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Is the NWSL only for women?

New TV deal raises questions whether women are the only target audience.

A crowd of male fans gather at Yurcak Field after Sky Blue FC’s 1-1 draw with Orlando Pride.
Trey Madara, Brotherly Game

Yesterday, at a press conference held in Midtown Manhattan, the NWSL and A+E Networks announced that Lifetime will become an official sponsor and official broadcast partner in a three-year deal commencing this April. A+E will become the league’s newest investor with an equity stake. Lifetime will broadcast the NWSL Game of the Week every Saturday at 4 p.m. EST, giving fans a pre-game show a half hour before along with halftime and post-game shows.

Together, the NWSL and A+E will form NWSL media. NWSL media will act as the media and commercial arm of the league and will oversee the production of the game-of-the-week along with the live streaming of all other games. It is still unclear how the games will be streamed as negotiations are still in process, leaving international fans such as myself wondering if it will still be free and non geo-locked.

There is no doubt this deal is fantastic for the league. Anyone can see that. And judging by the reaction of coaches and players alike, it’s about time. There is also no denying the agreement will help grow the league, with the broadcast games and the added revenue it brings that can be used to increase the league’s minimum wage.

The press conference did, however, leave me wondering if the NWSL, and women’s soccer in general, is only for women. Don’t believe me? Then read what Nancy Dubuc, President and CEO of A+E Networks had to say: “It’s a female media brand. We’re not in the game-of-the-week business. We’re in the business of the NWSL. If you’re going got be a media brand, you have to make sure you’re speaking to all women with all interests. That’s our job. It’s an opportunity to bring younger women and girls to Lifetime.”

In fact, the only time men were mentioned during the press conference was when NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush talked about cross-generational viewing. “I’m very happy to say I watch Project Runway and Dance Moms with my daughter.” And, I do agree with him about cross-generational viewing. Because I’ve watched the English Premier League with my stepdad. But Plush isn’t some unknown Joe. He’s the NWSL commissioner. Of course he’s watching the league with his family. But doesn’t it also hinder growth to only advertise to one gender?

Why is it that in 2017 we still find the need to define Lifetime as “one of the leading women’s media brands” or “the premier entertainment destination for women”? Is it because we still hold the age-old notion that men and women can never be interested in the same things? Saying that women’s soccer is only for women is like saying only women read books written by other women. It also helps feed the reality we’re facing, that women professionals are second class and our dreams are less equal to men’s. I might be seen as “overreacting,” but women are still currently fighting the “Equal Play, Equal Pay” fight with U.S. Soccer.

The NFL and NBA have mainly been targeted toward men, leaving many female fans unsatisfied with their ridiculous pink jerseys. As Dubuc pointed out at yesterday’s press conference, “45 to 50 percent of the NFL’s audience is female.” And now it seems the NWSL is doing the same by only targeting women. This raises the concern that, by doing so, it is alienating current and potential male fans.

I’m not opposed to this deal in any way. I’m ecstatic the NWSL is finally taking a big step towards becoming more like the leagues I’m used to here in Europe. Because of the amount of international players in the league, this affects young girls all over the world. And I wish people here in Iceland would know of its existence. Most of them don’t though, even if one our biggest players, Dagný Brynjarsdóttir, plays for Portland Thorns FC.

It does feels like the NWSL is limiting itself by only targeting young girls. If the USWNT’s World Cup win proved anything, it was that both young girls and boys alike look up to them. There are even examples of this prior to the NWSL. In a Women’s Soccer Zone farewell article to England WNT legend Kelly Smith, Kieran Theivam wrote, “...[female] players do not only inspire little girls or women, but can inspire boys, and grown men like me.”

I’m a big fan of Sky Blue. The games being live streamed allowed me to watch them from my room in Iceland. Watching every game made me want to go to Yurcak to be there in person, which I did twice last season. I also had the privilege of joining Sky Blue’s supporters group Cloud 9 in their section. And, yes the majority of Cloud 9 is women, but you will also find men in Section 9 as well—men who cheer loudly for Sky Blue, men who lead the songs and help create them and men who are as passionate about women’s soccer as the women standing next to them.

Because that’s the kind of sport soccer is. It evokes passion. If you are one of those who helps fill the stadiums, the league still needs more fans to actually attend the games, you might help form the 12th man. By supporting your team, often consisting of not sitting during those 90 minute and singing the whole time, you might find that you are a part of something bigger than just yourself. And if you get so lucky to join one of the supporters groups you might even gain a second family. A family consisting of both men and women. No matter what was insinuated at yesterday’s press conference.

Is the new broadcast deal marketing the NWSL only to women? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.