Having bypassed the U.K.’s two-week quarantine and gotten some practice under her belt, U.S. National Team star Alex Morgan is likely to debut for England’s Tottenham Hotspur F.C. Women on Oct. 3 in the FA Women’s Super League (WSL). The 31-year-old striker will find two of her USWNT teammates on the opposite side of the pitch on Saturday as the Spurs travel north to take on Manchester City, now home to Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis, in a match available to U.S. fans thanks to a partnership struck this summer between the FA WSL and NBC Sports.
Morgan, who last played in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, transferred to the London-based club from the NWSL’s Orlando Pride in September. She is one of five U.S. National Team stars to make the COVID-19 era move to the English women’s soccer scene this season, with Tobin Heath and Christen Press both joining Manchester United. All are serving temporary stints while remaining under contract with U.S. Soccer, thanks to an arrangement made possible through exceptions granted to the national team’s collective bargaining agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which normally limits the number of players allowed to compete abroad at any given time.
The typically strict thresholds were temporarily relaxed this summer due to COVID-19, opening the door for more movement to the world’s biggest soccer market—and more money and exposure for both the English women’s league and its imported stars during an atypical soccer season stateside.
The WSL’s deal with NBC Sports, orchestrated by Atalanta Media, a women’s soccer company focused on media rights distribution, brings the league directly to U.S. fans for the first time since its 2010 formation. Broadcasts started in early September, just as the FA WSL’s spending spree brought an influx of American talent to the U.K. Along with the distribution revenue, the WSL also gets additional exposure in the U.S. from the broker’s own Ata Football platform, which will simulcast a number of FA WSL matches—including Morgan’s Tottenham debut—as NBC streams it for free.
While NBCSN and Atalanta agreed to broadcast the league prior to players like Morgan joining, their star power packs an important punch.
“It’s really fortuitous because we can drive a bigger audience on NBC. The women’s national team has a great following here in the U.S. and they have a lot of fans, especially at the grassroots level,” said Atalanta co-founder Esmerelda Negron, a former professional player herself. “It’s only going to help grow the league, especially here in the U.S. market. Quite frankly it gives us an opportunity to market and promote in a different way now that young girls and fans in the U.S. have access to watch their favorite players on some of the biggest clubs and brands in the world.”
Already home to England’s men’s Premier League, whose clubs operate the major women’s teams, NBCSN added a package of 50 FA Women’s Super League games to its online streaming portfolio this summer. At least 12 more of the league’s 132 games will air on the network’s linear channel, though not all live. Several NBCSN-owned WSL matches will also follow Premier League lead-ins and receive promotion during coverage of the men’s clubs, NBC told Sportico.
“We’ve been aware of the WSL for quite some time as a result of our Premier League relationships,” said Jon Miller, President of Programming, NBC Sports & NBCSN. “Our priority when talks began in January was to support the league, the clubs and the sport. While we started our discussions far before any USWNT players had formally signed to play this season, it didn’t surprise us when it happened over the summer as the WSL is a destination for the best players in the world. We don’t have specific audience expectations to share, but we certainly expect increased interest in the matches featuring American players.”
American soccer stars have played abroad before (Morgan donned a kit for France’s Lyon in 2017), but the availability of those matches to U.S. audiences is a new addition—as is the push to play in England in particular. Part of this new development is logistical—the pandemic has limited U.S. professional soccer to a quarantined tournament in Utah and a small slate of regional competition this fall—but the other part is financial. With a limited NWSL fall schedule and another year before the Olympics, USWNT stars can make a substantial living overseas this season before returning to the U.S.
The WSL has seen a spike in interest and support in recent years. In addition to United’s women’s team, only in its third season, investing enough to add American stars Heath and Press to its roster, clubs like Chelsea also have recently made major financial commitments to players, starting with two-time NWSL MVP Sam Kerr last November. The Australian star moved to England from the Chicago Red Stars for a $400,000 salary—enough to push the NWSL to introduce rules changes (teams can now purchase up to $300,000 in allocation money from the league to retain top-tier stars).
What Morgan and Co. take with them across the Atlantic goes beyond talent and TV. Morgan’s social media following is larger than her new club’s combined team accounts (men’s and women’s), notable considering that Tottenham is a particularly popular and well-supported north London club. Another example of U.S. players’ popularity: United’s online store sold out of Heath and Press jerseys in a matter of days.
Concerns have surfaced about the NWSL’s standing without some of its biggest stars, but the league has continued to grow in recent months. It’s seen record-setting viewership on CBS, the league’s new broadcast partner, successful international streaming on Twitch and an influx of sponsor dollars during this summer’s Challenge Cup and ongoing Fall Series. Heightened FA WSL success could actually be beneficial for the American league, as increased interest in women’s soccer across the board could create better opportunities for U.S. players and broaden the interest in U.S. stars.
(The headline to this story has been updated to clarify the expansion of the FA WSL’s television coverage in the U.S., not the U.K.)