NWSL’s New Broadcast Deal

If you want to watch every National Women’s Soccer League game for the next four years, it’s going to be very expensive.

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NWSL, Soccer Ball
Credit: Thad Bell

As the National Women’s Soccer League heads towards their 2023 Championship game between NJ/NY Gotham and the OL Reign, the league made even bigger news with the announcement of their new landmark broadcast deal.

The deal is a 40-fold improvement over their prior deal with CBS.

They will make $60 million per season as opposed to the $1.5 million they were making previously. That’s an immense improvement in money brought into the league. Not only does it come with a ton of extra money for the league and its teams and presumably it’s players, but it will also come with an increase in production value. That was previously handled by the NWSL itself and left a lot to be desired at times.

The Basic Details

Starting in 2024 and going for the next four years, 118 matches per season will be distributed across four national platforms.

Every Friday will kick off the weekend with a game on Amazon’s Prime Video. Each Saturday night will have a double header on the ION Network (details below). A vaguer “package of regular season matches” will be on CBS, the CBS Sports Network and stream on Paramount+. And ESPN will also get a package spread out across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Deportes, all of which will also stream on ESPN+.

Beyond those first 118 matches, the rest will come from a “direct-to-consumer package produced and distributed by the NWSL.” The league already did this for international audiences and will build on the experience they gained there.

The league also says, “all matches, regardless of where they appear, will have consistent and up-leveled production quality due to increased, and uniform, investment across all platforms.” Part of that increase in production quality will include doubling the number of cameras for matches, which should greatly help the struggling VAR process in the NWSL. The league is still handling production, but since there is more money, the quality will improve.

Where do we Watch the Playoffs?

The quarterfinals of the playoffs will be split across three services. Prime and CBS get one game each with ESPN/ABC getting the other two. Notice that means there will be four games and eight teams, which is an expansion of the playoffs from six teams, with the addition of two more expansion teams. That’s 57 percent of the teams making the playoffs next year, when only 50 percent got in this season.

ESPN/ABC and CBS will split the semifinal games and CBS will keep the Championship game, which will be simulcast on CBS and Paramount+.

To Paywall or Not to Paywall

If you are like me, you saw multiple streaming services and broadcast networks and wondered what all of this is going to cost.

The first question from the announcement press conference came from The Athletic’s Steph Yang and hit on the same subject.

“This deal was carefully constructed to address [pricing fans out],” said NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman. “It was indexed in favor of reach, relevance and discoverability by not putting our games behind an NWSL specific paywall. Or to create barriers or gating mechanisms for people to be able to discovery and watch our games.”

That’s as a minor dig at MLS being behind a paywall and is instead an attempt to reach a very broad audience, even at the sacrifice of not being able to watch every game. More eyeballs will see the NWSL, even if they lose some fan’s ability to watch all the games. This feels like an appeal to the average fan and not the hardcore fan. ‘Oh, you have Amazon Prime already? You can watch some NWSL.’

MLS or NWSL being behind a paywall isn’t a problem for a sicko like me. But it is for the average fan. Or the new potential fan. There is a balance to be struck for sure.

What Will This Cost?

NWSL’s Direct-to-Consumer Service

Before we get into the nitty gritty, know that much of this is still up in the air. There is no information available on the NWSL’s direct-to-consumer option. Their previous version of this, streamed for international audiences on the NWSL website, was free. If that is the case with this new service, it will greatly reduce the burden on fans to see a large chunk of games. However, it won’t eliminate costs if you are a completionist and need to see all the games.

The league is expanding to 14 teams, and though I’ve not seen an announcement, I assume they’ll keep the format of playing each team home and away. If so, that’s 364 total games, of which 118 are on all these mentioned services. That still leaves 246 or 67.5 percent of the games on the direct-to-consumer option. If that’s free, it’s a lot easier to stomach. Hopefully we’ll know more on that soon.

ION Network

Let’s start with the good news. The network you may not have heard of is likely the Scripps owned ION Network. It is a free, over the air channel, available in 123 million homes. Beyond that, it’s included in numerous free streaming packages. With most everyone having access to the internet and/or having access to the free OTA channel, this shouldn’t be much of a burden.

From there, it starts to get costly.

Amazon Prime

For many, this will be a non-issue. 167.2 million people already have Prime in the United States.

However, some people choose not to pay for Prime. Whether it’s the ever-increasing price or for ethical concerns. I know personally, I got rid of Prime this year and have saved a ton of money not buying stuff I don’t need.

As of this writing, you can buy Prime for $14.99 a month or $139 per year. I also have a one-week trial for $1.99 available on my account. Theoretically, you could just buy the months/weeks you need to watch your team. Without knowing the schedule, that could mean several one-month purchases, potentially getting multiple games from your team during one month or maybe your team won’t play a lot on Friday night. The 2023 schedule started at the end of March. You’d only need it potentially through the first round of the playoffs, so a month-to-month choice could be the way to go.

Overall, Prime will get 27 games. 25 games on Friday night, plus a quarterfinal playoff game and the first game of the season.

ESPN/ESPN+

While the ESPN games are spread across multiple TV networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes), it’s simplified incredibly by all being on ESPN+. If you have a cable, satellite or streaming package, it’s probable that you get most of the TV networks (though some packages, like Sling, subdivide some of these).

If you don’t have “regular TV” then you can just subscribe to ESPN+ to get all the same games. That said, it’s currently $10.99 for the standalone service or $99.99 for the annual service. Or you can subscribe to the ad-supported Disney+/Hulu/ESPN+ bundle for $14.99/month.

20 games will be on ABC/ESPN/ESPN+ per season, including three playoff games. With 14 teams in the league and 40 individual slots for teams, paying only when your team plays could slightly bring this cost down.

CBS/Paramount/CBS Sports Network

The CBS portion of this deal is where things start to get even more opaque. The press release says a minimum of 10 games per season will be on “CBS and Paramount+” and a minimum of eight games will be on CBS Sports Network.

CBS is obviously free OTA to many in the country and also included in all the more traditional cable/satellite/streaming services. CBS Sports Network is a bit more of a premium channel but can be found in many of those same “traditional” services.¬†Paramount+ is a standalone subscription.

It’s unclear if all the games on big CBS are also on Paramount+.

Paramount+ is the cheapest of the services that cost money, coming in at $5.99/month or $59.99/year. Considering you could previously see the vast majority of NWSL games this way, it’ll be a bit of a sticker shock to go from $60 for nearly every game to the mess of services listed above.

What About Local Broadcasts

During the press conference to announce the partnership, NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman seemed to indicate local deals will still exist. No details were given, but presumably there will be limitations. We can use our local Kansas City Current as an example. In 2023, they had seven of their 24 regular season games on 38 the Spot. It’s a channel that is free to stream online and available over the air. It’s owned by Scripps, the same company that owns ION.

There is no news on what these deals will look like in 2024 and beyond and how many games are accessible this way. My gut tells me it’s more likely to be the games that are on the direct-to-consumer platform and won’t steal games from these other services that are paying so much money, but that’s not been released yet.

But Really, What is the Cost?

If you want to watch every game, it’s not going to be cheap. Yet, we still have too many variables to know what it will truly cost. When schedules are released, if you just want to watch one team, you could theoretically juggle various subscriptions and turn them off and on as you need. However, let’s assume you are a superfan and need access to every game from all 14 teams.

First, you need ESPN+ or some sort of cable like service to get ESPN and ESPN2. You can technically get the games on CBS and ABC, just like ION, free and over the air. However, you are going to need some larger subscription service to get to that small package of games on CBS Sports Network too (so that eliminates needing ESPN+).

If you absolutely need every game, you are looking at a service like YouTube TV ($72.99/mo), FuboTV ($74.99/mo) Hulu Live (76.99/mo) or DirecTV Stream ($79.99/mo). CBSSN isn’t on Sling, so that takes out a lower cost option. This obviously leaves out the myriad of cable and satellite services available around the country for wildly varying prices based on the package you sign up for.

If the season runs the exact number of weeks it ran this year, you can get by with eight months as many of these services are month-to-month with no contract. Before taxes, that’s $583.92 for YouTube, the cheapest of those above options.

That doesn’t cover the Prime games, but it gets you everything else. Unless whatever is on Paramount+ is exclusive, but the press release doesn’t read that way. You could just buy seven months of Prime for $104.93, to get a slight discount if you cancel and start at precisely the right times.

So bare minimum, to watch every game, you are in for $688.85. And that excludes any potential cost to watch the other 246 games on the direct-to-consumer option. If you can live without those limited CBSSN games, your cost could go down significantly through a service like Sling, but it still won’t be cheap. Sling Orange, which includes ESPN, is $40/month. For the minimum eight months, that’s $320 instead of $584 for YouTube TV.

Obviously, these numbers are loose, and some fans will be willing to sacrifice some of the games to save some money. There will also be trials or discounts available for services if you ‘play the game’ and micromanage your subscriptions. Not to mention some of these games will be home games and season ticket holders will be in the stadium and not need to watch them. This also leaves out that you may already pay for one or more of these services for other reasons.

Final Thoughts

This is undoubtedly a huge step forward for the NWSL. They are making far more money and getting far more exposure for their product. That exposure will come at a cost to its most hardcore fans who want to watch every game. And the league and their partners will need to do a lot of work to spread the word of where to find games, which they’ve vowed to do.

Ultimately, if you already have a TV service like YouTube TV or cable/satellite, your costs don’t change much. If you’ve completely cut the cord and live off Netflix and other streaming services, your costs are jumping exponentially compared to the ability to watch most games on Paramount+ now.

There is an argument to be made the $79 per year, all in one location Apple MLS Season Pass looks sort of appealing. But it’s definitely leaving out some casual fans. The next few years may tell us a lot towards which option helps grow which league more.

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