The National Women’s Soccer League, beset by a scandal that shook the league to its core, is ending the season with a jolt of positive news, announcing a long-term partnership extension with Nike. The deal is the league’s largest corporate sponsorship agreement to date. Specific terms were not disclosed, but the NWSL said it increases Nike’s investment in the league “significantly.”
The sportswear giant is one of the NWSL’s founding partners, first signing on nearly a decade ago, but the future of its relationship with the league was up in the air as the regular season came to a close amid a pervasive abuse scandal. Sponsors, including Nike, waited to see how the NWSL would handle the allegations, and, perhaps more importantly, if its response would be enough for the players and fans. The renewal signals support for the league’s direction, and the NWSL is hopeful it will provide the spark needed to continue growth going into its 10th anniversary season in 2022.
“[Tomorrow’s championship game] will be the culmination of a year that has showcased incredibly exciting and competitive women’s soccer on the field, alongside institutional failures off the field,” Marla Messing, the NWSL’s interim CEO, said in a press conference Friday before pivoting her focus to the Nike news.
“This extension marks the largest commercial deal in NWSL history and is a strong show of support from one of the greatest sports marketing companies in the world,” Messing said, adding that the league’s new partnership marketing group has brought in 11 additional multi-year corporate partners who she said will provide “millions of dollars” in resources for the growth of the league and its players.
The news comes in advance of Saturday’s CBS-broadcast championship clash in Louisville, just weeks after allegations of verbal and sexual abuse by coaches and a league-wide failure to respond appropriately came to light as the regular season wrapped. A series of investigations, calls for ownership changes and several firings and departures resulted, leaving the league scrambling to rebuild trust with its players and fans and survive without a commissioner. (Messing was hired as interim CEO on Oct. 18 while a permanent commissioner search continues.)
The revelations came in the midst of what was, in many ways, enormous commercial progress in early 2021, simultaneously putting the league in a precarious position and squashing the sense that women’s pro soccer had turned a corner this year.
2020’s COVID campaign had brought an influx of sponsor dollars and significant spikes in viewership thanks to open broadcast windows on CBS that carried into 2021. High-profile brands from Nationwide to Mastercard joined the ranks and big-name team investors also helped to bolster the NWSL’s business.
Naomi Osaka, who bought a stake in the North Carolina Courage in January, was joined by the likes of Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager and Olympians Dominique Dawes and Briana Scurry in February when the Washington Spirit announced a group of more than 30 new investors. The celebrity group ownership model mirrors that of expansion team Angel City (one of two coming 2022 clubs alongside the San Diego Wave), whose star-studded owners include the actor Natalie Portman and athletes like Serena Williams, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach.
2021 also marked the league’s second season under its deal with CBS (reportedly worth $4.5 million, a landmark figure for a league that was often earning no rights fee at all from past broadcast partners) and Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch (which is also paying the league around $1 million per year). The CBS agreement, originally a three-year deal, will now run through the 2023 season due to COVID-19, Messing said Friday. Though only a handful of this season’s contests, including Saturday’s title game, landed on CBS’ flagship network, another milestone was still met: All of the league’s games this season were available to viewers with CBS Sports Network and CBS’s streaming service, Paramount+, broadcasting the remainder. Twitch covered international distribution.
The league has yet to announce regular season numbers for 2021, but midway through the summer, the Washington Post reported games broadcast by CBS were averaging more than 400,000 viewers, on par with audiences the NHL games drew last season on NBC’s networks.
Fans also returned to stadium seats in person for the first time since 2019, when average attendance across the league surged 21% year over year, padding an important revenue stream for a league without major broadcast money. While COVID threw a wrench in the NWSL’s plans to capitalize on that momentum, 2021’s crowds returned at numbers not far behind the prior peak. An August clash between the OL Reign and Portland Thorns even set a new NWSL attendance record as 27,248 fans turned out at Lumen Field in Seattle, about 2,000 more than the capacity at the Thorn’s home venue, Providence Park.
But in addition to the abuse scandal, there were other, small issues along the way.
One of the largest NWSL venues in the country, Portland’s Providence Park, was also set to host this weekend’s championship game—with kickoff initially set for 9 a.m. PT. The early broadcast slot was the result of college football programming commitments for broadcast partner CBS. After pushback about the location and timing from players, the game was moved to Louisville where it could be played at noon ET, a later local start time for players and fans in the same broadcast window.
The noon slot itself prompted questions about CBS’ commitment to the sport, and about the lack of bids to host the title game. Only three teams, Orlando, Louisville and Portland threw their names in the ring—the first two initially withdrawing and leaving Portland as the only potential host.
A “brand refresh” complete with a new logo was also supposed to be part of the commercial progress, announced this summer with the intent of unveiling new visual identity by year’s end in time for the league’s tenth anniversary season in 2022. Chicago-based creative agency Soulsight was tapped to lead the rebrand, which hasn’t been mentioned since it was initially unveiled.