In March 2020, with COVID-19 cases on the rise, the entire sports landscape was turned upside down as competitions abruptly stopped. Stadiums went silent and live sports broadcasts disappeared from fans’ TV while the nation discovered a world without the games they know and love. Poised at navigating complex challenges and seizing bold opportunities, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was determined to get back on the pitch. By June, NWSL was the first professional team sports league in the United States to return to play amid the pandemic, safely and successfully bringing live sports back to action with the 2020 Challenge Cup. The month-long, bubble-style tournament led the way for other professional leagues when timing was critical.
As the creative agency for the NWSL, Stone Ward worked closely with the league and tournament sponsors to build a branded, visual design system for the Challenge Cup. Our team provided support for almost every aspect of the tournament – from unique logo design and merchandise, to animated LEDs, to the winning trophy and medals, and Championship stage design. Other assets produced for the league included in-stadium print and digital signage, hotel signage, a tournament animation package and real-time social media graphics support.
With in-person social gatherings on hold, it was important for the league to create unique online experiences to engage sports fans around the world, as well as the league’s existing digital supporter groups that are passionate about its growth. Stone Ward immediately sprang into action with our NWSL client to creatively solve problems and find flexible solutions for the many hurdles presented by the pandemic, ideating with our team on new fan experiences and sponsor opportunities. To leverage the league’s new broadcast partnerships with CBS (U.S. & Canada) and Twitch (international), creating an eye-catching stadium design and visual experience was at the forefront. Stone Ward designed a premier environment that gave exposure to league sponsors, teams, and team sponsors, all while digitally captivating avid fans around the globe.
During each game, Stone Ward provided real-time creative support with a curated social media experience to bring fans closer to the action. Throughout the tournament, Stone Ward created customized graphics for the NWSL, its sponsors and numerous teams, helping to increase the league’s combined social media following by over 132,000 followers and drive sponsorship value for key partners like Budweiser, Google, Nike, Verizon, Secret and Procter & Gamble.
The inaugural Challenge Cup was an exemplary success with zero confirmed COVID-19 cases inside the bubble, a roster of diverse corporate sponsors, and record-breaking TV ratings. The NWSL shattered its domestic television record twice in 30 days, drawing an average of 653,000 viewers on the main CBS network for the Championship match, which became the most-watched match in league history.
The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup laid the groundwork for the rapidly rising league, expanding its exposure with significantly increased traditional and social media mentions, higher television ratings, more sponsorship revenue, and new expansion teams, setting it on a trajectory as a power player in professional sports leagues.
To show how the NWSL’s social media performance compared to popular sports leagues, the team at Stone Ward developed an easy-to-understand metric for assessing social media engagement across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using publicly available data – the Open Engagement Rate. Measuring six sports leagues for a 12-month period from May 2020 to April 2021, the NWSL had the highest engagement rate of 0.40 percent compared to the next closest league, Major League Baseball, which had an engagement rate of 0.33 percent.
With fan engagement top of mind, the league has carried the momentum of the Challenge Cup forward, kicking off its third annual Challenge Cup with two new teams in 2022, San Diego Wave and Angel City FC. The expansion team in Los Angeles is backed by a majority woman-founded group led by actresses Natalie Portman, Gabrielle Union, Jennifer Garner and Eva Longoria, singer Christina Aguilera, technology venture capitalist Kara Nortman, media and gaming entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian, plus USWNT great Mia Hamm, tennis star Serena Williams, and Olympic gold-winning gymnast Shawn Johnson East.
We are proud to serve the NWSL and the elite athletes who make it one of the most competitive women’s sports leagues in the world!