TV ratings for North America’s top women’s soccer league are up a whopping 493%. Here’s how they succeeded as other sports are losing viewers.
29th October 2020

  • National Women's Soccer League viewership was up 493% in 2020.
  • Thanks to a new partnership with CBS, the premier women's soccer league recorded its seven most-watched games ever, headlined by a record 653,000 viewers of the NWSL Challenge Cup championship.
  • In addition to the viewership spike, the league enjoyed a 152% increase in social mentions year-over-year and a 55% bump in traditional media mentions.
  • Insider spoke to NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird, Utah Royals FC defender Kelley O'Hara, Houston Dash striker Kristie Mewis, and Portland Thorns star Crystal Dunn about the league's success in 2020.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

2020 has wreaked havoc across many industries, and American sports are amongst those impaired by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But not all professional sports leagues in the United States struggled this year.

As the NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB each saw double-digit drops in viewership in 2020, the National Women's Soccer League enjoyed a whopping 493% bump in viewership year-over-year.

Tziarra King (right) dribbles past a goalkeeper during an NWSL Challenge Cup game.
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The NWSL is the world's top women's soccer league and, entering the year, was home to all 23 current US Women's National Team players and many international stars. And thanks to a new partnership with CBS and Twitch, more people than ever were able to watch them play; the league recorded its seven most-watched games ever this year, headlined by a record 653,000 viewers tuning in to CBS for the NWSL Challenge Cup championship between the Houston Dash and the Chicago Red Stars at the end of July.

"A lot of people saw that women's sports had momentum," NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird told Insider. "Our ownership, our players, and the staff all got together and said, 'This is going to be an extraordinary year. How do we figure out how to give these amazing players the platform they deserve?'"

"To say it's been rewarding is an understatement," she added.

Baird was put to the test right away, becoming the NWSL's top executive just as everything ground to a screeching halt

On March 10, Baird officially took on her new role as the NWSL's first commissioner in more than three years. The following day, the entire sports world came to a standstill as NBA star Rudy Gobert returned a positive COVID-19 test just before his Wednesday-night Utah Jazz game was scheduled to tip.

Crystal Dunn dribbles during a 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup game.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

In the subsequent 24 hours, most major professional sports leagues in the United States shuttered their doors, and the former IBM, NFL, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee marketing executive was left to spend her first months at the NWSL's helm formulating a plan to get her league's players back on the pitch.

A little more than three months later, the 2020 Challenge Cup — a bubble-style, 23-game tournament — kicked off at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, locking in the NWSL as the first American professional contact sports league to return to action since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Every year, the NWSL is definitely improving in many ways. This year was a very difficult year, but for us to be the first [league] returning back to sports was incredible," newly-minted Portland Thorns star Crystal told members of the press while attending the USWNT's October camp. "The commissioner played a big role in that. She's done well to get sponsorships and TV deals for us because that's really big-time for this league."

"To really solidify how we're going to get viewership and how we're going to get those partnerships — she's done a really good job with that," Dunn added.

With the tournament's opener and championship games both broadcast on CBS, the league shattered its previous viewership records. The June 27 match between the Portland Thorns and reigning champion North Carolina Courage garnered an audience of 572,000 on average, while the event's finale on July 26 stands as the NWSL's all-time most-viewed match with an additional 80,000 viewers. Even more, soccer fans tuned in on Twitch, where fans outside of the United States could stream the games.

Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, during the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Baird and the league's leadership carried that momentum into autumn with the NWSL fall series, an 18-game, seven-week pseudo-season featuring regional "pods" with three clubs apiece to help minimize travel during the pandemic. Five of those games aired on network television via CBS, averaging 383,000 viewers.

"We've had a very passionate fanbase that's been supporting this league from the beginning, and I'm really attuned into them," Baird said. "They're the ones we play for. I never forget that we're playing for the fans."

In the past, the NWSL has only been available on cable networks, limiting fans' ability to access the league's games. Baird thinks the switch to network television contributed significantly to the league's huge ratings spikes in 2020.

"The numbers you're seeing are truly the increase, but last year, most of our games were on cable," Baird said. "The comparison is broadcast to cable, so let's just be very upfront about that. That is one of the major reasons we had such tremendous growth."

Women's professional sports leagues have long struggled to secure the prime TV and media real estate the major leagues garner

For years, a blanket assumption that "the audience just isn't there" for women's sports created a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving leagues like the NWSL and WNBA without a significant platform upon which to share their product.

But more recently, the tides have begun to turn. Just as the NWSL secured a breakthrough deal with CBS in 2020, the WNBA struck gold with an extensive schedule of games broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC throughout the summer. The deal marked ESPN's largest WNBA schedule ever, including 37 live regular-season games, a plethora of playoff matchups, and the entirety of the 2020 Finals.

"We and the WNBA deserve to be proud of women's sports and what we've done," Baird said.

Both leagues managed to buck the negative trend in viewership plaguing the rest of the sports world, with the WNBA Finals seeing a 15% bump year-over-year and the NWSL reaching an astounding triple-digit mark in the same metric.

"It's just having that platform to tell the stories," Baird said. "We worked really closely with CBS. They were pretty bullish on women's soccer and said, 'Yeah, we're going to give you an enormous platform.' And we were able to carry that audience that we developed and bring it in to show people great games."

"This is about great sport, great athletes, women's soccer, and letting Americans and international [fans] find them week after week," she added.

Houston Dash star Kristie Mewis dribbles during a game against the Utah Royals.
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

During the USWNT October camp, Dash star Kristie Mewis lauded Baird for guiding the league to success through objectively difficult circumstances.

"Lisa has been amazing," Mewis said. "Obviously what has happened this year with the pandemic and everything — it's honestly been terrible. But I do think that we made the best out of it. With the two competitions and getting a lot of attention on us and on the league, I think it's been so great."

"It's really putting us in a good position for next year," she added.

But even with the league posting record numbers throughout 2020 and a nearly 500% growth on the year, some individuals still managed to disregard the NWSL while assessing the state of sports viewership. Just days before the league's fall series was set to conclude, sports business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted a Sports Media Watch-curated graph of viewership trends for various professional sports leagues and events. Curiously, the graphic did not include the NWSL's statistics on the year.

One day after the initial post, Baird made a point to inform Rovell in the comments that the league's 493% growth on the year was "not a typo," as if to say 'We really did that.'

"Exactly," Baird said. "I hope I can do it with good grace. I think that's what I want to do is just remind people that we're a great sport, and we're here."

It's far from the first instance of Baird's league getting overlooked. More than two weeks after the NWSL announced its plans for the Challenge Cup, Major League Soccer announced its own proposal to salvage its 2020 season with the "MLS is Back Tournament" beginning July 8, prompting some outlets to forget — or outright ignore — the return to play on the women's side.

In covering the men's league's return, reporters from CNBC, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, NBC Sports, and more suggested the MLS' Florida-based tournament would constitute the first instance of professional contact sports returning in the US. Of course, the NWSL's late-June start date meant that its players would not only take the pitch before MLS players but that Baird's league would be the first in North America to return to action.

The Houston Dash celebrate their 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup victory with a COVID-19 safe drive-thru event.
Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

"When people ignore the NWSL — or not ignore, that's too hard a word," Baird said. "When people go, 'Oh, I forgot to do that,' a gentle reminder is for the players who work their butts off, our owners who have invested in this league for years to get it where it is, and for the fans who've been supporting us."

Dunn put it a bit more bluntly, asserting that "it's time people paid even more attention to the NWSL."

"This league is special," she added. "This was a really good start this year for people to really acknowledge that these girls can play."

Social engagement and media coverage also jumped for the NWSL in 2020, and the league has plans to carry that momentum onward

Television wasn't the only platform on which the NWSL thrived this year. According to the league, mentions on social platforms up 152% from 2019. And just last week, NWSL clubs accounted for half of the top-10 highest cross-platform engagement rates across all professional sports teams, per FOS Insights.

"Social media, for us, is a thriving, good place," Baird said. "And I think [the fans] are as responsible for growing the profile of the league as what we do as the league office and the teams. I'm really grateful that our players interact with the fans a lot on social media — I think that's really great."

Similarly, NWSL coverage on news media platforms was up 55% in 2020. Considering women's sports traditionally receive just 4% of total sports media coverage, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, a double-digit uptick in reporting from traditional outlets is quite a victory. 

"You have to have it be a combination of visibility, logistics, getting creative, figuring out how we present this as the best product to the fans, and maybe not necessarily following the blueprint that we've always followed," Utah Royals and USWNT star Kelley O'Hara told Insider. "As the world evolves, leagues and teams and sports have to evolve with it, and I think the NWSL has done a good job of that."

"If we have a normal season next year, it hopefully will be even better than what we anticipated for this year to look like," she added.

Kelley O'Hara passes the ball for the Utah Royals.
Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The league is already positioned to further its growth in 2021 and beyond. In October 2019, the NWSL officially announced plans to add a new franchise — the league's 10th — in Louisville, Kentucky. Some nine months later, the club announced its new name as Racing Louisville FC and introduced its crest and violet color scheme.

Though Racing Louisville FC is the only new team joining the NWSL's ranks in 2021, there was more to come on the expansion front this year. In July, the league welcomed a Los Angeles-based franchise — later dubbed Angel City FC —  with a star-studded ownership group including Natalie Portman, Uzo Aduba, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Abby Wambach, Serena Williams, Alexis Ohanian, Billie Jean King, Candace Parker, Lindsey Vonn, P.K. Subban, and James Corden, among others.

"That is an incredible ownership group," Baird said. "We're really proud that these are owners who really believe in the values of the league. I know it's a star-studded group and all that, but the reason they got into it was the values of this league and to continue to push women's sports up where it belongs."

"To be able to announce an expansion like that in the middle of 2020 — that's pretty extraordinary that they came on," she added.

But an impressive roster of investors isn't the only exciting aspect of the NWSL's most recent expansion. Baird acknowledged that, for a soccer league looking to grow, finding a foothold in the most populous state in the union is a major advantage.

"When you get a chance to go to a city like Los Angeles, I mean, it's a huge soccer city with enormous resources potential," Baird said. "That will in and of itself help us expand into one of the most important soccer markets in the United States, which is California, and we've not been there."

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird speaks during an NWSL Challenge Cup game.
Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Though it may be the NWSL's first, Angel City FC may not be the league's only club in The Golden State. Rumors have swirled for quite some time that the NWSL has plans to add a franchise in Sacramento. As recently as mid-August, a report from The Athletic's Meg Linehan and Paul Tenorio suggested that a club in California's capital city could begin playing in the NWSL as soon as next year.

Though Baird did not confirm any expansion franchises beyond those already announced by the league, the commissioner expressed her commitment towards growing the league even further.

"We're oriented towards the future," Baird said. "An expansion strategy is obviously really important to us as we look forward."

"What we do beyond [recent expansions will be] thoughtful, and I'm doing it in concert with our owners," she added. 

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