The National Women’s Soccer League has paired with the cable network in hopes of gaining better visibility.
Seattle Reign FC owner Bill Predmore has spent years trying to stay ahead of the pack in creatively luring fans to see his women’s professional soccer team.
Knowing he faced an uphill struggle for local media attention, Predmore attempted more personalized marketing to fans via short-form YouTube videos. His team became the first to do a live-streamed game via Periscope and in general has a heavier reliance on social media than most clubs in other sports.
That’s why word last week of a new three-year television deal for the 10-team National Women’s Soccer League has Predmore optimistic, even if the network involved — A+E-owned Lifetime — isn’t exactly a traditional sports outlet. Not only will the network show a yearly package of games and player features, it’s also taken on an equity stake in the five-year-old league.
“I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of a TV deal of some sort, but specifically the structure we ended up with,’’ Predmore said. “My feeling was having a broadcast partner of some sort take an equity stake in the league would be a great move for the league. The partner would be literally invested in the outcome.’’
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The NWSL offers Lifetime programming that it doesn’t currently have — live events and more specifically, advertiser-coveted live sports. And the network gives Predmore and other team owners some badly needed exposure they’d leaned increasingly on social media for when it was tough to otherwise find.
“Again, we’re not getting that traditional media coverage in newspapers or local television that we might like to see where they’re coming out on a daily or weekly basis to tell the stories about the team or the players,’’ Predmore said. “So, we’ve sort of had to take on that role ourselves and do a lot of that work. The nice thing now is YouTube, or platforms like that give us the opportunity to do that in a way that 10 years ago, it just wasn’t really possible for a team or a league to take on that burden or produce those pieces themselves.’’
Now, starting in April, the league won’t have to do it by itself.
Where it once had only YouTube stories, there will now be nationally produced TV segments profiling NWSL players and personalities. Where there was once Periscope-streamed footage, there will now be 25 nationally televised games — most of them in a Game-of-the-Week format on Saturdays — in the contract’s first season.
There will likely be cross-promotional opportunities where NWSL players can appear on other Lifetime programs to broaden their popularity.
That doesn’t mean the social media and internet work will cease. Indeed, a key part of the new deal — said to be worth “multimillions’’ though financial terms were not disclosed — is a joint digital venture between the league and network called NWSL Media.
The venture will be “a digital and commercial arm of our company,’’ NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said at a news conference announcing the deal last week. “Our digital assets will be deployed globally and new content will be developed. So, you think about all the opportunities that we’ll have to tell these stories over and over and over again. Stories that need to be told. Stories that we can be tremendously proud of and have the whole company dedicated to telling that story.’’
A+ E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc, a former college athlete, said at the same news conference she hopes the partnership shows “girls and women around the world how to think about themselves and their place in this world differently.’’
But for Predmore, this is about more than just a female demographic. Though Lifetime caters primarily to women’s programming, he sees this as an opportunity to draw more men out to games as well.
After all, he says, the soccer broadcasts will look the same as traditional ones, only with better production values than the league enjoyed previously. As well, he feels media consumption is different nowadays and that male consumers won’t care where on the cable box a particular channel is located or what its programming history is as long as it’s broadcasting a sports event.
“We don’t see women’s soccer as necessarily something that’s appropriate only for women to watch,’’ Predmore said. “We think it is accessible to men, women, boys and girls. It just happens to be women that are playing the sport.’’
And by seeing those women’s stories told nationally, he hopes more fans of all stripes will be compelled to see Reign games at 6,000-seat Memorial Stadium. Once they do come out, he adds, they tend to be hooked.
The team averaged 4,602 fans per game last season, its third at Memorial Stadium after leaving Starfire Stadium in Tukwila in 2014 for a more downtown Seattle experience. That attendance was the team’s highest yet despite failing to make the playoffs after finishing first and losing the championship game the prior two seasons.
“I think anybody that’s come out to a game — young, old, female, male — they all have the same opportunity to enjoy the game,’’ Predmore said. “And I think across that spectrum, you see many people that are thrilled by the product.’’