Less than two months before its seventh season will begin, the National Women’s Soccer League on Wednesday lost a major investor and its national broadcast partner.
In a clear setback to the women’s game, the NWSL announced A&E Networks will return its estimated 25 percent equity in the league and no longer carry matches on the Lifetime channel. The contract was supposed to run through the 2019 season.
In a written statement, A&E executive David Granville-Smith said his company was “proud to support the amazing athletes of the NWSL and to have produced a first-class Game of the Week production that highlighted their amazing talents. We are excited to continue to support the league with the sleeve sponsorship in 2019 and look forward to seeing the NWSL grow in the years to come.”
The Lifetime brand will remain on the jersey sleeves.
NWSL President Amanda Duffy did not detail reasons for the pact ending, saying in a teleconference with reporters that “both parties agreed the time seemed right for this change to allow the league to be better positioned for the future rather than waiting until the end of the third year. We’ve valued our relationship, learned a lot, brought us to where we are and helped us evaluate where we want to be.”
She said the league is in discussions with a potential new national partner, and a deal could be struck in the coming weeks.
As things stand, she said, all matches will remain available on two digital platforms: Yahoo Sports and the league’s website. Yahoo, which replaced defunct Go90 as the online platform, paid a fee for exclusive digital rights.
“These changes came about very quickly,” Duffy said of the break with A&E. However, “This is not going to be a return to the NWSL 2016. We’re stronger, we’re better positioned, we’re better equipped for where we are and have an ambitious vision for the future.”
The withdrawal of A&E Networks hands full control of the league back to the nine team ownership groups. The 2017 pact had also led to the creation of NWSL Media, the league’s commercial arm. That, too, will return to full league control.
The NWSL will continue to operate without disruption, Duffy said. The schedule will be announced Thursday, with the first set of matches slated for April 13-14.
The participating teams are the Washington Spirit, Sky Blue FC (New Jersey), North Carolina Courage, Orlando Pride, Houston Dash, Chicago Red Stars, Utah Royals, Portland Thorns and Reign FC, which, after moving to Tacoma, Wash., this offseason, dropped “Seattle” from its name.
The league set an attendance record last year by averaging 6,024 spectators. However, Portland inflated the overall figure by drawing 16,959 per game.
The NWSL has endured longer than the previous two attempts at a first-division women’s league: Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11).
With the Women’s World Cup this summer in France, the league figures to benefit from the additional attention on women’s soccer, which is growing steadily in several parts of the world. The NWSL is considered one of the top women’s circuits, featuring almost all of the regulars from the top-ranked U.S. national team.
With the league seeking to expand, particularly to California, Duffy said A&E’s withdrawal will not dissuade future investors.
With team owners controlling the league and its commercial properties, Duffy said, “this is a welcome element for expansion conversations that new team owners would be excited about.”