Last week’s announcement that the NWSL had secured the largest media rights deal in women’s sports history sparked an idea that may be far-fetched but is nonetheless intriguing and worth exploring, at least theoretically.
In advance of its championship game—which put a cap on the brilliant careers of Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger, two of the sport’s superstars—the NWSL reached agreements with four media companies that will earn the league a total of $240 million over the next four years.
According to Sports Business Journal, the amount committed by CBS, ESPN, Amazon and Scripps Sports (owner of ION TV) “includes rights fees, the cost of production and marketing commitments. That’s forty times the $1.5M the women’s soccer league earned (annually) under its previous domestic rights agreement with incumbent CBS Sports, under which the league also covered production costs.”
Could this landmark set of agreements be a first step to an even larger collaboration in which the media partners eventually take responsibility for the NWSL’s multimedia and sponsorship rights in a structure similar to the 12-year-old partnership between CBS, Turner Sports and the NCAA?
Although there are many challenges standing in the way of such an arrangement—starting with the fact that five parties would need to agree to it, not just three—two comments from key players make it sound at least somewhat plausible.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus—who it should be noted was the driving force behind the NCAA media partnership—said, “I’ve been involved in a lot of media announcements and press conferences. But I’ve never been at one where there are four major media companies making an announcement (together) on one property.”
NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said to SBJ, “These partners emerged as the ones who were prepared to make the appropriate investments, not just from valuation and rights fee perspective, but also to provide marketing on their institutional platforms and their willingness to cross-promote to each other.”
Even with that positive spirit coming out of an historic deal, crafting a partnership to control, sell and revenue share additional rights is a far different animal than agreeing to do some cross-promoting.
The other factor standing in the way of such an agreement is the absence of a clear motivator for any of the parties. In 2010, CBS was losing $50 million a year on its NCAA broadcast rights and in the pre-streaming era didn’t have enough channels to broadcast all of the games of the men’s basketball championship. In addition, the NCAA’s corporate partnership program was not delivering on its potential. Those conditions don’t exist in the NWSL’s case.
However, an argument on behalf of creating a multimedia rights consortium for the NWSL exists based on the potential of such a bundled offer to optimize value for sponsors and advertisers in the same way that the NCAA’s Corporate Champions and Corporate Partners program has.
As is customary across professional sports, the NWSL sells league-wide sponsorships, its clubs have local corporate partners and there will now be four media companies in the marketplace all offering a way to align with women’s pro soccer. On top of that, Berman told SBJ that “NWSL clubs will also be allowed to broker their own local rights deals with broadcast stations or regional sports networks in their markets for regular-season games not included in the four national packages. Those matches will also be available nationally via a direct-to-consumer streaming service the league plans to launch.”
It may be that all of those opportunities will deliver profitable revenue to each rights holder. It’s certainly true that they will create a lot of clutter and make it difficult for brands to stand out from the pack and require those who want even a degree of exclusivity to cobble together a number of agreements with the individual properties and platforms.
The NCAA earns more than $200 million a year from 13 sponsors sold by CBS and Turner. If a similar approach could be established for the NWSL, could the league, its teams and its media partners earn more together than they can on their own?
And if not the NWSL, could this strategy work for any other sports property? Definitely intriguing.