How the coronavirus pandemic unexpectedly spurred sponsor interest and big TV payoff for the NWSL

The NWSL's decision to chase reach instead of revenue when negotiating its broadcast deal led the league to CBS, while the coronavirus pandemic has produced some silver linings. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
The NWSL's decision to chase reach instead of revenue when negotiating its broadcast deal led the league to CBS, while the coronavirus pandemic has produced some silver linings. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

When Daniel Cohen of Octagon meets for the first time with a sports league trying to sell its media rights, the first question he asks is: What does your league want, revenue or reach? Inevitably, every league says they want both — until they’re talked into narrowing down their goals.

When Octagon met with the National Women’s Soccer League last year to help the league sign a new broadcast deal, the still-growing league knew which one to choose.

“For the NWSL specifically, their leadership and their owners were very explicit that reach was critical — reach outweighs revenue,” Cohen tells Yahoo Sports. “There was more money to be made in other deal formats that we passed on because this partnership between CBS, CBS All Access and Twitch was going to give us the greatest exposure.”

After discussions with NBC, Fox and ESPN, the NWSL inked a three-year broadcast deal with CBS and Twitch. While the potential audience was huge — much bigger than the NWSL had ever had before — only a couple games would end up on the flagship platform, No. 1-rated CBS. Most NWSL games for Americans would be streamed behind a paywall, instead of on CBS or the global streaming platform Twitch.

But since the pandemic has hit and CBS has found itself with a college football-sized hole in its schedule this fall, the NWSL’s decision last year has offered some unexpected silver linings.

When the NWSL resumes with its special “Fall Series” this weekend, CBS will air the first game on its main network and continue showing NWSL games every Saturday in September, a slot SEC football would’ve normally filled in a non-COVID world.

That larger potential audience, in turn, has offered an enticing carrot to dangle in front of sponsors, some of which are looking at the NWSL for the first time after the NWSL’s Challenge Cup in June was a success.

“There's a lot of excitement around CBS and Twitch, and it has opened doors and facilitated conversations with brands that we could’ve never have had before,” says Lindsay Barenz, the NWSL’s vice president of business development.

The value of a TV deal

In a normal September, college football would rule the airwaves on Saturdays, and the SEC would be the most-watched college conference on CBS. But with the SEC pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic, CBS has opted to fill some of that TV time with an unlikely alternative: women’s soccer.

The NWSL was already the first American team sports league to return in June with the Challenge Cup, and no one would’ve blamed the league if it decided to take the rest of 2020 off and regroup for next year. But sources tell Yahoo Sports that the lure of having even more games on CBS, the most-watched network in America, was difficult to pass up.

The NWSL was supposed to have only two games air on CBS this year: the season opener and the championship. In fact, when CBS first agreed to be the NWSL’s broadcaster, reportedly at $4.5 million over three years, it was part of a larger strategy to promote its streaming service, CBS All Access, which was where most NWSL games would air.

But when the season was derailed due to COVID, and the NWSL hosted the Challenge Cup instead, CBS aired the opener and final of that one-off tournament to record ratings. The final drew 653,000 viewers on average, triple the league’s highest ratings of any season prior, and multiples what NWSL games usually get.

Now, with the Fall Series set through October 17 and the loss of most of college football, CBS should end up airing at least six games on its main channel — triple the reach the league was supposed to have in 2020.

The NWSL Challenge Cup, which was won in July by the Houston Dash, yielded record ratings for the league. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The NWSL Challenge Cup, which was won in July by the Houston Dash, yielded record ratings for the league. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

That’s important because the league can’t take advantage of traditional sponsorship opportunities that involve brands reaching fans in stadiums. Instead, now brands must shift how they use sponsorship dollars, and that means reaching fans in their homes. Luckily for the NWSL, that dovetails nicely with new sponsor interest based on having CBS broadcast its games in the U.S. and Twitch broadcast its games internationally.

“You lose the value that you had to offer with an in-person audience, but the thing that changed the most between last year and this year is the CBS and Twitch deal,” Barenz says of the NWSL being able to court new sponsors. “Those broadcast partners expose us to a quantity and a type of audience that we didn't have access to before, and you saw it with the viewership of those games on CBS — multiples greater anything we've previously experienced.”

Finding value for NWSL sponsors

When the NWSL first presented the idea of the Challenge Cup to sponsors, Barenz wasn’t sure how they would receive it. The Challenge Cup, a one-off tournament in a coronavirus-proof bubble, would be the first of its kind in the U.S., and it would look very different from a normal season.

“Every time my phone rang, I was like, this is it, this is them saying, ‘Nevermind, we changed our minds,’” she says with a laugh. “They didn’t. They stepped up and honestly they delivered more for us than I ever expected. Not in terms of writing a check — they are advocates for the league.”

Indeed, adding new sponsorships during a pandemic isn’t easy, but that’s what the NWSL did in June with the Challenge Cup.

New NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird recruited Procter & Gamble to sign on as the presenting sponsor of the tournament, expanding well beyond a partnership started with Secret deodorant last year. The NWSL had previously worked with Google and Verizon (which owns Yahoo), but their sponsorships this year were designed with the Challenge Cup in mind.

For Google, that meant using Google Meet, a competitor to Zoom and Microsoft Teams, to facilitate remote viewing parties for fans, and ensuring the NWSL’s search results showed when and how fans could watch games. Verizon was the presenting sponsor of highlights packages, and delivered NWSL content to its mobile users for increased exposure.

“We didn't know what was going to happen with games, and then Lisa developed the Challenge Cup concept and we took it to the sponsors,” Barenz says. “In Verizon's case, they signed on to a multi-year deal, which the concept of that predated the pandemic and, to be honest, it didn’t really change that much. They were committed to the league and once we had something to offer they were excited about it.

“With Google, we had done a small deal with them the prior year and continued talking to them, but discussions hadn't really taken shape until we knew what our season was going to look like.”

Looking ahead in an uncertain landscape

Every sponsorship is structured a bit differently — there is no blanket approach — but for leagues like the NWSL, in-stadium experiences are usually a significant part of such deals. Without that, an obvious concern is whether the NWSL would lose out on the sponsorships it needs to drive revenue.

But Christine Franklin, the vice president of marketing at Octagon who worked with the NWSL on acquiring new sponsors, says her clients haven’t noticed sponsors are leaving sports altogether because of the pandemic. More often, sponsorships are just changing.

“The immediate thing happening is sponsors are not spending money in and around the stadiums so they have to be more creative,” she says.

“A consistent thing that we're hearing from our clients is, it’s not as if they are dropping sponsorships left and right,” she adds. “Sponsors may say, ‘We're not going to enter a new space and take a big risk,’ but they're not necessarily saying, ‘See you later, Major League Baseball.’ That's not really what's happening. Dollars are being squeezed for sure, but they’re shrinking naturally because they can’t activate as much on-site.”

Increasingly, brands are marketing themselves by trying to prove their values align with their consumers — a trend that may bode well for the NWSL, even during the pandemic. When Budweiser signed on as the flagship sponsor of the NWSL last year, it did so to get behind a message of female empowerment after a record-setting Women’s World Cup last summer and a renewed conversation around equal pay for women.

By sponsoring the NWSL, regardless of what the sponsorship looks like, brands send a clear message.

“Supporting a women’s league automatically says something,” Franklin says. “You don’t even to say it or create a media plan around how you’re going to say it, because you already said it just by supporting them.”

With the NWSL’s unique position as one of two top-tier women’s professional leagues in the U.S. with the WNBA, the league is bolstered by the reach CBS and Twitch, and a successful Challenge Cup to prove its value to potential brands. That initiates the conversations with would-be sponsors.

But now, with an unusual look and feel of games, the open question is how sponsors will evolve going forward.

“I do think that the performance of the NWSL (at the Challenge Cup in June) opened the eyes a lot of potential sponsors about the opportunity that the NWSL provides because the numbers grew so much,” Barenz says.

“At some point it just becomes: What is the capacity of your imagination to dream up ways in which we can utilize the NWSL and our assets to help a brand market itself?”

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

More from Yahoo Sports: