Photographer: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Lifetime to Air Women’s Soccer in Push to Broaden TV ‘Fempire’

  • Parent A+E Networks will also become an investor in league
  • Joint venture will act as the commercial arm for sponsorships

Lifetime, the cable TV channel famous for movies with names like “The Husband She Met Online,” will begin airing National Women’s Soccer League games on Saturday afternoons as part of a broader strategy to connect with a new generation of women.

Matches from the 10-team professional league will be streamed live and include a pregame show, the network said in a statement Thursday. Financial terms of the three-year deal, including an unspecified equity stake in the league, weren’t disclosed. Lifetime is part of A+E Networks, which is jointly owned by Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp.

Lifetime’s move shows that women’s TV is reacting to sweeping changes in the nation’s culture and viewing habits. Oxygen, a female-oriented network owned by Comcast Corp., said Wednesday it will focus on crime shows. OWN, the cable network founded by Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications Inc., has shifted from self-improvement talk shows to dramas from writer Tyler Perry and director Ava DuVernay.

“We’ve always been for women and we always will be for women,” said Nancy Dubuc, chief executive officer of A+E Networks. “How we express that will be fluid over time as generations move forward.”

The deal will include Lifetime logos on uniforms and a joint venture that will sell sponsorship opportunities and other broadcast rights for the National Women’s Soccer League. The first game airs April 15, with a total of 25 planned, including three playoff matches.

Pay-TV’s Woes

Lifetime has, like other TV channels, had to deal with shrinking audiences and pay TV subscribers dumping traditional cable packages in favor of online entertainment. The network’s subscriber count fell 3 percent to 91.2 million last year, while revenue declined a similar amount to $863 million, according to SNL Kagan estimates.

Live sports have been shown to be less affected by those trends. The final of the 2015 Women’s World Cup was the most-watched soccer game ever in the U.S. -- men’s or women’s -- drawing 25.4 million viewers. Viewership of the event nearly doubled from 2011. That’s the sport’s best-known event and far more popular than the National Women’s Soccer League. ESPN and Fox Sports One carried the league in the past.

The Lifetime network, founded in 1982 and once known as the Cable Health Network, prospered with made-for-TV movies that typically featured women being mistreated by men. The channel has in recent years been rethinking its focus and mission, according to Dubuc, who is one of the most senior women executives in the entertainment industry.

With a promotional campaign called “Welcome to the Fempire,” the network is trying to reach younger, more socially conscious females. The network has a goal of increasing the number of women writers, directors and producers.

Dubuc, 48, said she was meeting with advertisers at the Sundance Film Festival last month as demonstrators in pink hats marched down the streets of Park City, Utah, and dozens of other cities around the world to promote women’s rights.

Movie Revamp

“You had a generation of women, of which I’m part, where it was a stigma to be associated with feminism, there was a backlash,” Dubuc said. “Now you have a generation that is clearly embracing feminism, because at the end of the day the definition of feminism is just equality.”

With that generation in mind, the Lifetime movie has also been given a revamp, with celebrities cast in roles designed to generate social-media buzz, such as Cher in a film about the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and Courtney Love in one about the murderous Menendez brothers. New unscripted shows include “The Pop Game,” featuring rap producer Timbaland and a group of aspiring singers.

Lifetime used to broadcast games from the Women’s National Basketball Association in the late 1990s before those rights moved to Disney’s ESPN.

“That may have just been a venture before its time,” Dubuc said.

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