NWSL Challenge Cup between Houston and Chicago surpasses MLS TV viewership

The tournament is proof that when women’s sports get national television time, people will watch.

The NWSL crowned the Houston Dash the champion of its Challenge Cup tournament on July 26, and more than 653,000 people tuned in to watch the final game between the Dash and the Chicago Red Stars on CBS. The viewership was record-setting for the NWSL, breaking the previous record set by the opening game of the Challenge Cup on June 26.

For the first time, the NWSL’s viewership eclipsed that of the MLS, their male counterpart league. The MLS restarted their 2020 competitions with the MLS is Back tournament on July 8. The opening game of their tournament garnered around 492,000 viewers compared to the 572,000 who watched the Challenged Cup debut. The Chicago-Houston final reached 663,000 viewers.

The men’s highest-viewed game prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was 663,000 on March 1 for the MLS season opener, which the Challenge Cup final nearly matched. The historically high viewership for the NWSL is especially notable because the league has only been around since 2012. The MLS, for comparison, was founded in 1994.

Both of those numbers eclipsed the 464,000 viewers for the MLS is Back tournament opener. The Challenge Cup final also nearly matched the 663,000 viewers who tuned in for LAFC vs. Inter Miami on March 1, which was the biggest MLS viewership of 2020.

It makes perfect sense that the tournament set viewership records.

In 2019, there wasn’t a single NWSL game aired on a primary national network. Several games, including the semifinals and championship, were aired on ESPNEWS and ESPN2, but the women were not broadcast for a single minute on ESPN’s main channel or by any other major sports network. Even with no other live sports happening, CBS still only aired two games of the tournament and showed the rest on CBS All Access, which requires a paid subscription.

America loves women’s soccer. The USWNT is one of the most beloved teams in the country, and nearly all of its stars compete across the NWSL. If the 2019 Women’s World Cup final drew more than 14 million viewers, those people will watch the women play at home too. For some reason, all it took was a global pandemic to prove it. Hopefully, networks see the incredible potential of the league going forward and we’ll get to watch a lot more games nationally in 2021.

On top of their record-breaking television performance, the league led the way for the return of the sports in the U.S. The NWSL was the first American professional league to return to play amid the pandemic. Teams participated in a bubble in Utah like the one being used by the WNBA and NBA in Florida, and there were zero positive coronavirus tests for the duration of the tournament.