The NWSL wrapped up its month-long Challenge Cup, a bubble tournament that took place in Utah, with an unexpected Houston Dash victory. And while the Texas team celebrated its first championship, the league celebrated something greater: a season of record-setting viewership and record-setting sponsor support.
“We believe we have the best product. Our play is world class, and we have world-class players in our league. I think we saw that during the tournament,” NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said. “As a result, we generated a really huge audience. It’s really important for us to continue to deliver an audience of scale that delivers for our sponsors.”
The tournament, which comprised the league’s eighth season, attracted a record-setting linear audience. The Challenge Cup final saw 653,000 viewers on the main CBS network, breaking the league’s domestic television ratings record for the second time in a month. The tournament opener itself garnered a 201% increase in viewers from the league’s previous high in 2014.
Viewership on Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming platform which served as the Cup’s international distribution partner, exceeded the NWSL’s internal goal for minutes watched within five games.
“The NWSL captured the audience because we were the first league to return back to play, but also because the games were close and competitive,” North Carolina Courage’s Crystal Dunn said. Dunn said the physical toll of such a compressed season played at altitude during the peak summer heat, combined with the mental toll of living in the bubble made it tough for the players, but added that she thought the payoff was worth it. “I think the success of the Challenge Cup has also captured the eyes of other potential sponsors and partners who may want to get involved in our league in the upcoming years.”
Twitch and CBS were both new partners for the league—two of several announced in recent months. Procter & Gamble and its women’s deodorant brand Secret inked a deal to serve as the tournament’s presenting sponsors in May. The pair joined Budweiser as key corporate partners, at the same time Verizon signed on as a multi-year sponsor.
Prior to the Budweiser’s deal with the NWSL in 2019, the league only had a handful of supporters, headlined by Nike and supplements brand Thorne. The beer brand launched a campaign to expand that roster, which also includes an e-commerce partner in Legends. Budweiser first encouraged fans to support the NWSL with the #WontStopWatching movement during the season and then launched its “Future Official” campaign in the fall, calling on businesses to sponsor the league in other official categories. Budweiser, the “Official Beer,” ran newspaper ads displaying the open “Official Timepiece,” “Official Restaurant” and “Official Deodorant” sponsorship slots, in addition to the campaign’s digital elements and a Megan Rapinoe-narrated video ad.
CBS Sports and Twitch were the first to follow, signing the league to its first multi-year deal on a major network in March. Google rounded out the growing group when it joined as the tournament kicked off in late June.
Nike and Budweiser’s Challenge Cup sponsorship campaigns performed best in social engagement, according to Zoomph, generating more than 246,000 and 123,000 owned and earned mentions, respectively, across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Verizon’s ‘Save of the Match’ campaign generated more than 80,000 engagements, while Secret’s ‘No Sweat Play of the Game’ came in upwards of 64,000. During the preliminary round of the tournament alone, the NWSL and its teams drove more than $1.3 million in social sponsorship value for its partner brands.
“I’ve always believed that women’s soccer is worth investing in, and I think the sponsors involved in the Challenge Cup proved that,” Dunn said. “My hope is that in the next few years, we can get more partners to join in and create long-term relationships.”
Baird said the increase in sponsor support is indicative of the continued growth the league has seen in multiple categories. The peak in value for professional women’s soccer in the U.S. also brought needed financial support for the league—especially in the current economic climate.
“[Sponsors] most importantly help us continue player compensation through this time of COVID-19. They help do the basics in terms of making us a successful and sustainable league,” Baird said. “Now is going to be the important work of integrating with all of our sponsors, in terms of post-tournament play and continuing to take us to the next level.”
Prior to the tournament start, the league secured a COVID-related Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan between $1-2 million to ensure it could pay its players, also a reminder of the small financial margins within which the league operates.
“It was huge that players were able to get paid for this year,” Dunn said. “Historically, there have always been financial battles in our league. Especially in a year with a global pandemic, the players are very happy that their salaries were protected.”
With sponsor money providing some financial security, the focus now, Baird says, is on both maintenance and momentum. Renewing current partnerships is as important to the league as seeking new ones before what Baird expects to be a strong 2021 season.
The work, in the meantime, goes back to the basics. The NWSL’s focal points are: storytelling to grow the league’s fan base during the offseason, working with corporate supporters individually to maximize engagement and marketing, growing the NWSL’s social and e-commerce platforms and focusing on direct-to-consumer reach, among other things. Those are key as the league prepares to expand to Louisville (2021) and Los Angeles (2022).
With happy players, no COVID cases and a successful tournament to build upon, going into the 2021 season, the NWSL also offered a dose of optimism for others like the NBA and NHL following a bubble blueprint—a bonus Baird humbly shrugs off.