Be Honest It’s the Woman Thing, Isn’t It?


If there’s one thing I’ve griped about regarding the NWSL over the past two years, it’s been the inability to watch games on my television instead of my laptop. Sure, the YouTube access to matches was great, considering there wasn’t another option. But week after week as I sat down at my desk to watch, I bemoaned the fact that traditional sports stations could air drone racing, darts competitions, and, you won’t believe it unless you see it, hot dog eating contests, but not find a way to make room for five women’s soccer games a week.

I mean, we all know that stat. The one about the 2015 World Cup Final in Canada. US against Japan. Carli Lloyd’s Independence Day.

The most-watched televised soccer match in US history.

Soccer match. Not women’s soccer match.

Soccer match.

That epic finale reached almost 23 million viewers and was the talk of the world–not just the soccer world, the world–for weeks after.

But still, in a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy, no one was willing to give airing women’s soccer on television a real chance because they believed no one would watch it.

Maybe they forgot that to have an audience, you have to actually give them something to watch.

What was it Kevin Costner was always saying in that baseball movie?

If you broadcast it … ?

That changed this week, however, when NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush and President and CEO of A+E Networks Nancy Dubuc joined forces to announce a partnership between the league and the media company. Not only does this venture offer the kind of financial stability that will help keep the league running and profitable over the course of the three-year term, it includes a broadcast deal that features both traditional linear programing (a 30-minute pre-game show and one “Game of the Week” on Lifetime every Saturday afternoon) and a multimedia platform for streaming of non-televised games and other league-related content.

What’s not to love, right?

I mean, obviously, there are some concerns: international accessibility, quality of production, paywalls or open access, and, of course, the fact that Lifetime is a basic cable channel not available on several of the “cut the cord” streaming options people have moved toward over the past few years. And each of those is a valid concern; some that have been addressed in the press conference or questions after, others that have yet to be answered to the satisfaction of concerned fans. But the announcement was only made today, and more information will come out as the two sides begin to really work on the actionable items mentioned in this morning’s news: the app, the production, the schedule.

However, despite the concerns, there was much joy across the board this morning. The NWSL is coming to a television near you! Every weekend, one game will be on the big screen–no more squinting through streams that seem to never finish buffering, no more unreliable audio, perhaps the addition of professional commentating teams for the broadcast games, up-to-the-minute data analysis. All the things a sports nerd wants and needs.

Or so you’d think.

Because amid the tweets congratulating the league and fans responding with excitement to the news, there was an undercurrent of displeasure.

Several individuals expressed discomfort, feeling that they had been left out of the message.

What message, specifically?

That the A+E brand, and specifically the Lifetime channel, was the perfect fit for the NSWL because it stands, on a daily basis, according to Plush, to “empowering young women.” Dubuc added that Lifetime saw itself as a “female media brand” dedicated to showing “girls and women around the world how to think about themselves and their place in this world differently.”

That’s right. The objection is literally “but what about the men?”

Okay, listen. I’m a feminist. I believe in gender equality. Which is why I understand, at its root, this concern. What about the male fans of women’s soccer? Is there a place for them in this new deal that seems to market specifically to women?

Of course there is. And anyone who thinks there isn’t needs to examine their concern a little closer.

Trust me, as a woman, I understand not being the core demographic or target audience. But what this concern really signifies is not a lack in the network and deal, in broadcasting NWSL games on Lifetime. What it signifies is an error in perception.

Among the variants of this objection that I’ve seen lodged on Twitter–or even broached during the Q&A section of the press conference–include things like:

  • “Do the women who like women’s soccer watch Lifetime?”
  • “Do the women who watch Lifetime like women’s soccer?”
  • “Why couldn’t they get a more serious channel than Lifetime?”
  • “Why do they have to alienate half the fanbase?”
  • “How is it possible for Lifetime attract viewers who aren’t already Lifetime fans or women’s soccer fans?”
  • “How will a women’s channel this help the league grow?”

Et cetera and so on and so forth.

And you know what? Bullshit.

Bullshit on all of those concerns.

Here’s what is really being said:

  • Women cannot be complex, multi-dimensional people with multiple interests.
  • Something branded as “women’s X” or “women’s Y” or “women’s Z” is less than or inferior to all other things.

That feeling of disgust? Every “the NWSL game is the only reason I’d watch Lifetime” statement? The idea that Lifetime is a channel that’s not for you simply because it features narratives that “empower women?”

Yeah, you don’t have to pass a gender verification test in order to switch onto that channel. There’s not actually a “No Boys Allowed” sign on the door.

Because no one would have asked these questions if the league had partnered with ESPN or Fox Sports or BeIN Sports. And it’s not a content thing–it’s not that Lifetime airs non-sports material. ESPN airs films they create. Fox Sports airs films, syndicated material, even infomercials at times.

It’s the woman thing.

It’s the fact that subconsciously, calling something “women’s media” or a “chick flick” or “chick lit” automatically already assumes its inferiority in common social perception. And oftentimes unacknowledged. Without getting into a whole rabbit hole of gender theory in media, the assumption “Oh, it’s a woman’s channel so obviously there’s nothing on there for a man” is undergirded by the idea that men cannot or should not be interested in things that society decides belong to the sphere of the female.

The thing is?

That perception is wrong. Prevalent, but oh, so wrong.

So, are there women who are fans of the NWSL and fans of Lifetime programming? Yes. There are. There always have been. And this deal, as Dubuc points out, just opens the doors to new fans of both, to bringing in new fans to both halves of the deal.

Why do they have to alienate half the fanbase? They’re not. If you felt alienated, it’s because you’re so used to being marketed to directly that you’re not sure what to do when you’re not in the target bracket. But it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the games just as much as you always did–ask any woman who’s had to sit through numerous ED or male-pattern baldness commercials during any given football game.

How can Lifetime attract new fans with its limited scope, can it help to grow the league? This is the age old question. It existed before the deal. It exists after. It would exist and be relevant no matter which channel the league had entered into a deal with. And the answer? Directed marketing, indirect marketing, and pure chance. Existing fans will turn on the game no matter what channel they find it on. Already the viewership will expand because of the more traditional format of television broadcast as opposed to YouTube streams. Lifetime will advertise on A+E channels and on non-A+E channels, they’ll advertise in magazines and online. And because of their reach, because it is far broader than that of the league on its own, a far greater number of people will not only know about the league, but know how to watch. And, last, you’ll have the “stumble-upon” element. Channel surfers, TV-guide skimmers, and more. Which, you may be interested to know, is exactly how I discovered my own love for women’s soccer–channel surfing and bored, I happened to land on the first USWNT match in 2015’s WWC. History, at least for me, was made that night.

Why couldn’t they get a “traditional” sports channel? Now if you’re going to be upset about something, be upset about this. Not with Lifetime, not with the league, but with every “traditional” sports channel that saw the NWSL and said “not for us, no thanks.” Be upset that hot dog eating gets a place on the schedule but the NWSL doesn’t. Be upset that every traditional sports channel said “Okay, we’ll throw you a bone with six or nine games, but no more.”

Be upset that every other channel said “no thanks, not for us, not for our audience.”

And then think about what message that sends to the women. To the fans at-large.

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