Fans of the National Women’s Soccer League are not unfamiliar with technical difficulties.
A myriad of issues existed when games were broadcast solely on the league’s YouTube channel. Lagging video, signal interruptions, and even audio mishaps frequently plagued dedicated viewers. Perhaps even more frustrating than these problems was that this was the only option for fans hoping to catch their favorite teams.
While Major League Soccer fans are able to catch matches regularly through FoxSports or ESPN, NWSL fans have had no choice but to settle for less. Both ESPN and FoxSports1 have aired a handful of NWSL playoff games in the past, but no long-term deals have ever come to fruition. In a league that has long fought for visibility and fair treatment, it was only this year that they managed to make a deal with Lifetime TV to begin airing a “Game of the Week.”
So far, the Lifetime TV portion of this agreement has been impressive. Complete with professional graphics, a halftime show, and regular advertisements for the league throughout the week, the network is treating the NWSL with respect and legitimacy.
Early last month, the league announced that all games—minus the Game of the Week—would be available on a platform called go90. Despite being virtually unheard of, go90 promised to be “produced by Vista WorldLink in high definition with a consistent, state-of-the-art approach” in an NWSL press release.
Seeming like a step in the right direction, the statement was met with hopefulness and confidence. From the perspective of a fan, moving to a new platform meant a greater chance to see favorite teams and players in high definition. People frustrated with YouTube saw it as an opportunity to finally have a reliable stream that wouldn’t suddenly lose sound or freeze mid-game. It’s also not every day that the league makes a deal like this. Go90, along with Lifetime TV, seemed incredibly dedicated to improving viewing experiences for fans based on the original statements. That’s certainly something to be excited about when major sports networks tend to ignore a league that many people really care about. After filming a variety of promos and advertisements for the 2017 season, it appears that Lifetime TV hopes to be in it for the long haul.
Aside from working out a reasonable deal with go90, it has always been clear that the NWSL could benefit from more positive publicity. Of course, striking up a deal with an app associated with Verizon is a move that looks impressive on paper. It not only legitimizes the league, but it has the potential to bring more money in. In addition to go90, the NWSL has also recently hired more than double the employees it’s had in its first five years. This fact alone points to the money that is needed in order for the league to function properly. A higher income also becomes a necessity when it comes to growing the game. In terms of what is needed by the league at the moment, it makes sense for them to make a deal with a known streaming website. No numbers have been released at this point, but it’s assumed that there will be long-term monetary gain associated with this deal.
Now that we’re well into the 2017 season, the optimism surrounding go90 has started to wane. Although the app is free on iOS and Android devices, viewers are finding it difficult to access and trust on game days. Those attempting to watch matches have noted that many of the same issues that were present in YouTube streams are also happening on go90. Reoccurring glitches have not only interrupted the viewing experience, but have even prompted fans to express their preference for YouTube streams. Complaints from fans include login issues, games being listed as unavailable, and of course—the infamous blank screen.
While these issues seem to be creating a hassle for quite a large handful of fans, it is important to note that not all fans have experienced these problems while using go90. Some have reported that the app has been working seamlessly with little to no setbacks. These varying fan experiences create a much larger problem for the actual platform since improvements are difficult to approach with so many conflicting reports.
In an effort to apologize for streaming issues, the NWSL released a statement via Facebook claiming that: “It is of the utmost importance to the NWSL, our owners, and partners to provide a quality viewing experience to our fans.” The statement then continued to say that in addition to the go90 app, games in the coming weeks would be available through the newly designed NWSL website and app in the United States.
Although I view it as a positive that the NWSL took fan complaints into account and came up with an alternative viewing option for them, I do feel that the league needs to handle the situation differently if problems persist. It is my hope that they used this opportunity to take a good look at the go90 app and figure out what their next steps will be. Regarding fans outside of the U.S., international viewers are able to access every match via the official NWSL website since go90 is not currently available to them. While this is a positive perk for international fans, the league will undoubtedly struggle to grow fanbases within the United States with such limited access to regular season games.
On the one hand, the biggest advantage that YouTube holds over go90 is familiarity. It can be quite jarring for fans accustomed to YouTube to suddenly have a new website thrown their way. I do admit that go90 isn’t exactly difficult to maneuver, but I personally enjoyed the YouTube streams simply because I could always count on every game being archived until the end of time. Does this mean that I wasn’t fuming when something went wrong with the streams? Of course not. It did, however, ease the pain to know that I’d most likely be able to catch what I missed in the near future. On the other hand, the NWSL deserves a legitimate sports network. While go90 is certainly not on par with ESPN or FoxSports, it is a video streaming app that is willing to give the league a chance. Whether or not go90 is the best medium to utilize is something that will continue to unfold throughout the season. Until then, go90—and occasionally Lifetime TV and the NWSL site feed—is what fans are left with.
In terms of actual games, the decision to hold matches at 4 PM on Saturday’s could prove to be a problem. While this particular gripe has less to do with go90 and more to do with Lifetime TV, I do feel that it is worth noting. Traditionally, night games draw more viewers in while afternoon games are more difficult to commit to on weekends.
Beyond the issues of familiarity and accessibility, go90 also lacks the entertaining commentators that YouTube once provided. Gone are the days when fans can hear broadcasts from familiar hometown personalities like Ann Schatz and Jen Cooper. While some argue that announcers should be neutral, a case can also be made in favor of someone who is clearly a passionate fan.
Another prominent issue surrounding broadcasters is whether or not they should actually be present at the games they’re commentating on. Like many who have discussed this point already, it is my belief that people want to hear feedback from someone who is actually seeing the action unfold right in front of them. To have games called by individuals who are sitting in front of a screen seems about as counterproductive as someone sitting directly next to me and repeating everything they see. I already know what’s happening from that angle and I’d prefer to hear commentary from the actual pitch itself.
The five year mark, especially for a professional women’s soccer league in the United States, is a big deal.
Overall, it makes sense for the league to choose a platform other than YouTube moving forward. Looking at the bigger picture, the money and the exposure to the league on a larger scale can only help. To have a league that consists of incredible talent from around the world only be seen on YouTube seems nothing short of unfair. In terms of partners though, I do not believe that go90 was the correct option for the league. Rather than the spotlight being on talented young players or coaches, it seems that an issue outside of the game has once again taken center stage. Regardless of the platform, technical difficulties will most likely always exist. That’s just a fact of life. It is the responsibility of the league and its partners, however, to ensure that they happen as little as possible.