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As NWSL gets more airtime, broadcasts struggle to keep pace

The NWSL is enjoying more exposure than ever, but fans and players have been critical of the quality of the broadcasts. (Scott Taetsch for The Washington Post)

One afternoon last month, Marta, a star forward for the Orlando Pride, let loose a ringing shot from near midfield that sailed into the net for a remarkable goal. It might have been one of the top highlights of the season, and a viral advertisement for a young league looking to grow.

But the camera filming the game missed the ball going into the net.

Afterward, Portland Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby took to Twitter and expressed a sentiment that has circulated among some players and fans this season: “Movement, formations, etc. are so important to see, and half the time I can’t even see the goal go in the freaking net.”

The National Women’s Soccer League, now almost a decade old, is at the start of a groundbreaking media rights deal with CBS and the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. All of its 146 games are available to fans this season, the majority on CBS’s streaming service Paramount Plus. Twenty-four can be found globally on Twitch; 18 are on cable on CBS Sports Network; and five are on the CBS broadcast network, coveted real estate where more viewers than ever can find the league.

That reach is a landmark achievement for the league. So is the fact that CBS is paying around $1.5 million a year for three seasons and Amazon is paying more than $1 million, according to people familiar with the figures. Those numbers mark a significant increase from the league’s previous arrangement, in which ESPN aired some games without paying any rights fee at all.

“There were only a small handful of games available in 2016,” said Dana Rubin, who was hired as the director of broadcast for the league in 2020. “The fact that the league makes the investment to fans across the world is a huge step in the right direction and makes games available to everyone.”

But those broadcasts underscore a paradox in women’s sports. There is growing interest in the NWSL, as evidenced by big gains in viewership for the league’s pandemic tournament last year, including 653,000 for the final, and high-profile investors and expansion teams. Games on CBS broadcast this season are averaging more than 400,000 viewers, roughly the same as NHL games last season averaged across NBC and NBC Sports Network (though most of those games were on cable and not exclusive to NBC).

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Yet unlike established leagues like the NFL or NBA, the NWSL, not the networks that air the games, is responsible for producing its own broadcasts. Where other leagues can spend rights fees investing in and marketing their product, the NWSL spends a lot of its rights fees paying the production costs to air its games.

The NWSL hires a company called Vista Worldlink for production services like TV trucks and camera crews. The budgets are small for the digital-only telecasts, around $10,000 for a remote production, according to two people with knowledge of them. For the cable and broadcast games, there are more people on-site and budgets jump to $50,000 and around $100,000, respectively, in line with the costs to produce many games on regional and national cable networks.

Producing digital broadcasts on such a small budget is a challenge. The producers orchestrate the broadcast from a studio off-site, and the broadcasters call the games remotely, too. There are fewer cameras than there are for games on linear TV. And there’s not much money to pay experienced or well-known broadcasters. It has added up to, at times, a sloppy presentation. Announcers have misgendered a player. There have been audio glitches and streams that cut out midgame, sometimes for several minutes. Not to mention that missed Marta screamer.

Even on CBS there can be problems. Over Father’s Day weekend, CBS added a second national telecast, offering more exposure for the league. But neither the network nor the league paid for the production team to be on-site for the second broadcast in Portland. That broadcast, which was done remotely, was plagued by sound issues.

“As somebody involved in bringing in investors, I have to be very careful to tell people which games to watch,” said Becca Roux, the executive director for the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association. “I’m not very confident that they will watch and there will be a good broadcast.”

On another broadcast, announcers misidentified the child of North Carolina Courage forward Jessica McDonald after a Juneteenth segment celebrating their mother-son relationship. According to multiple people familiar with the incident, the bad information was given to the broadcast by team or league officials at the game. But it still ended in an embarrassing broadcast moment that McDonald criticized and the league apologized for.

The NWSL points to how far it has come on the distribution side. In previous media deals, it could be difficult to find games and market the league. Several years ago, the league had a pact with A&E in which the network was a part-owner of the league and invested significantly in broadcast production. But the network had an awkward promotional strategy, including one commercial that infamously showed celebrities imploring viewers to watch the league as an act of empowerment but no actual women playing soccer. Today, the league has CBS throwing its promotional weight behind it.

Fans, too, have higher expectations than ever before, which the league is trying to satisfy. Rubin said digital broadcasts have four cameras, cable games have eight to 10 and CBS network games consist of 10-12. All games have two announcers, and for linear TV games, the announcers and a sideline reporter are on-site. All announcers, she said, get packets of information and have calls with coaches and producers to discuss story lines.

In an email, NWSL spokesman Mark Jones wrote: “The technology used on our digital broadcasts allows us to produce games remotely in a cost-efficient manner, a critical factor for our young league. While exceptionally rare, sometimes that technology has a hiccup.”

Dan Weinberg, executive vice president for CBS Sports, declined to comment on anything related to NWSL production. “We have an extraordinarily healthy partnership and we place a high priority on it,” he said. “They are growing very, very fast.”

As the NWSL considers its next media deal, Roux said, questions around the broadcasts will become more acute. The Women’s Super League in the United Kingdom — a potential competitor for talent — signed a lucrative deal with Sky Sports and the BBC earlier this year.

There are few better ways to grow the NWSL than through fans being able to watch it and the only way the broadcasts improve is with greater investment. That could come from teams and the league. It could come from more sponsors spending more, within telecasts and other opportunities in the league. And it could come from media companies like CBS, which could invest in the broadcasts in hopes that a better product builds a bigger audience.

“There’s a habit in women’s sports to dip a toe in and expect the same results as men’s properties,” Roux said. “But you can’t expect the same result with far less investment.”