Commentary

A+E's Evan Silverman on NWSL and Lifetime, selling women's pro soccer and challenge of raising awareness

A+E Networks' broadcasting deal to carry the National Women's Soccer League on Lifetime is unique on two counts.

Lifetime's broadcast of an NWSL game each Saturday afternoons and the playoffs that will begin this weekend is more than simply a programming deal. A+E has an interest in the commercial success of the NWSL, operating NWSL Media in a joint venture with the league.

And Lifetime, one of the most successful cable networks airing programs about women or targeted to women, doesn't carry any other sports besides the NWSL.

In 2017, Lifetime has provided what the NWSL lacked in its first four years: not only weekly coverage but destination viewing: a game of the week every Saturday in a time slot beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET. By contrast, FS1 only carried three regular-season games in 2015 and 2016.

Lifetime has not skimped on the production. It hired veteran television broadcasters Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner to work the booth and Dalen Cuff, a former college basketball analyst, as the sideline reporter. The two-and-a-half-hour window includes pre-game, halftime and post-game segments that tell the story of the league and its players, not just the games themselves.

Lifetime's clout has allowed it to promote the NWSL in ways the league couldn't before. Lifetime launched the “Pass the Ball” marketing campaign that included Julia Roberts, Ellen DeGeneres and David Beckham. That campaign was panned on women's soccer Twitter for presenting women's pro soccer as a cause, not a sport, and for ignoring the NWSL stars themselves.

Evan Silverman, the executive vice president of Digital Media at A+E, manages NWSL Media on a daily basis, says the challenge for the league is to grow the fanbase beyond the die-hard women's soccer community and to appeal to people who might be interested in women's soccer but don't know about the NWSL or that the league is on Lifetime or that it is on every Saturday afternoon.

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Evan Silverman (Photo courtesy of Lifetime)

Said Silverman, "People say, 'Please just focus on the amazing athletes and amazing quality of the game.' And I agree 100 percent that the NWSL is an amazing product. But part of the challenge is we have to raise awareness outside the women's soccer community. A way to do that is to work with celebrities who are so gracious to give us their support. And they want to do it to help support a movement. We were just ecstatic that we could get that level of celebrity wattage to support it. Ellen DeGeneres has 74 million followers on Twitter and I think 28 million fans on Facebook. When has a league like this ever had that kind of association?"

Silverman views the campaign as nothing but positive for the NWSL.

"We market the league for the incredible play and quality of the game as the best soccer league in the world," he added. "Just because we also did this campaign with celebrities doesn't mean that it is an either-or."

A+E signed a three-year agreement to broadcast the NWSL. NWSL Media is part of a long-term commitment to boost the league's digital operations and commercial profile.

"The only way to truly get behind the NWSL is to invest in it because we wanted our short- and long-term interests to be aligned," Silverman said. "If it was only a broadcast deal, it won't make sense long-term."


Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner (Photo courtesy of Lifetime)

Through 21 regular-season games, Lifetime was averaging 106,000 viewers (combined average for pre-game and game), up 74 percent for the three regular-season games on FS1 in 2016. National advertisers have included P&G, Ford, AT&T, Anheuser Busch and Boston Beer.

The biggest challenge is attracting sponsors. It's always been an issue for the NWSL, which has only three official sponsors -- Nike, Cutter and Thorne -- other than Lifetime. The A+E-NWSL deal was only signed two months before the start of the 2017 season, limiting the time NWSL Media had to sell for 2017, but Silverman is optimistic about 2018, based on the conversations NWSL Media is having with blue-chip sponsors.

Here's what Silverman had to say about ...

NWSL Media.
"NWSL Media handles all the media rights, television and digital streaming, domestically and globally. We handle the league's digital products -- web site, mobile apps, streaming. We also handle league sponsorship sales. We have six employees right now, primarily involved in content production, video editing and sales support."

Viewership.
"We are continuing to grow awareness of not only the NWSL but also that there is a game of the week every Saturday afternoon. We only expect the numbers to grow into next season as people are used to seeing a game on Lifetime. We are pleased where we are at but believe there is a lot of room for growth in terms of our television audience."

Demographics.
"Our audience skews a bit more male than the typical Lifetime audience. Our game of the week is about 60 percent female, 40 percent male. It is a younger, more upscale audience. And this is all demographic information that we know is appealing to sponsors."

Sponsorship sales.
"You cannot underestimate the impact of having 25 games on Lifetime from a sponsorship perspective. It opens up doors to sponsors in ways that the league wasn't able to do previously."

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