CBS to air NWSL Championship in prime time thanks to sponsor intervention
CBS to air NWSL Championship in prime time thanks to sponsor intervention

The NWSL Championship is finally moving to prime time on CBS. 

On Tuesday, the league, CBS and Ally Financial announced this season’s final will be played in Washington, D.C. at Audi Field on Oct. 29, as first reported by The Athletic. Best of all, the match will move from its originally planned time of noon ET to 8 p.m. ET, “following a recent collaborative effort by Ally, CBS and the league,” according to the official news release.

It’s a huge win for the players and the league, especially with an exciting race for the NWSL shield and playoff positioning building for the final few weeks of the regular season. With the announcement, ticket sales can finally begin.

But just a few paragraphs later in that same release, it’s made clear exactly how this happened: Ally made the move to prime time worth it to CBS. 

“We increased our media investment with CBS to help make it happen, delivering the first action in our promise to watch the game, change the game,” Ally’s chief marketing and PR officer Andrea Brimmer is quoted. 

Before the announcement, Brimmer, along with NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman and CBS’s executive vice president of programming, Dan Weinberg, discussed the announcement with The Athletic via Zoom. Brimmer said the first time that she and Berman spoke, pushing the final to prime time was one of the first things they discussed.

“I was at the game last year (in Louisville) and I don’t want to wake up at nine o’clock in the morning again,” Brimmer joked, before getting back to business. “The quality of play is staggering, and we want more people to be able to see it. To be able to work with the NWSL and CBS to make that happen, to help facilitate that pledge for the prime-time-ification of women’s sports, it’s really awesome to have this kind of partnership.”

On the CBS side, Weinberg promised the network will “put the full weight of our promotional muscle” behind the final. 

“We wanted to figure out a way to make this happen, clear out our schedule in prime time, find a mutually agreeable date which, in the world of programming, isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but we managed to do it,” he said. “We’re really excited to be able to have gotten it done, and to see what bears fruit here.”

The move is certainly a more proactive approach than last year’s championship, which was moved only a few weeks before the game at the request of the players. Originally slated for Portland, it would have meant a 9 a.m. PT kickoff time in order to fit the CBS broadcast window. Instead, the game was played at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville at noon ET.

Without pressure from the players last year — plus Brimmer’s own experience seeing that pressure up close as part of Ally’s work with the NWSL players’ association — this year’s good news might not have come through.

“Players have been demanding a kickoff time worthy of a game that showcases the best of what the NWSL has to offer for a long time now,” Meghann Burke, executive director of the NWSLPA, told The Athletic. “Prime time is where the NWSL Championship belongs. Now the rest of the world gets to see why.”

Tuesday’s announcement is absolutely a massive step forward for the league, but in many ways it feels like there’s increased pressure to step up in terms of attendance, game-day experience and viewership numbers. 

The media rights deal with CBS runs for another year, but considering viewership trends in other sports (the WNBA posting its best regular season viewership numbers in 16 years) and big news for other soccer media rights deals (MLS and U.S. Soccer this year), the NWSL could use a massive win in prime time to justify a heftier price tag when negotiations get underway.

“We’ve only scratched the surface on unlocking the potential,” Berman said. “What we’re going to be focused on is using the championship as a case study of what’s possible when we all work together, with our partners, to invest in creating an action plan and taking that momentum into next season. Because we know that for this league to be what we all know it should and will be, we’re going to need to have a sustained drumbeat, which we’re already seeing week over week.” 

Berman pointed to the recent attendance record in Kansas City, ahead of the club building its own soccer-specific stadium, and the upcoming move to Snapdragon Stadium for the San Diego Wave. The challenge for the league is pushing people further up the fan engagement ladder, from talking about it to buying tickets, buying merch and more.

“We’re excited to be in a venue where we know there’s strong local support, and we’re going to be doing everything possible to really deliver on the action surrounding everyone’s enthusiasm to make sure that it’s a sold-out game,” Berman said. A capacity crowd of 20,000 won’t just be a nice day at the box office for the NWSL, it will also translate to a proper environment for the prime-time broadcast.

Berman also promised additional programming around the championship, with the District providing plenty of options for memorable venues for the league to pick from. In addition, the league’s release mentions the return of the Fan Fest. 

“We really need to make sure that people know that this is happening, and we want people to have the FOMO that makes them either want to come to D.C., or watch on TV, or follow on social or whatever way they choose to engage with our league,” said Berman.

Over the years, the NWSL has had the best success in filling a venue when the home team plays their way into the championship match. That’s looking unlikely for the Washington Spirit, who relieved head coach Kris Ward of his role on Monday with the team winless in their last 15 matches.

NWSL Championship Attendance 2013-2021

YearTeamsLocationAttendanceListed Capacity% Filled

2013

WNY vs POR

WNY

9,129

13,768

66.3%

2014

SEA vs KC

SEA

4,252

4,500

94.5%

2015

SEA vs KC

POR

13,264

21,144

62.7%

2016

WAS vs WNY

HOU

8.255

22,039

37.4%

2017

NC vs POR

ORL

8.124

25,500

31.8%

2018

NC vs POR

POR

21,144

21,144

100%

2019

NC vs CHI

NC

10,227

10,000

102.7%

2020

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

2021

WAS vs CHI

LOU

10,360

11,700

88.5%

But Washington could be the perfect market to act as Berman’s case study, and to see if a neutral site for the final still makes sense for the NWSL. It won’t hurt that the venue will also host the USWNT in September, and the NWSL will be able to leverage the customer databases of the Spirit, D.C. United, and U.S. Soccer to push championship ticket sales. Spirit and DCU ticket members will get their own pre-sale access; for everyone else, a priority pre-sale begins on September 7.

The expectations will be high for the NWSL: a sell-out crowd, hopefully a record-breaking number in prime time on CBS. A favorable matchup in the final with a good narrative will be key, but otherwise they have all the pieces of the puzzle to reach these goals — and many of those pieces include the NWSL’s sponsors.

As Brimmer noted, for many of the more recent sponsors, last fall in Louisville was their first look at a NWSL Championship. 

“Moving to prime time, being in D.C., (the NWSL) is probably going to get really good sponsor support,” she said, pointing to their plans, which range from content designed to create buzz and knowledge around the championship, to a big physical presence at the stadium to once again flying in friends and families of every player in the final. But she also pointed to other “blue-chip sponsors” that have come in, such as Nationwide, CarMax and Delta.

“We can make it a whole weekend, an event, and a great atmosphere for any of the fans that are going to come and experience it.”

The scale of this final should be bigger than anything we’ve seen before, fitting for the league’s 10th year. The NWSL is growing, and so too is its signature event as it makes its prime-time debut on CBS. But at the heart of everything, there’s still a match to be played between two teams looking to be champions.

“This is going to be a great fucking game,” Meghann Burke said, “and you can quote me on that.”

 

(Photo: Jordan Prather / USA Today))



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