Women’s World Cup Heroes Returning to NWSL and a New TV Deal With ESPN

Written By Peter Nolan on July 5, 2019

The 2019 Women’s World Cup has proven there’s a massive domestic TV audience for the sport. Many of the World Cup’s top performers (around 55 in all) play professionally in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Broadcast giants ESPN have token note of how strong the ratings are over at FOX and decided to capitalize on it as well.

The NWSL has landed a television contract with ESPN to air 14 league matches for the remainder of the season, including both semifinals and the Championship match.

The league’s previous deal with A&E Networks, which also included a Game of the Week each Saturday on the Lifetime Network, ended abruptly in February when the broadcaster pulled out of the three-year contract one year early.

Has women’s soccer found a lasting TV audience?

The USWNT‘s run to Sunday’s World Cup Final has certainly shone a spotlight on the women’s game. Once again it raises the seemingly eternal question: why can’t the success of the women’s international game translate to the club game?

In some respects, it already has. This is the NWSL’s seventh season, two previous women’s pro leagues in the United States failed to make it past year three. Since the Women’s World Cup is setting viewing records, worldwide optimism that this might be the time is high.

The league may also be better served by throwing in its lot with the “worldwide leader in sports” ESPN, rather than A&E/ Lifetime, which was not an experienced player in the sports programming.

Better put: if anyone can sell the women’s game and support it with digital content, it’s ESPN.

“NWSL is a global leader in women’s professional soccer, with collectively the most talented players in the world.  Together with the reach of ESPN’s vast network, we have the opportunity to bring more games to a broader audience across the country and world,” said NWSL President Amanda Duffy. “Even in the year leading up to the Women’s World Cup, we have continued to experience tremendous growth through the support, engagement, and visibility from our fans.” 

ESPN should be better placed to make connections between the World Cup and NWSL. A total of 55 of the league’s players, including every member of the USWNT, play in the league.

“NWSL is a global leader in women’s professional soccer, with collectively the most talented players in the world.  Together with the reach of ESPN’s vast network, we have the opportunity to bring more games to a broader audience across the country and world.”

– NWSL President Amanda Duffy.

NWSL loaded with World Cup stars

For example, the first match to air under the new deal features the Portland Thorns versus the Orlando Magic on ESPN News on July 14. The United States could be just seven days removed from raising the World Cup. For a league desperate to capitalize on the expected wave of goodwill, the pressure figures to be enormous on the American World Cup players to line out for Orlando and Portland on the 14th.

And it is quite a list. Orlando is led by Alex Morgan, fellow USWNT players Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger, and Brazilian duo of Camila and the legendary Marta.

Portland may be even more loaded with star attractions. Led by USWNT stand-outsTobin Heath and Lindsey Horan, the Thorns also feature teammates Adrianna Franch and Emily Sonnett. Joining them are Australian starter Caitlin Foord and Canada’s superstar Christine Sinclair, who ended her World Cup with 184 international goals, leaving her just shy of American legend Abby Wambach’s total of 182.

Not a bad attraction for the league and the network to kick off their new deal.

NWSL on ESPN channels and schedule

The NWSL deal features a total of 14 games to be televised by ESPN, including eight matches on ESPN News and six games on the more widely available ESPN 2. The two semifinal matches and the NWSL Championship Game on October 26, will air on ESPN 2.

Some of the league’s brightest stars have already returned to action, with Sam Kerr making a huge splash on her return, scoring a hattrick for the Chicago Red Stars in a 3-2 victory over Orlando.

Fresh off of scoring five goals for Australia, who were eliminated in the Round of 16, Kerr vaulted into the NWSL Golden Boot lead by scoring her seventh goal for the Red Stars in her last three games. Remarkable.

Kerr was the subject of rumors that she would be leaving the NWSL for an unspecified league in Europe, although Kerr refuted those rumors, saying that she is very happy in her current situation.

The league certainly hopes so.

NWSL current standings

With the victory in the first game of the second half of the NWSL’s 24 game season, the Kerr’s Red Stars sit in sixth place, with 14 points.

After 10 games, the Portland Thorns top the table with 19 points. They’re followed closely by the Washington Spirit, with 18 points. Washington is led by Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh.

Megan Rapinoe and the Seattle Reign follow with 17 points. The Utah Royals, also with 17, feature Becky Sauerbrunn, Christen Press, and Kelley O’Hara.

The defending champion North Carolina Courage will look forward reintegrating their returning stars Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, and Abby Dahlkemper. They look to move up the table from their current fifth-place position with 14 points.

Sixth place Chicago will be looking to climb with Kerr back, and with 14 points they sit just five from the top spot.

With 13 points seventh-place, Houston Dash is the lone team without a U.S. national team representative, although players like Keah Ohai, Sofia Huerta, and Jane Campbell were all contenders for places. Fans will remember England’s Rachel Daly, who started against the U.S. in that thrilling World Cup semifinal.

With just five points from 11 games, Orlando would seem to be out of contention, perhaps unable to overcome the World Cup absences of Morgan, Marta, and company.

Ninth and last place is the troubled Sky Blue FC, who remain winless through nine games. At least they have Carli Lloyd’s return to look forward to.

What NWSL teams do the USWNT play on?

Below is a complete list of USWNT players and the NWSL clubs that they represent. If you have enjoyed watching their exploits at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, go out and see them.

Adrianna Franch | Portland Thorns FC

Ashlyn Harris | Orlando Pride

Alyssa Naeher | Chicago Red Stars

Abby Dahlkemper | North Carolina Courage

Tierna Davidson | Chicago Red Stars

Crystal Dunn | North Carolina Courage

Ali Krieger | Orlando Pride

Kelley O’Hara | Utah Royals FC

Becky Sauerbrunn | Utah Royals FC

Emily Sonnett | Portland Thorns FC

Morgan Brian | Chicago Red Stars

Julie Ertz | Chicago Red Stars

Lindsey Horan | Portland Thorns FC

Rose Lavelle | Washington Spirit

Allie Long | Reign FC

Samantha Mewis | North Carolina Courage

Tobin Heath | Portland Thorns FC

Carli Lloyd | Sky Blue FC

Jessica McDonald | North Carolina Courage

Alex Morgan | Orlando Pride

Christen Press | Utah Royals FC

Mallory Pugh | Washington Spirit

Megan Rapinoe | Reign FC

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Peter Nolan

Peter Nolan has been on the soccer beat for many years now, covering the United States Men's and Women's teams, from the SnowClasico to Azteca and back again. Along with the US national teams, Peter will provide insight into the MLS and NWSL, with a focus on the NY Red Bulls and NYCFC.

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