The NWSL was the first pro sports league to return to play stateside in June when the month-long Challenge Cup tournament started in Utah with eight of the league’s nine teams. The tournament has not only drawn record-setting linear audiences for the women’s soccer league, which has struggled to find success with broadcast partners in the past, but it has also tapped into a global audience through a new partner: Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch.
Following in the footsteps of the G League, National Women’s Hockey League, Australia’s National Basketball League and others, the NWSL is utilizing Twitch’s growing platform to support its growing popularity.
In March, when the league announced a new, three-year broadcast deal with CBS, the gaming-focused platform signed on to stream free coverage of select NWSL matches and serve as its exclusive international media rights partner, making all originally-planned 108 regular season matches, the playoffs and championship available to global viewers.
With the global sports world put on pause by the pandemic, the platform saw a massive spike in usage at the same time that the NWSL ultimately returned to play. While the league declined to disclose official Twitch viewership data, since the Challenge Cup began on June 27, the NWSL’s international channel (NWSLOfficial2) has generated almost 3.5 million views, with matches averaging almost 217,000 views per stream outside of the U.S., according to TwitchTracker—good enough to crack the top 200 channels.
Strong broadcast and streaming numbers have highlighted the NWSL’s return. CBS allotted linear airtime for the tournament’s opening and final games, and it broadcast the majority of the tournament on its streaming platform, CBS All Access, to a domestic audience of subscribers. The opening match between defending champion North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC set a league record: 572,000 viewers tuned in to CBS, marking a 201% increase over the NWSL’s previous high, 190,000—a number the NWSL’s current average international viewership on Twitch is surpassing.
“We had a minutes-watched goal [on Twitch] for the tournament and we exceeded that goal after five games,” Lindsay Barenz, NWSL vice president of business development, said. “Everything on top of that is just massive amounts of gravy.”
Barenz admitted that Twitch viewership was a “question mark” when the league started shopping its rights. The platform’s success with both the G League and NWHL proved that there was an audience, but the NWSL “didn’t know how big it would be [for them] or what the transference really was between the digital/gaming and live sports audiences.”
Timing worked in the NWSL’s favor. The tournament kicked off in June, an unprecedented month for Twitch usage. Viewers watched 1.6 billion hours of live stream content on the platform and set a record for maximum number of concurrent viewers—more than 6 million. According to TwitchTracker, the platform’s average number of concurrent viewers stood at nearly 2.3 million that month, up from 1.4 million in February prior to the pandemic.
The audience may not only be a reflection of heightened demand for content during COVID-19; the NWSL’s audience itself has grown steadily in recent years. Bolstered by the U.S. Women’s 2019 World Cup victory, the league’s average attendance last season—7,337—was a 21.8% increase over its record 2018 and a 71.8% increase over the league’s inaugural 2013 season.
“The thing that’s unique about women’s soccer in the United States is that the NWSL is the best women’s soccer league in the world. We know the NWSL is popular outside of the United States, and the women’s soccer audience in general is absolutely global,” Barenz added, pointing to the Women’s World Cup as an example.
Last year’s tournament saw record-setting audiences, and not just from the countries competing in the games. Viewers from Brazil, for example, a country that didn’t make the final 16 of the World Cup, made up a massive segment, as did other South and Central American countries. Asia delivered the most unique viewers across television and digital platforms throughout the duration of the tournament, despite both China and Japan losing in the first round.
“That same audience is interested in the NWSL,” Barenz said. “For years, it has been important for us to have an option for international audiences to watch our games.”
The league’s last multiyear deal, with A+E Networks, did not include international distribution; games were streamed internationally through the NWSL website. In 2019, ESPN picked up the league’s international distribution partway through the season.
With an established global presence—Germany, Russia, Korea and France followed the U.S. in viewership by country in June—Twitch marks the league’s first fully-fledged international partner. And without disclosing the financials of the deal, Barenz said the fees they offered the NWSL for those rights were “a strong component of our selection choice,” as were the limited barriers to accessing games on Twitch, a free platform that doesn’t even require an account to watch matches live.
“We were super excited to be able to offer [our] games on a platform that was so accessible,” Barenz said. “Unfortunately in a world where we only had 25 games, there was a limited number to distribute between our partners. But Twitch is actually essential to our domestic distribution strategy as well as international.”
The streaming platform has evolved the game-viewing experience as it grows into the non-gaming sports space. The G League debuted on Twitch in 2017—part of a greater NBA partnership with the platform that also includes the NBA 2K esports league—becoming the first major sports league to tap into the platform’s social abilities like co-streaming, where users can stream their viewing of a broadcast and engage with other fans via the chat function. That community element also enticed the NWSL, as did the platform’s continual innovation.
In June, Amazon announced that its coverage of four Premier League games would be available to watch free on Twitch for U.K. viewers—a first for the English soccer league—as well as on Prime Video. The matches were co-streamed by prominent Twitch personalities.
Twitch holds a handful of other partnerships in international sport, including Australia’s National Basketball League. In October, the pair entered a two-year deal to stream NBL games. The league saw more than 2.1 million live game views on Twitch during its 2019-20 season, which ended in February, with average view times surpassing 10 minutes. The league said it was “delighted” with the engagement Twitch generated.
“Not only did it take our product to an entirely new audience all around the world, but by allowing our games to be co-streamed by members of the Twitch community, it also delivered those games in a new way that is more engaging for that audience,” NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger said.
Amazon has also aired its NFL Thursday night coverage on the platform in recent years, integrating a number of Twitch’s interactive features into its streams. As sports leagues continue to make inroads into the streaming space and competition for rights increases, the innovation, accessibility and audience Twitch offers could continue to benefit smaller leagues like the NWSL—and maybe even some big ones too.
(This story has been updated with details of Brazil’s World Cup finish.)