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NWSL inks record-breaking broadcast deal, a potential game-changer for U.S. women's soccer

HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 19:  A  general view of the National Womens Soccer League logo on the scoreboard during the first half of the NWSL soccer game between NJ/NY Gotham FC and San Diego Wave FC on June 19, 2022 at Red Bull Arena in HArrison, NJ.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The NWSL announced its latest broadcast deal Thursday. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The National Women's Soccer League on Thursday announced new broadcast deals reportedly worth $240 million over four years, a sum that could transform the league and allow it to reestablish itself as the best in the world.

The deals are with CBS, ESPN, Amazon and Scripps (which owns the ION Network). Those four networks will collectively broadcast 118 games nationally, a four-fold increase from the NWSL's previous deal with CBS exclusively.

But the big news is the value of the deals, reportedly the richest package ever for a North American women's sports league. At $60 million per season — a figure that reportedly includes production costs and marketing commitments — it's 40 times the amount of the league's previous deal, which was worth $1.5 million annually.

Without a significant TV deal in the past, NWSL revenues lagged, and tight limits on spending remained in place. The league's salary cap and restrictions on player movement, among other factors, deterred foreign stars, many of whom chose to go to or remain in Europe. At the 2023 Women's World Cup, England's WSL was the most-represented domestic league; only three NWSL players reached the semifinals.

The new broadcast deals, and the resultant revenue, should allow the NWSL to significantly raise both the minimum and maximum salary limits, which in turn will improve the lives of fringe players and attract more elite ones.

“These partnerships fundamentally change the game for our league and the players who take the pitch each week," commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement.

The league's board of governors still must agree to lift the spending restrictions. Several already want to, while others have been hesitant. Now, though, they have a baseline of guaranteed income and proof that their investments so far have created an increasingly attractive product.

If they do loosen the rules, it will have a cascading impact, including on the U.S. women's national team. As currently constructed, the NWSL “doesn’t offer enough diversity to [U.S. players] in terms of playing against different styles," as incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes wrote this summer. The balance of power in women's soccer had shifted to Europe — to its storied clubs and its national teams. There has been a crescendo of suggestions — from fans, media and some within the sport — that top USWNT players need to go across the pond as well to keep up.

But not if the NWSL can bring the best European players to America instead. If the NWSL becomes a melting pot of top worldly talent, it can continue to serve the USWNT.

There are other factors keeping players in Europe — proximity to home being one. The NWSL's spring-to-fall calendar is another, and that won't change. But salaries — which, for premier players, are currently six-figures higher at clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea compared to the NWSL — could change.

For fans, meanwhile, the broadcast deals come with pros and cons. The main downside: With multiple subscriptions now required to watch the league, fandom will be more costly.

The benefits, though, are many. Games will be more visible than ever before, and available to both cable subscribers and cord-cutters. Amazon Prime will broadcast 25 Friday games per season. ION will get a Saturday doubleheader each week, with matches beginning at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET.

ESPN's involvement is also a win for the league. And the NWSL championship game will remain on CBS. Those two networks will show six of seven games in each year's playoffs — which will expand from six to eight teams when two expansion franchises, Bay FC and Utah Royals, join the league in 2024.

Every regular-season game not broadcast nationally, meanwhile, will be packaged into a direct-to-consumer product via the league.