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Lifetime misses the mark with misguided NWSL ad campaign

This is not a new mistake.

NWSL logo
NWSL logo

The National Women’s Soccer League just released an ad featuring Ellen DeGeneres, Julia Roberts, Zendaya, David Beckham, Reese Witherspoon, and James Corden. Sounds very cool, right? Well, kind of. Here’s the ad:

Now. Based solely on this ad, can you name any of the teams in the league, especially ones that might be near you? Who’s in the playoffs? Who are some of the big-name players? Has Lifetime been airing NWSL all season? How do you get tickets to games? The answers to all of these questions are not encouraging, and based on the celebrities and production quality involved it’s obvious Lifetime’s guiding hand is behind the promo. Meanwhile, here’s the video NWSL put up on Youtube to actually promo the playoffs:

It’s pretty good. Nice beat, footage of lots of goals, big names like Marta, Christine Sinclair, Ali Krieger, Alex Morgan, Christen Press. Way more likely to grab the interest of a sports fan, or someone likely to try watching sports. Surely Lifetime could have incorporated something like this into a more exciting ad that actually displays the sport being played.

Still, reactions to the ad on social media are mixed. Some people argue that the league needs exposure, period, and this is a quick and easy way to just put the name “NWSL” in people’s minds by using popular celebrities. Lifetime’s audiences, which might not be familiar with the entire sport of soccer, let alone specifically the American women’s league, need an entry point, and this is a nice, soft one.

But it’s too soft. The ad is all fluff, no substance, and it’s not particularly good fluff at that. Sometimes fluff has a purpose in branding, to help establish a tone or a feeling. What’s the primary feeling this ad evokes? That the league and women’s soccer are capital-C Causes that you should support because of some vague moral imperative about gender equality and supporting role models. James Corden flat out says it’s for the women in his life, not because he thinks it’s a cool, fun league. Nothing about the quality of play, the excitement of games, the gameday experience. It might as well ask you to text 10 to a number to donate $10, and that’s not the way to build and retain a loyal audience. That’s how you get people to make a one-time donation out of guilt and then put the cause out of mind.

And the timing! Where was this ad campaign in April? There is literally one weekend of NWSL regular season left, followed by the playoffs. Then that’s it. Season over for approximately six months. If Lifetime manages to build any momentum with this campaign, it will peter out and die shortly after final whistle in Orlando in October. Given what it takes to pull together this many famous people and film them in a TV-quality ad, that’s a lot of money to hype a league for one month, during which time only four teams will be prominent. Good playoff ratings do matter in terms of attracting sponsors, so this push is not entirely unwelcome. It’s just this is the level of push that should have been present from the start, not the night before the assignment is due.

And then there’s the laziness of the ad concept. Where’s the creativity? Lifetime has frequently pulled players in from all the teams to do promos, so it wouldn’t have been hard to grab, say, Alex Morgan or Megan Rapinoe and have them do a segment on Ellen’s show. They don’t need to be the actual guest; there’s plenty of silly soccer games to play with a charming, affable female athlete in her club’s uniform. Do you remember Carli Lloyd’s interview with James Corden after the World Cup, or do you remember her kicking soccer balls at a dunk tank?

This is all a culmination of the lowkey suspicion that Lifetime might not actually have an idea what to do with its sports property, that they bought into NWSL without properly understanding what appeals to people about sports, and instead wanted to really lean on the idea that it was about women in particular, who just happened to be doing sports.

But at some level, in order for a fan to attach long-term to a sport, they have to actually be interested in that sport. There are of course plenty of fans who follow women’s soccer not out of pure love of the game, but because it provides community or they like a specific player, but if you ask any one of them for their sporting opinion, they will most definitely have one. Raising awareness is great, but this ad hasn’t provided a single hook as to why that awareness should translate into actually watching a game, where someone can be converted into a fan of some aspect of the sport.

So, the good: the ad tells you NWSL exists and associates it in your mind with some cool celebs, including Zendaya for the youth appeal and David Beckham for the famous-male-footballer-tells-you-it’s-legit factor.

The bad: They all talk about the league like it’s a charity, don’t give you any information on how to watch it regularly or even how to watch semifinals, and contribute to the idea that women in sports must be virtuous role models in order to be worthy of attention. The tone is completely wrong, a relic of the way women’s soccer was marketed back in the Ponytail Brigade days. Surely in the 20-plus years since women’s soccer began gaining momentum in this country, there’s more to talk about than supporting women so you can feel good about yourself. The people who put their entire careers into evolving the sport didn’t do it so you could treat it like a charity. Lifetime has got to position NWSL as a serious sports league with serious sports entertainment for value or else they’re going to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.